Bassett House

36.005289, -78.909677

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1902 Trinity College map.
(Courtesy Duke Archives / Digitized by Digital Durham)

One of the four (out of an original five) surviving houses from Trinity College's 'Faculty Row', the house currently located at 1017 West Trinity Avenue is most well known as the house of John Spencer Bassett, a Trinity College History professor. Bassett, in turn, is most well known for what became known as the 'Bassett Affair' of 1903.

1913 overlay on present day satellite photo.

Bassett was born in 1867 and graduated from Trinity College (in Randolph County) in 1886; he taught "public school in Durham" (presumably at the City Graded School in the old Wright Factory on West Main) before leaving to complete a PhD in History from Johns Hopkins.

Bassett joined the faculty at Trinity College . Among local history geeks, he is known for his efforts (and that of his students so tasked) to gather local oral histories - many of the stories and information we have about places like Pinhook are as a result of their efforts. Bassett became a driving force behind the Trinity Historical Society (founded by Stephen B. Weeks, another early NC historian and 'grandson-in-law' Senator Willie P. Mangum who is buried in the cemetery at the Walnut Hall site) and mobilized the entire community to collect and archive items important to Southern history.

I'll quote from Bassett's history page on the Duke Archives website:

Students, administrators, and alumni combed their attics donating Confederate money, Indian relics, travel souvenirs, and political memorabilia as well as volumes of books, pamphlets, religious and secular newspapers, maps, and manuscripts. After a few years Bassett proudly reported to Adams [Bassett's mentor and professor at Hopkins] that over 2,000 documents had been collected for use in primary research. Soon "manager of the library" was added to his varied duties.

In 1906 an analysis of society meetings revealed that historical presentations had been made by 53 students, 38 faculty and 6 visiting scholars. Following the Hopkins example of a series of published research, Bassett began an annual publication of historical papers of the Trinity society in 1897. At first a cheaply reproduced set of reprints of student articles from the campus magazine, The Archive, the series became more sophisticated and widely distributed when the administration enthusiastically endorsed it. Some noteworthy early articles were on the Ku Klux Klan, the North Carolina Manumission Society, and the North Carolina Governor during Reconstruction, William W. Holden. Bassett proudly wrote Adams, "So far as I know, this is but one of three [academic] historical publications in the South. It is the only one in North Carolina."

The society also sponsored an annual patriotic town-gown civic rally intentionally set on February 22, the birth of George Washington, and not on a date commemorating a Confederate hero. Of the historical society a respected historian later wrote, "There is reason to believe no local historical association ever succeeded better than the Society at Trinity College in effecting its program." In yet another corollary to his passion for learning, Bassett launched a secret student honor society based on academic distinction and service. Named 9019, presumably because nineteen qualifying members had averages of above ninety, the society was a precursor to Phi Beta Kappa which was chartered in 1919.

Surprisingly these extracurricular endeavors were carried on despite a teaching load of fifteen and sometimes eighteen hours a semester. Growing slowly in its early years in Durham, Trinity did not have the means to support more than a single faculty member per discipline. Having to teach history courses far afield of his primary interests, Bassett once privately lamented over the continuance of a "troublesome" French class. Intermittently he introduced new courses such as a senior seminar in Contemporary History which emphasized class reports with special attention to Southern development. Another course, the History of North Carolina, offered students a chance "to learn methods of original research and to gain an impetus to historical writing and the collection of historical materials."

Extremely popular on campus and confident in his ability which was earning accolades in the region and nation, Bassett, nevertheless, had periodic misgivings about life at Trinity and in his native South. He believed his salary to be inadequate for growing family responsibilities and the teaching load constantly interfered with time for research and writing. He also became exasperated at the slow pace of change in the region. Seeking a wider audience than a single college campus, he successfully launched a journal of thought and action, The South Atlantic Quarterly, in 1902.

Bassett also made significant contributions to methods of study, archiving, and thought within the field of history - as further detailed on this Duke archives page.

The South Atlantic Quarterly would soon become a well-known and reputable academic journal, which is still published today. Interestingly, William Wannamaker, whose house sat and sits next door to Bassett's would become later become editor of the SAQ.

His efforts within Trinity and Durham, and in founding the SAQ would give Bassett a memorable place in the history of the college and town, but he is remembered by a broader audience for what would become known as the "Bassett Affair."

