Table of Workers
During our archival research, we uncovered a series of payroll ledgers in the Office of the University Treasurer Records collection dating from January 1927 to June 1930. Each sheet covered one week, from Thursday to Wednesday. For each worker (with one exception discussed below), every ledger listed their daily hours, a sum of that week’s hours, the wage they made per hour, and their total pay for that week. Most ledgers listed the occupation for each worker, but sometimes the spot was left blank.
There were always two ledger sheets for every week. One sheet looked like it was for construction workers and laborers employed by the University, while the other was clearly for employees of the Duke Heating Plant. We are unsure whether the plant was fully operational by that point, but we believe it was being finished or mostly operational at the time considering the most common occupations were machine/plant/refrigeration operator, electrician/lineman and plumber. We decided to include these heating plant employees because they were still involved in Duke's construction, and we believed that their stories have as much reason to be brought to light as anybody's.
Click to view a sample page of the Duke construction payroll ledgers that we transcribed.
Over the course of several days, we transcribed these ledgers and made sure they were in the same format, including standardizing potentially overlapping names with one set name in order to better analyze the information (e.g. there was a Paul Pratt and Paul Prett in our spreadsheet, so we replaced every Paul Prett with Paul Pratt). Transcribing the ledgers posed several challenges for the researchers. First, the ledgers were handwritten and in cursive, with the different handwriting every few months. Deciphering names (e.g. “is this an I or a J or a T?”) turned out to be trickier than we imagined and resulted in different transcriptions of the same name.
Second, since the handwriting changed every few months, it’s safe to assume that whoever was in charge of the ledgers changed as well and that the documentation and literacy of the workers was not at the level we are accustomed to today. As a result, we had to grapple with Norwood and Norward Mack, H.J. Brim and H.J. Brimm, and Ed Cobb and E.D. Cobb, to name a few examples. Third, no other identifying information was offered in the ledgers beside name and occupation. Usually those are enough, but not always. Often, names consist of initials and a surname (e.g. G.R. Aldridge, L. Sparrow), and sometimes the nicknames or abbreviated names (e.g. Chas. Slawson, Jas. Davis). Occupations can also be too general or slightly misleading.
After transcribing and organizing the ledger data, we utilized Ancestry.com to find more information on these workers. Armed with only their names (or fragments of their names) and their occupations, we combed through census records, Durham city directories, death certificates, World War II draft cards, marriage licenses and Duke yearbooks to find anybody who could match the workers listed on the ledgers. Sometimes it was easy: we would type in a name, and immediately find somebody who was obviously involved with Duke construction. Other times, the ledger information and the documentation on Ancestry did not match clearly enough or more than one person fit the criteria. If a worker's demographic description is blank, it is because we could not find information about that person that we could confidently publish.
Please recognize that the list of names presented is not a comprehensive list of the construction workers that helped build West Campus and the Chapel. Please also recognize that with our limited time frame, we could not conduct research as thorough as we would have preferred, so we do not have demographic information for every worker. We hope that this research is continued, more workers’ names are found, more data is gathered about the workers’ lives, and the stories of the countless workers who built Duke University are told.
Scroll to the right to see more demographic information in the table. Use the search bar to find a particular name. If you find incorrect information or have anything to add, don't hesitate to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is a list of the rest of the names we found in the ledgers, all of whom are listed three times or less. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we were unable to research biographical information on these workers. We hope others pick up where we left off.
Little John Faulkner