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William James Bingham was born in Chapel Hill in 1802, while his father Reverend William Bingham taught briefly at the University of North Carolina. The elder Bingham went on to serve as principal at Hillsborough Academy and later of his own school, Mount Repose. When Reverend Bingham died in 1826, William James finished out the year as principal at Mount Repose and then closed the school in order to take the helm of Hillsborough Academy. He remained there until 1844 when, like his father before, he left to open a school at Oaks, northeast of Chapel Hill.
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In an 1844 Hillsborough Recorder advertisement for his new school at Oaks, Bingham stated that “his leading motive is to educate his own sons in the country; and his selection has been made with special reference to this object.” He built a brick school building with a brick-columned piazza near his farmhouse. An entirely private academy, Bingham advertised his venture as “Select Classical and Mathematical School” and later as “W. J. Bingham’s Select School.” Although his school may have been known informally as the Bingham School, that name was not adopted until 1864.
During the Civil War, the health of the younger William prevented him from serving in the regular army, even though he eventually rose to militia colonel. Robert enlisted in early 1862, leaving William and his father, in declining health, to run the Oaks. William assumed daily operation of the school by 1864, and in December moved the campus to Mebaneville (present-day Mebane), closer to the railroad for easier access to supplies and travel for students. When William incorporated his Bingham School in 1864, it became a “military and classical academy.”
Never robust, William Bingham died in 1873 at age thirty-seven. Robert Bingham took over the school, guiding it for the next fifty-four years, through three devastating fires, internal strife regarding administration, and a long-distance move. Robert moved the Bingham School campus to Asheville in 1891, leaving William’s widow to operate an academy that she named The William Bingham School. The Bingham School prospered in Asheville, closing the year after Robert Bingham’s death in 1927.
Robert I. Curtis, “The Bingham School and Classical Education in North Carolina, 1793-1873,” North Carolina Historical Review (July 1996): 328-377
William S. Powell, Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)—sketches by Jean B. Anderson
Hugh Lefler and Paul Wager, eds., Orange County, 1752-1952 (1953)
Carole Watterson Troxler and William Murray Vincent, Shuttle & Plow: A History of Alamance County, North Carolina (1999)