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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Bingham, William James

by Bennett L. Steelman, 1979; Revised November 2022.

6 Apr. 1802–19 Feb. 1866

See also:  Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (Keckley)

William James Bingham, schoolmaster, educator, and enslaver, was born in Chapel Hill, the oldest son of William Bingham, then professor of ancient languages at The University of Map showing location of the Bingham school in NC. Courtesy of the Bingham School Catalogue.North Carolina, and his wife, Annie Jean Slingsby. Most of his childhood was spent in Pittsboro and, after 1808, in Hillsborough, where his father maintained two private boarding schools.

Educated by his father, Bingham taught school in Williamsboro for some time before entering The University of North Carolina in 1821. After taking a B.A. with first honors in 1825, he read law in the offices of Archibald D. Murphey. His father's death in February 1826 forced him to return home to complete the term's instruction at the family school in the Mount Repose community of Orange County. Shortly afterward, he decided to abandon law and to teach as a career. To prepare himself, he embarked on a lengthy tour of the better-known private schools of New England and Virginia in order to study their teaching methods.

In January 1827, Bingham returned the academy to Hillsborough, from which his father had moved it in 1818. There, it garnered a reputation for academic success. By the 1840s, Bingham's school hosted students from almost every state in the Union, and its tuition, $150 per year, was allegedly the highest charged by any preparatory school in the nation.

Meanwhile, Bingham participated in several major reform campaigns of the period. A long-time elder in Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, he spoke frequently in favor of temperance to public audiences. He was nevertheless a member of the American Colonization Society and possibly one other local manumission organization. Despite his membership in these organizations, Bingham was recorded to have enslaved 4 total people on the 1830 U.S. census. While normally shunning public office in any form, he served as corresponding secretary of the North Carolina Institute of Education (1831–32) and as a member of its executive board (1832–34). He was also among the founding members of The University of North Carolina Alumni Association.

As a prominent member of the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, Bingham was close to its reverend, Robert Amistead Burwell and his wife, Margaret Anna Burwell. The Burwell's were the enslavers of a woman named Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (Keckley). Keckly, in her memoir, recounts her torture and abuse at the hands of the Burwells and their friend, William Bingham. In roughly 1838 (when Keckly "was 18"), Bingham reportedly "flogged" Keckly at the request of Margaret Burwell. This physical abuse recurred for weeks, until Bingham no longer accepted Margaret's requests to abuse Keckly. Keckly would later purchase her freedom and find her way to Washington, D.C. where she became a well-known dressmaker and friend to Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckly's memoir is titled: Behind the scenes, or, Thirty years a slave and four years in the White House

In 1845, Bingham moved his school to the Oaks community, twelve miles southwest of Hillsborough, since he desired to raise his sons in the country as his father had done. At the same time, he reduced his enrollment from over a hundred to thirty, in order to give his students closer personal attention. During this period, Bingham conducted a model farm, which experimented extensively with new seed strains and new methods of cultivation. Agriculture was a lifelong concern of his: while still in Hillsborough, he had allowed two bondsmen to manage his farm without supervision, an exceptional step for the time.

Because of illness, Bingham was forced to suspend classes for some months in 1855. In January 1857, he admitted his oldest son, William, as a partner in the school, under the name W. J. Bingham and Sons. The younger son, Robert, was admitted as a partner six months later, upon his graduation. Soon enrollment increased to sixty, with Bingham taking charge of the younger pupils and leaving the advanced classes to his sons. He seems to have gradually retired from the school during this period, however, relinquishing complete control in late 1863.

Politically, Bingham was a Clay Whig that opposed secession. Bingham ultimately accepted the government and legitimacy of the Confederacy, citing Lincoln's call for troops as his justification. He moved with his family to Mebane in 1864; he died there and was buried in Mebane City Cemetery.

In 1827, Bingham married Eliza Alves Norwood, the daughter of Judge William Norwood of Hillsborough and a maternal granddaughter of James Hogg (1729–1805). The couple had seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood, including two sons: William (July 7, 1835–Feb. 18, 1873), who succeeded his father as headmaster of the school; and Robert (5 Sept. 1838–8 May 1927), who succeeded his brother.


An Address by William James Bingham Delivered before the College Temperance Society at Chapel Hill (1836).

Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, vol. 4 (1906).

Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, vol. 1 (1907), and "Orange County," Western North Carolina Historical and Biographical (1890).

Paul H. Bergerson, ed., "My Brother's Keeper," North Carolina Historical Review 44 (1967).

Fifth Census of the United States, 1830. (NARA microfilm publication M19, 201 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

J. G. deRoulhac Hamilton, ed., The Papers of Thomas Ruffin, vols. 1–2 (1918–20), and The Papers of William Alexander Graham, vol. 2 (1961).

William Henry Hoyt, ed., The Papers of Archibald D. Murphey, vol. 1 (1914).

Edd Winfield Parks, "Sawney Webb," North Carolina Historical Review 12 (1935).

C. L. Raper, The Church and Private Schools of North Carolina (1898).

H. T. Shanks, ed., The Papers of Willie Person Mangum, vol. 2 (1952).

Southern Historical Collection (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), for letters of Bingham in various collections.

Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (1956).

Robert Hamlin Stone, A History of Orange Presbytery, 1770 –1970 (1970).

Walter P. Williamson, "The Bingham School," Our Living and Our Dead, vol. 2 (1875).

Additional Resources:

Ashe, Samuel A. (Samuel A'Court). Biographical history of North Carolina from colonial times to the present. Greensboro, N.C., C.L. Van Noppen. 1905. (accessed May 16, 2013).

History of the University of North Carolina. Volume I: From its Beginning to the Death of President Swain, 1789-1868:
Electronic Edition. Battle, Kemp P. (Kemp Plummer), 1831-1919:

"Bingham School." N.C. Highway Historical Marker P-16, N.C. Office of Archives & History.

Bingham Military School Volumes, 1872-1876; 1890-1919 (collection no. 03730-z). The Southern Historical Collection. Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (accessed May 16, 2013).

Bingham School Records, 1883, University of Texas at Austin:

Bingham School (Orange County, N.C.). The Bingham School Catalogue. Lynchburg, Va.: J. P. Bell Company. 1905. (accessed May 16, 2013).

"Bingham School v. Gray." Southeastern Reporter 30. June 7-September 27, 1898. 304-306.

"The Bingham School-Its Past, Its Present, Its Future." Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of North Carolina part 2. Raleigh: Guy V. Turner. 1898. 146-170. (accessed May 16, 2013).

"Faculty of Bingham School, Mebane, N.C." Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of North Carolina part 1. Raleigh: Guy V. Turner. 1898. 21. (accessed May 16, 2013).

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the scenes, Or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House. New York: G.W. Carleton, 1868. (accessed December 1, 2015).

Image Credits:

Bingham School (Orange County, N.C.). The Bingham School Catalogue. Lynchburg, Va.: J. P. Bell Company. 1905. (accessed May 16, 2013).

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