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Part 1: Chilhood and the Duke Legacy
Well known for carrying on the Duke University founding family's legacy of philanthropic contributions to the community, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans has become one of the state's principal philanthropists supporting education and arts programs across the Carolinas. This influential matriarch begins her one-on-one biographical conversations by discussing her rich family legacy beginning with her great-grandfather, Washington Duke, for whom the Duke University is named.
Washington Duke (1820-1905), an industrialist and philanthropist dedicated to Christian values and education,grew wealthy after the Civil War by manufacturing tobacco products. With the assistance of his two sons, Seman's grandfather Benjamin Newton and James "Buck" Buchanan, and his daughter, Mary Elizabeth, the senior Duke rose from his humble beginnings on his family's Orange County, North Carolina farm, to create an early manufacturing business that thrived in the early 20th century. In addition to tobacco, the Duke family became involved in waterpower, an investment that provided the money for the Duke Endowment which Mary Semans would later chair.
Semans also talks openly about her grandmother Sarah Newton, whose close ties to Durham influenced her husband, Benjamin, when he convinced the president of Trinity College into moving the college to the Bull City. Several years later, Benjamin became involved in the "Bassett affair," a series of severely critical articles in the News & Observer about a professor at Trinity College, John Bassett, who stated during a lecture that African Americans would one day be equal with whites. Although many citizens in the city wanted him fired, Benjamin and the board of trustees maintained Dr. Bassett's right to freedom of speech.
Semans also reflects on the then president of Trinity College, William Preston Few, who was so admired by the Duke family that the powerful clan created a large endowment for the college to create what is known now as Duke University. Dr. Few was still president when Mary Semans enrolled at Duke.
Mary's parents married young. Her mother, an aspiring young opera singer, was ten years older than her father, an ambassador and a captain in World War I. Mary was close to both of her parents and explained how the separation of her parents and ultimate divorce both affected her mother's health and her own life.
Part 2: Duke University & Marriage
Mary Semans opens the second half of Biographical Conversations With. by explaining the background of the endowment that James "Buck" Buchanan Duke gave to Trinity College, benefiting both North and South Carolina. She also recalls the life of her cousin, Doris Duke, and recounts the many times that the press made her a target of sensational news.
While Mary's childhood in New York City helped her appreciate the arts, her move back to Durham to begin college at Duke University helped her appreciate other races and cultures. During the Great Depression, she developed her first sense of the terrible need that existed, although she and her family were not affected severely by the Depression. From then on, she felt the need to share her wealth with others, and feels that others who are affluent have a responsibility to do the same.
Semans shares that music was the highlight of her childhood, and that her family invited everyone around to her piano recitals. As she wistfully admits, she stopped playing piano after she began college, a decision that she later regretted. She talks about her relationship with her brother and explains how the Duke Homestead came back to her family after her mother purchased it. She also describes her governess, Elizabeth Gotham, a person whom she says was influential to her.
Meeting her first husband, Joseph Trent, provides an interesting story. When her mother first became ill, her grandmother suggested that Mary move to Durham to stay with her, and after Mary moved in with her grandmother, both her grandmother and aunt set up "dates" for her. One of these dates was with Trent. When they became engaged, the media sensationalized the relationship. That was, Mary says, the only negative experience she had with the press.
When World War II broke out, her husband was not drafted because he was ill. Mary gives her own perspectives of the War and recalls growing up in the "Jim Crow South," a time period that made her more determined to advocate for African-American rights.
In the early 1940s, Joseph discovered he had cancer, and Mary remembers thinks back to this difficult period. After he died in 1948, she raised their four children on her own. A year later she fulfilled a lifelong aspiration when she entered politics. She relates the story of her first experience at a precinct meeting, a meeting that her friend Bascomb Baines, a leader in Durham, told her to attend and to vote for a candidate named Leslie Atkins. As the vote was taken, Mary realized the racial division in the precinct, and the event eventually culminated in black voter registration. The next year, she was asked to run for City Council.
Part 3: Politics & Philanthropy
The conclusion begins with a discussion of Mary Seman's political career after she won the election for the Durham City Council. Her involvement with the precinct meeting, which initiated black voter registration, inspired suggestions that she run for a council seat. In addition, groups wanted women to have more of a voice in Durham government, so Mary and another woman ran for and won seats on the Durham City Council. Mary and her female counterpart fought hard to keep their seats among male members who suggested that they "stay home" during meetings because it made them uncomfortable to discuss issues with women present. Only a year later she was elected as mayor.
After her mayoral term was up, she decided to finish her degree and re-enrolled at Duke University. In 1952, she was selected, as one of five Mothers of the Year, a nomination that she said was a "wonderful surprise." The following year, Mary Semans met Dr. James Semans, and they went on to marry and have four children together. In 1956, Mary's mother began the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, an enterprise that Mary inherited after her mother's death. She also inherited responsibility for the Duke Endowment, a task that engulfed her life to the extent that her husband later took over the Foundation.
Mary and Dr. Semans together established several foundations themselves: an art foundation to promote visual art and help students, a foundation in Mary's name to help projects that would otherwise be overlooked by major funders, and the Semans Art Fund at the School of the Arts to fund students' creative projects. In addition, Dr. Semans funded a trip abroad for art students to give them a feel for other cultures.
Mary shares some of the awards that she and her husband received, such as the Freedom Award from the Hadassa Medical Center, the honorary degree from the School of the Arts, and the philanthropic award. She talks about her father's death and how it renewed some of the wounds that occurred after he left her mother. She also tells a story of bringing Dr. Semans to meet her father before she married him.
The program concludes with Mary's explanation of the role of philanthropy and Duke University in this century. Mary reveals that she hopes Duke's legacy will be to bring some kind of equality in education between the rural and urban parts of the state and that the next generation will care for the underrepresented as she herself has tried to do.