Pre-1920: Black Laundresses in Davidson

 

Before the college laundry service was established in 1920, Davidson students patronized local Black women who ran laundry businesses out of their own homes. Laundry work remained one of the most common occupations in Davidson for Black women, after domestic work, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

According to the 1870 census of the town, forty-nine Black women worked as domestic servants, seven as farm workers, four as washerwomen, and three attended school. 

 

 

The number of Black and mixed race women in Davidson working as laundresses or washerwomen increased from four in 1870 to fifty in 1920, all of whom worked at home and earned “of their own accord” according to the 1920 Davidson town census.

 

This increase in laundry as an occupation for local women was likely due to the rising population of the town, which had jumped from 481 people in 1890 to 1,056 by 1910. This population boom, in addition to the growing student body at the college, drove demand for laundry services in Davidson. 

 

Laundresses in the 1920 Davidson Town Census.

From the 1920 Davidson Town Census, which shows laundresses working from their own home. The “OA” next to their occupation indicates that they earned of their own accord, rather than being paid in wages.  

 

In Mary Beaty’s Davidson: A History of the Town, she describes a connection developing between local laundresses and students through the laundry services these women provided, bridging the divide between the college and the local Black community.

 

Beaty, Mary. "A History of the Town from 1835 until 1837," 1979.  Briarpatch Press, Davidson, NC.  p. 140. 

“The college provided no laundry service until 1920; local Black women did the student’s laundry in their homes (creating a degree of acquaintance between these separate elements of the community which alumni from the period look back on with appreciation.)”

 

This growing connection between laundresses and students, growing either from simple necessity or truly based in appreciation as Beaty suggests, created tension at Davidson College as the administration reckoned with students’ dependance on Black entrepreneurship outside of college control.

 

College Reaction to Local Laundry Services

 

Several Black men from the town transported student laundry back and forth from the homes of laundresses to the students' dormitories. Although Davidson students hired these men to gather and transport their clothes, the delivery men’s necessary entrance onto campus was seen as an unwelcome intrusion by college authorities and was heavily policed, as evidenced by the reminiscence of William W. Carson.

 

William W. Carson, professor of mathematics at Davidson from 1877 to 1883, also served as Superintendent of Grounds. He took the position shortly after a new rule was passed by the faculty, barring the entrance of any Black person on campus without a permit to “stop some petty pilfering from the dormitories that had become a nuisance.” Below, he remembers rejecting a permit for a man transporting laundry to the dorms:

 

A handwritten page of a letter written by William Waller Carson in 1918

 

 

Carson, William Waller. Reminiscense Letter. 9 July 1918. DC0166s. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC. 

“It soon appeared that a negro of shady reputation who had recently acquired a horse and car was planning a huge monopoly in transportation. He had previously operated more or less successfully, possibly with a wheelbarrow, as the agent of several laundresses. But now he aspired to a wholesale business. So he came to me for a permit to enter the Campus for the weekly collection and return of the clothes. When this was refused he proceeded to argue the case with much more insistence but without success. At last in desperation he blasted out, “I tell you just how it is Mr. Carson. If you will let me go after that washing I will give you 25 cents.”  The above reference to a negro reminds me that we also had our troubles.” 

 

 

Introduction of the College Laundry

 

In 1920, Davidson College began its own laundry service, thus taking control of both the washing and delivering of students' clothes from the local businesses of Black laundresses and delivery men. The minutes of the January 19, 1919 faculty meeting acknowledge how the college’s decision to create their own laundry was influenced by the "high service prices" of independent laundresses. 

 

 

The laundry service was required for all students to use starting in the 1920-1921 school year. The price of the college laundry was two dollars per month, the same amount local laundresses had been charging for their work. The mandatory laundry service was announced in the 1919-1920 Davidson College Course Catalog linked below. 

 

 

Davidson College Bulletin, 1919-1920. Davidson: Davidson College Office of Communications. [1920].

