Doris Duke’s Shangri-La: A freed slave, tobacco factory workers and the craftsmen that haunt Shangri-La, Honolulu

February 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Despite my slightly conflicted feelings about Doris Duke’s collecting habit… I am sad that I’m going to miss the exhibit on Shangri-La, her house in Hawaii at the Museum of Arts and Design—a museum that I of course refused to patronize for a very long time because they destroyed Edward Durell Stone’s awkward masterpiece on Columbus Circle. Stone, of course like Duke was also obsessed with the East.

For me the image above forces me to think of on the one hand a deep ‘love’ for the other, at the same time that I am forced to think of the deep racial inequalities of North Carolina, and of the area surrounding Duke University in general, racial inequalities that the Duke family played no small role in perpetuating. You could say that this had far more to do with the legacy of slavery—but this is a legacy that James Buchanan Duke profited from —but I talk here of a structural problem, not a personal belief. By the way, policies like segregation are held in place by sub-rosa prejudices rather than by stated personal beliefs. Duke University was segregated until 1961 (they didn’t admit black undergrads until 1963).

When I was showing my students houses like Doris Duke’s (on a lecture I assembled on American Orientalism) they couldn’t help but be awed by their beauty. The discussion fell out of my control and veered toward the somehow ‘forgotten’ value of ornamentation in architecture. I don’t blame them of course, I could find myself lost in a house like Shangri-La. The trick is how to talk about seductive images without turning against beauty altogether.

SO here I will try by narrating how Doris Duke’s story began just as mechanization took command – 1912. Her life begins at the Duke factory in Durham, a place she probably rarely saw. The Duke family did not become fabulously wealthy until after the purchase of the Bonsack electric cigarette rolling machine. The machine rolled more than 120,000 cigarettes in ten hours, dwarfing the productivity of Jewish immigrants imported from the north who were the first rollers of Duke cigaretttes. The machine allowed James Buchanan Duke to expand his father’s small tobacco operation from the small two story factory with nothing more than paper, tobacco, tables and hands to the vast complex of mechanized factories you see below. Washington Duke, J. Buchanan Duke’s father, by the way was a Unionist before the Civil War (conscripted into the Confederate Army). He was also vigorously opposed to slavery and even, as it so happens bought a woman’s freedom, much is made of this fact in the Dukes of Durham—a hagiographic family history. Not much is known about Caroline, the slave who was purchased for $601 and apparently freed thereafter. It is noted, however that Washington Duke had a lifelong cook named Caroline Barnes that was his paid employee and lived on his property.

James Buchanan Duke had thousands of slave descendants in his employ and was a major force in a process of (failed) Reconstruction—as a set of policies mostly set by Northern Industrialists (that is to say Reconstruction was not, in terms of policy driven by social reformers or education advocates). The link will take you to an alternate history of reconstruction, by Eric Foner. In any case it is said that the Dukes paid their workers fair wages and that the conditions within the factories operated by the Duke family were reputed to be good. That, of course, wasn’t the problem, wages in Durham remained low on account of the fact that operating machines required less specialized skill (ideal work for under-educated former slaves and their descendants). Buck’s wealth, however was accrued not only because of the low cost of labor but because of the consolidation of costs and increased efficiency that were the result of one of the largest mergers in American industrial history. This efficiency in turn led to the growth of the industry as a whole, and as a result an even greater demand for low wage/ low skill labor. Buchanan who brokered the merger in 1890 stood at the helm of the world’s largest tobacco company. The monopoly was eventually disbanded as a result of a ruling of the United States Supreme Court in 1911. Still, by that time Buck had amassed an enormous fortune. Doris Duke, Buck’s only daughter would inherit his entire fortune (save for the $40 million set aside to endow Duke University) at the tender age of twelve.

OK… so the point of including all of this detail is that what I would like to place emphasis on is not old Washington Duke’s integrity (one of Duke’s fiercely protected assets) or Doris Duke’s glamor and taste, but rather the more complicated story of systems…  structural problems fueled by the machine problems that intersected with the human and living legacy of slavery, and a failure of our own government to seriously consider the work required AFTER the abolition of slavery—work that is still required today. The point I guess is not to vilify Buck, glorify Wash or feel awkward about Doris, but again to hold all of these characters, all of this beauty, and all of this machinery in one thought, at one time, and to consider the durable structure of slavery and the ever-present echoes of racism—the history that still haunts us.

Duke Factory after industrialization



On a random note… the Duke estate in Somerville, New Jersey was just recently opened to the public.  One of the more fascinating pieces of architecture on the estate is a greenhouse with specimens, many of them orchids that Doris collected on her trips around the world. They’re all held in a mini version of the green house in Kew gardens. Making this whole potential outing more palatable is the fact that they’ve turned a portion of it into a large working farm… and the more forested grounds have become a habitat for a fledgling bald eagle population!!!  It’s just 40 minutes south of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, another place I’ve been meaning to visit for a while. (note to self: perhaps a post connecting environmental remediation of formerly industrial American landscapes with the destruction of ‘Third World’ ecologies… i.e. another uplifting post).


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You are currently reading Doris Duke’s Shangri-La: A freed slave, tobacco factory workers and the craftsmen that haunt Shangri-La, Honolulu at spargel&fraise.


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