Clock Tower

Out of the Clock Tower

Hello and welcome to the Greene County Archives' blog, "Out of the Clock Tower".  Please join us as we share information on archival issues, news, special events, and highlights from our collection.

Before the archives program began in Greene County in 1996, permanent records were stored in every conceivable space, in basements, garages, and closets. Usually they were in boxes of various shapes and sizes, although seldom adequately labeled, but occasionally they were just in loose piles of books and papers. Most notable were the old records stuffed into the clock tower of the County Courthouse, where they shared their home with pigeon droppings.

Now, there is a clean, environmentally controlled, well appointed location for the county archives, where our historical records are housed in standard sized boxes on steel shelves. We have taken note of their journey in the name for our blog.

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Sep 18

Guardianships for The Doris Duke Trust in Greene County

Posted on September 18, 2020 at 1:13 PM by Melissa Dalton

Some time ago, we published a blog on a link in Greene County to the Doris Duke Trust. Well, just a couple weeks ago, Joan came across the guardianship files for those same recipients of said trust funds. As such, we thought we’d revisit this story.

We’re sure many of you know the name… I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or read something, and the project was sponsored or funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. If you know the name, but aren’t familiar with the story, we’ll give you a brief history of the Duke family.

Doris Duke was born on November 12, 1913, and was the only daughter of James Buchanan “Buck” Duke (Fig 1) and Nanaline Holt Inman. James B. Duke was an industrialist and philanthropist, becoming the owner of the largest tobacco company in the United States. He and his brother formed a power company as well, which later became Duke Energy.

Fig 1. James Buchanan Duke (JPG)
Fig 1. James Buchanan Duke (Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to his death in 1925, Duke established The Duke Endowment, a $40 million trust fund. This endowment would fund Duke University (formerly Trinity College), Davidson College, Furman University, Johnson C. Smith University, not-for-profit hospitals and children’s homes in the Carolinas, just to name a few. Upon his death, roughly another $67 million was added to the trust, and the remainder of his estate, roughly $100 million, went to Doris (Fig 2).

Fig 2. Doris and her father, James (JPG)
Fig 2. Doris and her then husband, James Cromwell (Wikipedia)

As part of the Trust, descendants of James B. Duke were to receive an inheritance throughout their lifetime. Doris did not have children (she had a daughter that died shortly after birth), but James’s sister, Mary Elizabeth, became a recipient, making her descendants heirs. And that’s where we find our connection.

One of my coworkers created a simplified family tree to help keep the names and relations straight for this particular lineage (Fig 3). Mary Elizabeth had a son, Edwin Buchanan. Edwin married and had a daughter, Marion. Marion is where our story picks up. Marion and her husband, General John Walker Sessums, Jr., moved to Greene County as Sessums was originally assigned to Wright Field around 1935, upon completion of Air Corps Engineering School. It is here where the couple laid roots.

Fig 4. The Duke Family Tree (JPG)
Fig 3. The Duke Family Tree (Greene County Archives)

The couple had three children – Marion (b. 1934), Jean (b. 1937), and John (b. 1940). Guardianships were established to manage the trust funds the family would receive for the care of each minor – receiving $100 per month per child (equivalent to roughly $1800 per month), and receiving up to $200 per month (looks like it may have been increased incrementally due to inflation) by the time they each reached the age of 21 (Fig 4). Once of age, guardianship was terminated.

Fig 5. Example of disbursement of funds from The Doris Duke Trust  for the Sessums children (JPG)
Fig 4. Example of funds received from The Doris Duke Trust for the Sessums children (Greene County Archives)

The monies received from the Trust allowed for the Sessums to provide some of the best schooling and services for their children. For example, they hired a private governess and nurse for the children, and once school age, the children received private education and lessons, attended camps, and expenses such as clothing, shoes, toys, medical bills, automobiles, insurance, and weddings were paid almost completely using the Trust funds (Fig 5).

Fig 6. Examples of Accounts filed in the Greene County Probate Court regarding expenses of the Trust
Fig 6. Examples of Accounts filed in the Greene County Probate Court regarding expenses of the Trust
Fig 6. Examples of Accounts filed in the Greene County Probate Court regarding expenses of the Trust
Fig 5. Examples of Accounts filed with the Greene County Probate Court regarding expenses of the Trust funds for Marion, Jean, and John, respectively (Greene County Archives)

Although we aren’t sure exactly how much each descendant received as part of their inheritance, it was surely in the millions, distributed at various points throughout their lifetime. According to a relatively recent news story on one descendant, there are hundreds of James B. Duke descendants receiving monies from the Trust today, including some in the Sessums line. So, if you find you’re related to James Buchanan Duke, it may be worthwhile to look into that a bit closer.

Until Next Time…

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
Duke University Libraries: 
Greene County Archives
U.S. Air Force:


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