John Sprunt Hill (1869-1961) was born on a farm near Faison, North Carolina. He finished high school at age twelve and worked as a clerk for four years before entering the University of North Carolina in 1885. Upon graduation he returned to Duplin County to teach for two years. In 1891 Hill reentered the University of North Carolina to study law but transferred to Columbia University, where he completed his legal training in 1894. The same year he established a practice in New York City. Following service in the Spanish-American War, Hill ran unsuccessfully in 1900 as a Democrat in the heavily Republican 14th District of New York. On November 29, 1899, Hill married Annie Louise Watts, daughter of Durham industrialist George Washington Watts. The couple lived in New York City for four years but moved to Durham in September 1903. In 1910 Hill built a large Spanish Colonial Revival style house on a lot that had belonged to his father-in-law.
Original Date Cast:
In 1903 Hill established Durham Bank and Trust Company and served as its president until 1932. He later founded Home Savings Bank, the forerunner of present Central Carolina Bank, and served as its head until late in life. In 1913 Hill traveled to Europe to study rural credit systems and returned to the United States eager to implement similar enterprises at home. He addressed farmers’ organizations and Congressional committees on the subject. In 1915, soon after passage of enabling legislation by the legislature, the state’s first credit union opened in the Lowes Grove community of southern Durham County. E. C. Branson, in a sketch published in 1918, called Hill the “Father of Rural Credit in North Carolina.”
Hill was an original member of the State Highway Commission, serving from 1920 to 1931. From 1933 to 1938, he represented Durham County in the state senate. He had a long tenure on the UNC Board of Trustees, beginning in 1904. The university was the principal recipient of Hill’s philanthropy. A lifelong student of history and literature, Hill contributed generous sums for the expansion of the campus and, on May 9, 1948, established an endowment fund for the North Carolina Collection of the UNC Library. He also donated money and land in Durham for cultural and recreational purposes. His house on Duke Street went after his death in 1961 to the Annie Watts Hill Foundation for use by women’s civic organizations. Today the Junior League of Durham makes its headquarters there.
Howard E. Covington Jr., Favored by Fortune: George W. Watts & the Hills of Durham (2004)
Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis, eds., The North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000 (2002)
Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, VIII, 223-231
Archibald Henderson, History of North Carolina, Vol. IV: North Carolina Biography, 242-245
Claudia P. Roberts, Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (1982)
(Raleigh) News and Observer, July 29, 1961