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Durham’s Economic History

Named for Dr. Bartlett Durham, Durham originated in 1853 as a railroad depot. Durham was incorporated in 1869 and soon became known for its tobacco and textiles.

The tobacco manufacturing industry focused worldwide attention on the area after the Civil War. Bull Durham Tobacco and American Tobacco Trust combined to produce a majority of US cigarettes and smoking tobacco. As a result of that thriving business, Durham grew and prospered tremendously.

The tobacco industry dominated the city. Durham quickly developed a vibrant community. Although the center of the African-American community was an area known as ‘Hayti’ (pronounced HAY-Tie), members of the African-American community established some of the most prominent and successful African-American-owned businesses in the country during the early 20th century. These businesses, the best known of which are North Carolina Mutual Insurance Co., and Mechanics & Farmers’ Bank, were centered on Parrish St. in downtown Durham, which would come to be known as “Black Wall Street”.

In the 1950s, Durham took on a new venture with the development of Research Triangle Park. The region benefited Durham History Hub significantly from this establishment, bringing several large businesses and industries to the area. Due to this development, the tobacco industry began to experience the effects. A new era in economic development was ushered in and the economic base in Durham began its transformation.

Durham’s growth began to rekindle during the 1980s, with the construction of multiple housing developments, and the beginnings of downtown revitalization. Today, Durham is a vibrant, unique community that continues to grow and prosper with new industry and amenities for all.

Fueled by the country’s largest research park, Research Triangle Park, and generations of results-driven entrepreneurs, Durham is a rocket ship.

Talent is plentiful with three Tier 1 research universities at our doorstep: Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, and NC State. Other terrific institutions like NC Central University plus eight colleges and universities provide Durham with an abundance of highly-skilled, specialized workers.

High tech and traditional manufacturing are on the rise, with an additional 1,200 jobs announced in 2013.

A rich creative culture of artists, brewers, writers, restaurateurs and more bring yet another flavor of entrepreneurship.

Google for Entrepreneurs, recognizing Durham as a hotbed for startups, partnered with American Underground in Durham after recognizing it as one of the key tech hubs in the United States.

Known as The City of Medicine for its excellent hospitals, Durham boasts nearly one in three workers employed in a health or medical related industry.


The Research Triangle Park (RTP) is the largest research park in the country and one of the largest in the world.

Home to more than 200 global companies including IBM, , Syngenta Biotechnology, RTI International, BASF, and Cisco. RTP fosters a culture of innovation, education, and industry.

RTP is located between three major universities: Duke University in Durham, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Through five decades, the Park still holds to its founders’ aspirations: to generate economic activity, engage the talents of local graduates and citizens and carry North Carolina forward to ever-greater prominence and prosperity.

Research Triangle Park Quick Facts:
  • Largest science park in the United States
  • 7,000 acres
  • 22.5 million sq. ft. of built space
  • 200 global companies
  • 50,000+ high-tech employees
  • 80% work for multi-national companies
  • Combined annual payroll of $2.9B
  • Park Center Plan introduced in 2016
  • The Frontier, a mixed-use space, including free co-working and drop in meeting space is the flagship building of Park Center.
  • RTP events highlighting everything from local food to big data spotlight the buzzing activity at RTP and in the surrounding area. Always looking ahead, the RTP staff finds ways to stay relevant in a changing global business environment.








Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce