Outrageous Ambitions: How a One-Room Schoolhouse Became a Research University

Historical postcard, Duke East Campus, Woman’s College. Duke University Archives. Click on the image to visit the online version of the exhibit.

Today’s Duke University, a premier research institution with a global reputation, came from the humblest of beginnings: a tiny schoolhouse in Randolph County, North Carolina. From there the organization shifted through many manifestations, ultimately transforming from Brown’s Schoolhouse into Duke University.

A new exhibit on display in Perkins Library traces the history of Duke University as it evolved and grew over the past 175 years. The exhibit showcases a selection of events that were fundamental to the creation of the University, and focuses on several key themes: foundations, academics, student life, student activism, athletics, presidents, the Duke family, women at Duke, and the architecture of campus.

The materials for the exhibit, which include photographs, documents, ephemera, and other objects, were drawn from the Duke University Libraries University Archives and vibrantly illustrate the history of the school. Viewers can further explore Duke history by visiting an online interactive timeline, which highlights other key moments in Duke’s past.

Coach K Ball
Signed ball from Duke’s first men’s basketball National Championship, 1991. Click on the image to see the online version of the exhibit.

The title of the exhibit, Outrageous Ambitions, references a speech made by former University President Terry Sanford, in which he expounds on the seemingly impossible ambition that was responsible for creating Duke University. The exhibit seeks not only to remember the incredible aspirations that have supported Duke in the past, but also to inspire the continuing work of Duke students, faculty, staff, and alumni as they craft their own extravagant ambitions.

The exhibit was curated by Maureen McCormick Harlow, 175th Anniversary Intern in University Archives, and Valerie Gillispie, University Archivist.

Visit the exhibit website and explore the interactive timeline of Duke history to find out more!