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Wilmington native James Benson Dudley (1859-1925) was for twenty-nine years the president of North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College, the predecessor institution of North Carolina A. & T. State University. His contributions, arguably the most important of any individual to that school’s history, are commemorated on campus through the name of a street and a building. In Wilmington, where he is buried, a monument was erected in the 1980s to his memory.
Dudley was born into slavery, the son of John and Annie Dudley, the property of the family of Edward B. Dudley, the state’s governor from 1836 to 1841. Young Dudley was educated by private teachers and in the freedmen’s school in Wilmington. He graduated from Shaw University and in time received an M.A. from Livingstone College and LL.D. from Wilberforce University. His first teaching position was in a first grade classroom in Sampson County in 1880. The following year he assumed the principalship of Peabody Graded Normal School in his hometown, where he remained for fifteen years. In that period he also served terms as editor of the weekly Wilmington Chronicle and as register of deeds.
In 1896 John O. Crosby, who had since the founding of A. & M. College five years earlier served as its president, resigned. Dudley, who had for those five years been on the board of trustees, was named as his successor. During Dudley’s long tenure the college expanded considerably and achieved national recognition. President Dudley’s particular interest was in emphasizing the agricultural aspect of the curriculum. As an outgrowth he helped establish farmers's institute for Negroes across the state. In matters of race relations he counseled patience and nonresistance. He served as president of A. & M. until his death in 1925.