Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Robert Lee Durham (4 May 1870–1 January 1949), president of Southern Seminary, was born in Shelby, North Carolina, and was the son of Catherine Leonora "Nora" Tracy Durham and her first husband Plato Durham, a well-known attorney who died five years after his son's birth. His mother married physician Benjamin Franklin Dixon in 1877 and the family later lived in Oxford, where Durham attended Horner Military School. In 1891 he earned a B.S. in civil engineering from Trinity College (later Duke University). He excelled at sports and played football for the storied Trinity team of 1891, although his later claim to have kicked off the first football game south of the Potomac River is unlikely since two Virginia colleges had played football games against each other as early as the 1870s.

Durham feared that growing financial instability was severe enough to impede a career in engineering, so he returned to Trinity to study law. In 1892 he attended a private law school in Greensboro and was later admitted to the North Carolina bar. On 15 March 1893 Durham began practicing law in Rutherfordton. There he married Mary Willie Craton on 27 December 1893, and they had three sons, all of whom died as children, and one daughter. Energetic and ambitious, Durham soon went into politics. He served on the North Carolina Democratic Committee from 1894 to 1898 and on the platform committee during the 1906 Democratic State Convention. While living in Gastonia, in 1898 he mustered his own company of the North Carolina Infantry during the Spanish American War, but was not called to serve.

In 1909 Durham discontinued his law practice and turned to teaching, first at Davenport Female College in Lenoir, and then at Centenary College-Conservatory in Cleveland, Tennessee. In 1911 he became dean of faculty at Martha Washington College and moved to Abingdon, Virginia. During his tenure there he was still casting about for other employment, but his attempt to secure a position with the National Bureau of Education in 1918 was not successful.

In 1919 Durham purchased a half-interest in Southern Seminary, a girls' school located in Buena Vista, Virginia. He became its principal and three years later acquired the other half-interest from cofounder Edgar Healy Rowe. During his twenty-three years in charge of the school, first as principal and later as president, Durham set out to develop the mental, physical, spiritual, and social lives of students. He broadened the school's curriculum to include college-level courses, and in 1926 the school began offering a junior college diploma and about a decade later became known as Southern Seminary and Junior College. He expanded its facilities to include a gymnasium, a modern classroom building with chemistry and biology laboratories, and Chandler Hall with a new library and an auditorium. Durham, who radiated versatility and self-confidence, was an exemplar not only of expanding intellectual capacity and opportunity but also of maintaining healthy bodies and living wholesome lives. A superb sportsman himself, he encouraged students to participate in sports. "Daddy Durham," as he was affectionately called by students, was hailed equally for attention to character-building, touting Southern Seminary as "A School of Character" in its literature. A sometime musician, he wrote school songs and sang solos in his distinctive baritone at school assemblies.

Durham found time to indulge his many interests. He never quite forgot his training as an engineer and often collaborated with one of his brothers to perfect and patent a variety of inventions. Roaming livestock proved a problem on the seminary grounds and in 1925 Durham received patent number 1,563,266 for a self-closing gate. Ten years later he received patent number 2,025,159 for resilient tires, and in 1941 he received patent number 2,248,697 for a saddle harness application. Durham was especially proud of his 1943 election to the Mathematical Association of America, Inc., which accepted his solution to a daunting geometry problem on dividing an angle equally into thirds.

In 1908 Durham published The Call of the South, a novel about miscegenation that illustrated his fear that so-called race mixing would lead to America's downfall. After publication and initial acceptance it was eventually rejected as being inflammatory, and Durham bought back the book's rights from the publisher in 1911. Twenty years later he was unable to attract a publisher for another novel, Silhouette. In 1928 he published A Criticism of the Report of the Commission to Survey the Educational System of Virginia, a pamphlet addressed to the governor and members of the General Assembly in response to the commission's report. In it, he criticized the commission's recommendations to eliminate support for junior colleges and to separate technical training from liberal arts coursework in higher education. In urging continued state support for the Virginia Military Institute, Durham praised its curriculum that inculcated military and mental discipline. His memoir, Since I Was Born, was published posthumously in 1953.

A devout Methodist, Durham often attended annual district and state conferences as a lay delegate. He was a delegate to the general conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South at least twice, in 1918 and in 1938 when the Plan of Unification for the church's northern and southern branches was hammered out. He retired as president of Southern Seminary and Junior College in 1942 and was succeeded by his daughter, Margaret Durham Robey. Robert Lee Durham died of liver cancer at his home in Buena Vista on 1 January 1949, and was buried in Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, North Carolina. In 1996 a group of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints purchased Southern Seminary after it lost accreditation and converted it to a four-year liberal arts college that in 2001 became Southern Virginia University.

Sources Consulted:
Autobiographical Since I Was Born, ed. Marshall William Fishwick (1953); National Cyclopædia of American Biography (1891–1984), 37:229–230 (portrait on 229); William Allen Hunt, "A Lifetime of Change: Robert Lee Durham and the New South" (M.A. thesis, Iowa State University, 2011); Rutherford Co., N.C., Marriage Register, 1889–1893; Robert Lee Durham Papers, Southern Virginia University, Buena Vista, Va.; Robert Lee Durham Papers, 1888–1946, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Durham, "A Simple Construction for the Approximate Trisection of an Angle," American Mathematical Monthly 51 (1944): 217–218; Sidney Sandridge, "History of Southern Seminary," Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society 7 (1966–1969): 68–76; obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch and Washington Post, both 2 Jan. 1949, Richmond News Leader, 3 Jan. 1949, Lexington Gazette, 5 Jan. 1949, and Rockbridge County News, 6 Jan. 1949; obituary and tributes in Southern Seminary and Junior College Virginia Reel 1 (Mar. 1949): 1–2, 4, 6, 8–9, 12, 14–15.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Lucy Southall Colebaugh.

How to cite this page:
Lucy Southall Colebaugh,"Robert Lee Durham (4 May 1870–1 January 1949)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Durham_Robert_Lee, accessed [today's date]).

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