 

 

Impact of the College Laundry on Local Laundresses

 

The impact of the college laundry on the business of local laundresses is demonstrated through the change in occupations listed on the 1920 to 1930 censuses. In this ten year period, the number of laundresses listed in Davidson dropped drastically from 49 to 21. Of these 21 laundresses, 16 were Black and mixed race women. Six of those women worked at the college laundry; Charleston Culp, Eliza McCain, Annie J. Torrence, Mary L. Clark and Patty Harris.

 

One of these women, Charleston Culp, was previously listed as a self-employed laundress in the 1920 census before joining the college laundry, thereby showing a link between the early employees of the college laundry and the previously independent Black laundresses of Davidson.

 

Since censuses can only provide a brief, impersonal snapshot of ten years at a time, the impact of the new college laundry on these women's buisnesses was likely deeper than simply comparing the two censuses can illustrate. 

 

Laundresses in the 1930 Davidson Town Census.

From the 1930 Davidson town census. Laundresses are listed as being from the college laundry, and the “W” indicates that they earned wages, rather than “O,” earning of their own accord. 

 

Lula Bell Houston

For more information on a selection of the many women who worked at the Davidson College laundry, navigate to the laundry staff page here

 

 

Lula Bell Houston was one of the most well-known and well-documented members of the laundry staff, working 57 years at the Davidson College laundry. She formed lasting connections with generations of Davidson students, faculty, and staff members through her open genorosity and friendly personality. 

 

Illustrating the exceptionally long run of Houston's time in the laundry and the wide reach of her service, below you will find an image from the 1957 Quips and Cranks yearbook of three students walking with their laundry baskets. At the center is John Kuykendall, future president of Davidson College from 1984 to 1997, as a college sophomore. When this picture was taken, Houston had been working at the college laundry for a decade. The next image you find is from the 1989 Quips and Cranks and shows President John Kuykendall greeting Lula Bell Houston and her young relative outside of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church. By 1989, Houston had been working at Davidson for 41 years, and she would continue to work in the laundry until her retirement in 2004. 

 

 

Early Years

 

Lula Bell Houston was born in 1923 and grew up in Cornelius, North Carolina. She lived in Cornelius her entire life, and fondly remembers the rural area in which she grew up as a place with gravel roads where "you could sleep with the windows open." She was raised by her mother Rosa Carr.  Carr worked at the Davidson College laundry, as well, and rasied Houston alongside her older brother. 

 

Around 1943, Houston started working in dining services at Davidson College. Here, she served food to soldiers training for World War II at the Davidson War College. After the closure of the war college Houston was transferred to the college laundry service, but she did not stay there for long.

 

Houston decided to venture out on her own and live in Washington D.C. She then moved to New York City to stay with her older brother, whom she had a close relationship with throughout her life. While away from Davidson, she worked domestically in homes in Washington D.C., as well as in pen and toy factories in New York.  Lula Bell Houston returned to North Carolina in 1948 and began working at the Davidson College laundry alongside her mother, Rosa Carr.

 

Life and Community at the Laundry

 

Houston is an important person in the broader history of the Davidson College laundry as she was the first Black staff member to work at the laundry check-in desk. Although she had already been working at the laundry for thirty years before assuming this role in the late 1970s, Houston, in her new front facing role, was then able to interact regularly with students as they dropped-off their clothes. Up to that point, that role had been limited to only White laundry employees.

 

In Houston's own words, she describes this transition from working in ironing to working at the check-in counter as well received by everyone in the laundry plant. (The excerpt below, along with others in this section, are from Lula Bell Houston's oral history collected in 2012 by Kelly Wilson at the Houston household.)

 

Houston, Lula Bell. "Interview with Lula Bell Houston," Interview by Houston, Kelly. 8 October 2012. Davidson Archives and Special Collections, Davidson College. 

Interviewer: Did you always feel this valued at Davidson? 'Cause it seems like people really enjoyed spending time with you and they got to know you really well. Was it that way since when you started working there, would you say? Or is that something that happened more in the later years?

