September 2016

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

Foundation leader

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans was born into a life of wealth and privilege in the early 20th Century. Unlike many in her position, she “cared so much about people and the community,” her oldest daughter, Mary Trent Jones, recalled.

“She did not know a stranger.”

Semans, who died in 2012 at 91, left a legacy far beyond being a descendant of the founder of Duke University. Semans was a trustee of Lincoln Community Hospital in Durham, which was started in 1901 to provide health care for African-Americans.

“She made sure that everybody took care of Lincoln Hospital,” her daughter said.

Semans later told an interviewer she entered the Durham political scene after attending a precinct meeting and seeing racial division in a discussion about helping African-Americans register to vote. In 1951 Semans became one of the first two women elected to the Durham City Council, having run on a platform of black voter registration.

“She wanted to make sure everybody knew that someone was going to stand up for the underdog,” Mary Trent Jones said.

“She wasn’t your typical mother,” Jones said. “In those days so many mothers stayed home.”

“She was not afraid to call anybody in the legislature about anything that she thought they ought to know about.”

Semans took a leadership role as a trustee for the Duke Endowment, a private foundation that supports higher education, health care and children’s welfare in North and South Carolina.

The Endowment had been created in 1924 by James Buchanan Duke, Semans’ great-uncle, as a way “to make provision in some measure for the needs of mankind along physical, mental and spiritual lines…”

The endowment led to the renaming of Trinity College to Duke University that year, and created a family tradition of public service for the benefit of the underprivileged.
“She always wanted us to know our roots,” Jones said. “She always pushed for better medical care, better housing, more child care.

“She was instrumental in helping African-Americans in Durham obtain their voting rights and making sure that they were able to register to vote,” Jones said.

Dr. Jean Spaulding, the ombudsman for Duke University Medical School and a trustee of the Duke Endowment in Charlotte, served with Semans and said there is “no way to count the number of people touched by Semans.”

In a 2012 interview with WUNC, Spaulding said Semans chaired the board for the Endowment for so long that she was responsible for virtually “all of the funding that was given to hospitals, to orphanages, to rural churches for the purposes of health care and education. All of the individuals who benefited from those investments from the endowment I think would have to thank Mary Semans personally.”

Semans also spent a great deal of her life fighting for civil rights, affordable housing and women’s rights, Spaulding said.

Jones added: “My mother was the most amazing, unbiased person. We grew up unlike a lot of our peers – not thinking that blacks and whites were any different.”

Creditline: By Alicia Taylor