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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Watts Hill, January 30, 1986. Interview C-0047. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Growth of Durham as a center of commerce during the 1920s and 1930s

Hill describes Durham, North Carolina, in 1925, when he first began to make a name for himself as a business leader in the community. According to Hill, Durham had yet to become a center of commerce at that point, but he describes how the community rapidly began to change with the growth of the American Tobacco Company and the textiles industry. In addition, he describes a thriving black community. Hill situates his own family, and its role in banking, along with that of C.C. Spaulding and the Dukes in the growth of Durham during the 1920s and 1930s.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Watts Hill, January 30, 1986. Interview C-0047. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JAMES LEUTZE:
What was Durham like in 1925?
GEORGE WATTS HILL:
A little town. That's about all.
JAMES LEUTZE:
Was it a center of commerce?
GEORGE WATTS HILL:
Oh, no, no. It was, I don't quite know how to describe it. American and Liggett & Myers tobacco companies, real manufacturing, then Imperial Tobacco, had a receiving station where . . . The tobacco market was a real thing in Durham in those days, four or five big warehouses and the farmers brought their tobacco in and the tobacco companies bought it. Imperial bought a lot of tobacco and shipped it to England, it being one of the companies that Mr. Buck Duke had organized back in the early days of the first few years of the century. And when he had gone to England and took over several British concerns and organized the Imperial Tobacco Company to handle England, and American Tobacco to handle North America, and the British - American Tobacco Company to handle the rest of the world. He thought big. [laughter] And there were quite a number of smaller handlers of tobacco at that time. The Erwin Mill was in full force, and one of the great sheeting mills, the largest sheeting mill in the world, is still in Durham and is operating. It has just been sold, I believe, by Burlington to Stevens recently. Durham Manufacturing Company was another one in east Durham; that was handled by Mr. Harper Erwin. Bill Erwin was the president of Erwin Mills. My grandfather was vice-president 'til his death and then my father became vice-president. I went on the board to serve for thirty years, or something, on the board of directors. But tobacco companies, tobacco manufacturing and textiles were the business of Durham.
JAMES LEUTZE:
Was it a company town, in a sense?
GEORGE WATTS HILL:
Yes, the Erwin Mill owned a great many houses, small houses, three or four rooms, all in a row, all out in west Durham. And the same thing applied to the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company, that's the proper name, had similar houses in east Durham. And East Durham was filled with textile workers; West Durham was textile and the tobacco workers were scattered all over in Durham. Durham was 50,000 people or something like that at the time, whereas now it's 125,000.
JAMES LEUTZE:
Now what about the black community in Durham?
GEORGE WATTS HILL:
The black community was strong. It's always been strong as far as I can remember in that now they're 45 percent or something like that of the population of Durham. But then it was far less. They have a much higher birth rate than the whites and all kinds of problems.
JAMES LEUTZE:
Was there a black elite? A black business and intellectual elite?
GEORGE WATTS HILL:
There was a black bank that was started by the doctors, Dr. Spalding came into the picture. Spalding started the insurance company, the North Carolina Mutual, which became the largest Negro life insurance company in the world and still here. Some of his descendants and relatives and so on are still running it, Kennedy and so on. But it was a shirt-tail of a business to start with. And I remember my grandfather and father assisted Dr. Merrick and one other man to start the company; they put up some money and showed them how to do it and so forth, and then they went on their own. Grandfather and Dad have never had any part in the operation at all and eventually the North Carolina Mutual became one of the outstanding businesses in Durham as represented by a building that's fifteen or twenty stories high on the old Ben Duke home place. They bought that block and built it. There's a long story about that building but that's that.
JAMES LEUTZE:
Were there any of the Duke family members still in Durham at that time?
GEORGE WATTS HILL:
Buck Duke was, and Ben Duke was, in the old Fidelity Bank. And when my father first came here, and I may have said so before, that they did not pay interest on savings accounts and my father had a real fight with them because he started what's now the Central Carolina Bank, it was then Durham Loan and Trust Company and Durham Realty and Insurance Company in the old Trust Building. And he paid 4 percent interest on savings accounts regardless of whether people came in and demanded it or asked for it and so forth. And Mr. Buck Duke, Buck and Ben were in the Fidelity Bank, controlled it at least, and they were vice-president and president. And, as my father said, they almost ran him out on a rail out of town because he paid interest. He thought that was fair and that was proper and that was his way of doing business and eventually Fidelity Bank, which was the Duke bank and the bank in Durham at the time, eventually they started paying interest. You had to go in and demand it before they'd pay it. And it's interesting that in 1937, I think it was, when we built the office building, I built, which is now the CCB Building, that we had reached roughly ten million dollars of total assets. That was a lot of money in those days. And the Fidelity Bank was the same and we were passing, we were slowly creeping up on the Fidelity Bank and so they joined, or merged, into the Wachovia. Mr. John Wiley was the president and Mr. Kirkland later took his place when Wiley died. They all lived over on the Morehead Hill section, the Wileys, the Whites, the Moreheads, the Watts, the Hills, and so forth; that was the section of town. My father, when he came to town or shortly thereafter, organized the first real estate residential development in Durham, which is now known as Club Boulevard, from the water works east to Watts Hospital, and now the Science and Math complex.