Post contributed by Mary Mellon, William E. King Intern for the Duke University Archives.
When Charles J. “Charlie” Soong arrived at Trinity College in 1881 as the school’s first international student, he had already seen much more of the world than the average student. Born in Hainan Province, China as Han Chiao-shun in 1866, Charlie traveled to the Dutch East Indies as a young boy to work, eventually sailing to Boston in 1878 to work for his maternal uncle’s tea and silk business. After his uncle adopted him, Charlie’s name changed for the first time to Soon Chai-Jui.
Little is known of Charlie’s time in Boston, except that it took less than a year for him to realize he wanted more in life than working for his uncle. His first step in a new direction was to join the Revenue Cutter Service, predecessor to today’s U.S. Coast Guard, in January 1879. The popular rumor is that he stowed away, but this was not mentioned in a 1943 report on Charlie’s service by a Coast Guard representative. Influenced by his new captain, Eric Gabrielson, Charlie became interested in Methodism.
Charlie’s new career took him all along the East Coast, including the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, where he was baptized in the Methodist Church as Charles Jones Soon (the “g” is added after he returns to China). It is also in Wilmington that he met the Reverend Thomas Ricaud, who first brought Charlie to the attention of his future benefactors: Julian Carr, Durham tobacco magnate and philanthropist, and Braxton Craven, president of Trinity College in Randolph County. Approving of Charlie’s new desire to become a Methodist missionary, and intrigued by the idea of a native Chinese minister joining existing church missions in China, Trinity College agreed to enroll Charlie as a special student in April 1881. His tuition was paid by Julian Carr.
Attending Trinity must have been a huge adjustment for Charlie. He had lived in the United States for less than three years, most of that time spent in the cutter service. Then there was the fact that he was moving from the northeast to attend what was very much a “Southern” college, less than twenty years after the conclusion of the Civil War. Trinity College was hardly a racially or geographically diverse institution, with 93% of students from North Carolina and none from farther north than Virginia. There were eighteen students from present-day Cherokee, North Carolina, although little is known about these students other than they were, like Charlie, were enrolled in a special course of study.
According to fellow student Jerome Dowd, Charlie “attracted a great deal of attention from the faculty, the students, and the people of the village because of his racial contrast to the Caucasian and because of his exceptional sprightliness.” Some of this attention was negative, as Dowd notes, “boys were disposed to tease him and play all sorts of pranks upon him.” Yet Charlie persevered, remaining “very amiable, full of fun, and always ready to respond in a playful spirit.” While at Trinity, Charlie lodged at the house of Professor Gannaway, and his studies focused primarily on English language and the Bible.
The strongest traces of Charlie’s time in North Carolina are preserved through the contact that he had with his Durham and Trinity friends. Besides the Carr family, Charlie befriended James H. Southgate, a successful Durham insurance agent, and his daughters Mattie and Annie. To “Miss Mattie” in 1882, Charlie sticks to fairly innocent topics. He reports that he recently received a letter from “Miss Annie” (Mattie’s sister), that “all the boys are well” but they “have to study heaps” for the end of the semester.
Another of Charlie’s early letters, written in elegant script although imperfect English, is addressed to J. Gordon Hackett, who was a schoolmate boarding in the same house as Charlie. Writing shortly after commencement in June 1882, Charlie talks about in Randolph County, President Craven’s illness (he died later that year), and missing Hackett’s company. But like any teenage boy might, he talks mainly about…well…girls:
“[B]oth of Misses Field are here yet they will go home next friday morning. I tell you they are very pleasant young Ladies I like them ever so much. I had heard they spoke good words of you and your welfare. I was very much interesting when they compliments you so highly. I enjoyed it. Trinity is very pleasant now, but I don’t know what it will be after the [girls] go off. Dr. Gunn went off this morning and Fortisty moved down here last evening. He is now in your room. Miss Bidgood is here yet I believed. She will stay until next month. She looks as pretty as ever. I went to see her and Miss Cassie sometime since. She talk right lively…
Golden, I been had good times with the [girls] all day long. never looked at the books hardly since [Commencement] except the Bible. Everything is [quiet] now. Miss Mamie and two other [girls] gone to visiting last night we did had big time all the [girls] Fortisty and I we went to called on Ella Carr and we had the best time you ever heard of…”
It was even rumored that the reason Charlie left Trinity to attend Vanderbilt in fall 1882 was that he had become involved with Ella Carr, niece of Julian and daughter of a professor at the College. In fact, there were ample reasons for him to transfer without a supposed illicit romance. The seminary at Vanderbilt had more specialized training for missionaries, and the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church South was headquartered in Nashville. After graduating in 1885, Charlie returned to North Carolina for several months, lecturing and preaching while visiting old friends. When he finally returned to China in 1886 as a trained missionary, Charlie would use his education and experience to build an extraordinary life and powerful family.