Bassett had begun writing on the topic of race and the South from the earliest issues of the SAQ. He published an article entitled "Two Negro Leaders" in which he gave an insightful analysis of the philosophies of WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington, comparing and contrasting the two schools of thought. It's important to place this in context - North Carolina in 1902 was 4 years removed from the 1898 Wilmington riot and massacre of African-Americans, and fully in the throes of the re-entrenchment of Southern white power following reconstruction. For a white male to write an article in the south treating WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington as not only worthwhile of consideration, but philsophers in their own right was, to say the least, against the grain. While this article did not gain significant recognition, Bassett showed that his desire was to directly challenge the Southern orthodoxy, and that he would not be ignored in that effort. In October 1903, Bassett published an article in the SAQ called "Stirring Up the Fires of Race Antipathy," which would ignite significant controversy and become a seminal moment in the development of the concept of academic freedom. Again, from the Duke Archives:

To gain attention, Bassett later admitted to doing a very unprofessional thing. With galley proofs of an editorial in hand, he inserted a sentence praising the life of Booker T. Washington and ranking him second in comparison to Robert E. Lee of Southerners born in a hundred years. [ "...Booker T. Washington [is] the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years..."] Such a sentiment invited controversy at a time when race baiting was commonplace due to the revival of bitter partisan politics with the division of the Democratic Party and the rise of the Populist third party and revival of the Republican Party. State Democratic leaders in nearby Raleigh who were also represented on the Trinity College Board of Trustees demanded that Professor Bassett be fired. When the attack spread to the college and parents were urged to withdraw their children from school and churchmen were encouraged not to recommend the college to prospective students, Bassett offered his resignation. Lines clearly were drawn between a partisan Democratic press that blatantly referred to the historian as "Professor bASSett" who threatened the accepted "southern way of life" and between proponents of the then developing concept of academic freedom. On December 2, 1903, at about 3:00 a. m., the Trinity Board of Trustees voted 18 to 7 not to accept the resignation of Bassett. Jubilant students who had been listening to the debate through sky lights and heating registers built bonfires and celebrated until dawn. It was later revealed that President Kilgo and the college faculty were prepared to resign if the trustees had voted to dismiss Bassett. A year later President Theodore Roosevelt spoke in Durham extolling Trinity's courageous stand for academic freedom.

Roosevelt speaking from his open train platform - looking northwest from West Pettigrew St. (north of the later Smith Warehouse) across the railroad tracks towards the main entrance to Trinity College on West Main St. The main building (the Washington Duke Building) is in the background. Note also the stopped streetcars on West Main St. with people sitting on the roofs.
(Courtesy Duke Archives)

Despite predictions of the demise of Trinity College following the support for Bassett, enrollment grew, and the 'Affair' became known as a brave stand that gave strength to the ethic of academic freedom nationally.

Bassett began construction of a new house on Guess Road, now 410 N. Buchanan Blvd. in 1905. I'm unsure as to whether he ever lived in the house, as he accepted an offer to teach at Smith College and moved to Northampton, MA in 1906. Per the Duke Archives:

Bassett never commented publicly on his move but he alluded to several reasons in private correspondence. There was no question that he welcomed a reduced teaching load with increased time for research and writing. He also looked forward to living in New England. He confided to his Trinity colleague, William K. Boyd, that the South was too used to antiquarianism and arousement instead of history and scholarly thinking , a state, he believed, any cultured community ought to have long passed. He also tired of the tension he felt between his role as a scholar and the pull to be a reformer in a region he cared very much about. He concluded that he could not write history and direct public sentiment at the same time. His decided first choice was to write history. Bassett corresponded with numerous friends in the South throughout his life and he worked diligently to get southern topics included in meetings of professional associations. Living until 1928, he never lost his love for his native region, although he never regretted his move north either.

Bassett's Faculty Row house was moved with the other Faculty Row houses in 1916, when Guess Road was widened and the wall around Trinity College was built. It was relocated to 1017 West Trinity Avenue, where it still stands.

Bassett House, 02.21.10 (Photo by Gary Kueber)


Very interesting post, Gary. Thank you. I learned much from it.

It bothers me that, in spite of taking North Carolina history in college and earning certification to teach high school history (including NC history), I had never heard of the 1898 Wilmington riot until this post! More and more I find there was a bad bout of selective amnesia among our teachers. They seemed to recall only "white history."

Interesting that no one on the platform with T.R., including T.R., is wearing a hat while the spectators (with a very few exceptions) are wearning hats.

In many ways, the house looks like a mirror image of one in Lakewood -- at the corner of Chapel Hill Rd. and Gunter St.

1864 Chapel Hill Rd. will get you there on a Google Map (whether or not that's the correct address, it's their approximation of that corner).

Gary, you continue to amaze the masses with your delivery. This is the on-line version of sitting on grandma's lap!
The Wilmington Race Riot is featured prominently in the 2 eighth grade NC history texts that I currently have, and they include pictures. For American History, the event may rise as part of the to-numerous-to-mention-all Reconstruction/Black Code/Jim Crow/Southern Democratic Party dominated era events. I am sure other states have their correlating events as well. In the context of time and content in US Studies, not all things can be taught. Or retained. Unfortunately, this is a subject area that must be a "pick and choose." I am not sure that there is an overall mentality of "selective amnesia" among our teachers, and although there may be isolated examples, the concept of recalling "white-only history" seems to be a bit of a blanket statement. It certainly was not ignored by my teachers when I was a student in the Durham Public Schools. I am a veteran American History teacher. This concept has never crossed my path nor that of anyone with whom I have taught. It also is a concept that overlaps and has been used as the focus of writing and discussions in the English/Language Arts classes as well.

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