 

Lula Bell Houston: Well, maybe it happened more in the later years because I got to [meet] more students. I got to be around them more, you know? Because, say, like the job when I was working on the flat iron with the sheets and things, I didn't get to meet as many students.

 

(...) [The front desk] wasn't up at the front. It was still at the back because they had to come back there to put their clothes in the dirty thing. And this job, didn't nobody have it but White [people].

 

Interviewer: Oh, really? Checking in clothes.

 

LBH: Didn't nobody have that job. I'm the first [Black person] that got that job. That meant a whole lot because the girl that was doing it, she knew that this other girl was retiring. She had been working a long time, and she told me. She said, 'Lula Bell, why don't you apply for the job?' I said, 'Oh, they not going to give it me.' She said, 'Oh, I bet they will.' She said, 'You apply for it. And I would rather for you to have it than anybody else.'

 

The interviewer asserts that as a Black woman, Lula Bell Houston began working in the laundry at a time when her presence on campus seemed to stand in opposition to Davidson's segregated, all-White, and all-male student body. Davidson College's first Black student was not welcomed until 1962, almost two decades into Lula Bell Houston's career. It would not be until 1972 that the first degree earning women came to campus. In her oral history, Houston describes finding community amongst the other Black staff members working at Davidson College. 

 

Interviewer: So what was it like being a female African American woman working in the college, in an environment where there weren't that many people like you?

 

LBH: Well that's all—I mean they had plenty Black folk working. That's how they got their work done—the Black folk did it! They did the work. They cleaned up the buildings and fixed the food—they did all the work. Cleaned the yards and that's how the work got done, the Black folk did it. 

 

Interviewer: Okay so then, among the Black folk, you knew most of them and you said it was like family?

 

LBH: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I knew everybody.

 

Lula Bell Houston had a life-long passion for singing, and at the Davidson College laundry she would form her own singing group with three other female laundry employees, called the Laundrettes. The Laundrettes were asked to sing at retirement dinners, and Houston was even asked if she and the group could perform at a faculty member's funeral service. Below, she describes the group's origins:

 

LBH: We would sing in the laundry. We'd start humming. And we could sing to the—we could really sing, and so they got us start singing. And then a lot of time when, after this, one of our girls died—well, two of the White girls started singing with us. And that made it good. Yeah, and they could sing too, we could sing. (...) There's one song, it was our theme song, we used to sing, "Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air." 

 

During her 57 years in the laundry services, Houston worked part time in various capacities across campus, including dusting the books of E.H. Little Library in the summer time and doing domestic work in the homes of faculty who sought out her services

 

It was while Lula Bell Houston was working across campus that she was able to cross paths with a wide range of students, many of whom remember Houston as someone who made them feel welcome at Davidson even as they were struggling to find their place.

 

Connections with Students

 

In this excerpt, Lula Bell Houston recounts how she supported students she met on campus, including taking them to church services with her family.  

 

LBH: I would go pick them up and take them to church with me. And they would sit with my mother, because I’d sing in the choir. One girl was just like my daughter. Then there was a boy, I carried him to church with me. He wanted to sit down and take notes—how things were going at my church. Then, there’s other students that I carried to church with me. And I loaned money, I would let them have money! Oh yes, I’ve done so much. I have, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I don’t regret any.

 

Below, Houston remembers a particularly impactful relationship she had with an exchange student from Nicaragua. He had difficulty connecting with others on campus, but could count on Lula Bell Houston to strike up a conversation when he went to drop-off his clothes. 

 

LBH: [At the check-in counter] that's when I really start really meeting students. Cause a lot of time they'd come back. I'd smile and speak to them and all that kind of stuff. So this special boy (...) he wrote me a letter. He said you don't know me, I'm a foreigner student. I'm from Nicaragua. He said you don't know me, but when I come in the laundry in the mornings, he said you always smile and speak to me. He said but you don't know what that means to me, I'm a student far away from home and sometime it gets rough with me. I can't hardly make it through the day, he say, but when I think about you and your smile, that takes me through the day. He said that ain't no bull, that's real. 

