The William B. Umstead Distinguished Professorship in American History was established in 1995 by the family of the former U.S. senator, congressman and N.C. governor. The family’s gift was supplemented with state funds from the Distinguished Professors Endowment Trust Fund to create a $500,000 endowed professorship.

Umstead was born in 1895 in Durham County. He earned a B.A. from the University in 1916, briefly taught school in Kinston and served in World War I. Returning to North Carolina after the war, he entered Trinity College (now Duke University), where he studied law. He began his law practice in Durham in 1921. In 1922, he was elected prosecuting attorney for Durham County Recorders Court, and in 1926, he was elected solicitor of the 10th Judicial District. A prominent Durham attorney for more than 10 years, his political career began in 1932 when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was re-elected twice. He retired in 1938 after his third term and resumed practicing law in Durham.

In 1946, Umstead was appointed by then-Gov. R. Gregg Cherry to serve the unexpired term of U.S. Sen. Josiah Bailey. Two years later, he again returned to Durham to practice law. He was elected governor of the state in 1952 and died in office in 1954.

Umstead had a great love for Carolina. He served as president of the General Alumni Association in 1944 and 1945. He also served as a trustee of the University beginning in 1945.

Umstead married the former Merle Davis of Rutherford County in 1929.  Their daughter, Merle, earned her B.A. in 1964 from Duke University, her M.A. in 1966 from Columbia University and a J.D. in 1976 from Rutgers University. She is now an attorney in Durham, N.C.  She is married to Russell E. Richey, professor of church history in The Divinity School at Duke University. They have two children, William (B.A. ’93) and Elizabeth.

The William B. Umstead Distinguished Professor

William F. Brundage