 

I was at the library then—a lot of time we'd go to the library when school was out, the work gets short at the laundry then we go to the library to finish our week out. And somebody come and told me that, and we start looking through the yearbook seeing if we could find him. But still I didn't know him, I couldn't find him. But just as soon as school opened back up and he came back, he came straight to me. We smiled and hugged. I said, “This is him!” And we hugged from that until he finished school. Oh, he’s the sweetest thing (...) And that boy, one year he didn’t get to something of mine, my birthday or something, and I was at the library. He sent me three dozen roses. And it took three of them from the laundry to bring it up to the library, and that was fun! [laughing] They brought the roses up there and put them all out on the table and everybody at the laundry—they crazy about me too at the library. That was so fun, and it was just wonderful.

 

Besides being a mother figure to many on campus, Lula Bell Houston had three children of her own. She also took up the role of full-time caregiver for her older brother when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. She would periodically take breaks from her laundry job during the day to return home and care for him in the six years before his passing.

 

Retirement and Later Life

 

Houston announced her retirement in 2001, before returning to work for three more years at the college laundry. Eventually, at the age of eighty in 2004, she decided to retire for good.

 

The honors given to Lula Bell Houston at her retirement included: 

 

 

In her oral history, Houston remembers receiving the Spirit of Davidson award from SAE fraternity:

 

LBH: Because I didn't live in Davidson, why was I the Spirit of Davidson? But to the boys, I was the Spirit of Davidson. Oh yeah, that trophy, and then that’s when they gave me a big celebration at one of those fraternity houses. That was something. When I went they were waiting on me to come, I could hardly find a parking place. And when they saw me coming, some of them met me with roses, a bouquet of roses, and rushed me on to the place and got up there. It was so many people up there, it was so nice. You know, and they said a lot of nice things about me; gave me the trophy and that I was the Spirit of Davidson and gave me a check for five hundred dollars—they said buy me a dress or something [laughing]. Now that was a big day of my life.

 

In this year, she received a significant amount of recognition from the Davidson community, including an honorary mention during a session of the House of Representatives by Davidson alumni, Congressman John M. Spratt, Jr.

 

“Extensions of Remarks: Honoring Lula Bell Houston.” Congressional Record 150 No. 68 (2004). p. E871. https://www.congress.gov/108/crec/2004/05/14/150/68/CREC-2004-05-14-pt1-PgE871-3.pdf. Accessed: August 17, 2023. 

"The biggest legacy that Ms. Houston leaves the college and the town of Davidson is her warm personality and loving nature. She was always ready with a hug and a smile to all who came to drop off their laundry. Student after student shared stories and memories about Ms. Houston and all spoke of the genuine love in her voice when she greets them and how she has been like a grandmother to them all. The college has figured that she has cared for the laundry of all but 1,226 of the college's 19,731 living alumni—a lot of surrogate grandchildren." 

 

Lula Bell Houston retired in Cornelius and according to a local news article, suffered financial hardship in her later years due to the limited retirement benefits offered to her by Davidson College. Her daughter, Peggy Rivens, describes Houston finding joy through singing in her later years in Rivens' 2016 oral history:

 

 

Rivens, Peggy. 5 November 2016. Shared Stories: African American in North Mecklenburg, Davidson College Archives and Special Collections. 

Peggy Rivens: I have one sister, two brothers. I feel like my mama and I are sisters, we've become sort of like sisters.

 

Interviewer: Really? That's wonderful.

 

PR: I'm her mama now. I have to take care of her, so I'm a mama now.

 

Interviewer: I definitely understand that.

 

PR: Yeah. She's been a backbone of the family. She really has. I'll see what it's going to be, I don't know. She just loved to work.

 

Interviewer: Do you feel like her work ethic was something that really was instilled in you?

 

PR: Yeah, exactly. 

 

Interviewer: And is that something that you've seen throughout your life?

 

PR: That's all I've seen. Mm-hmm. That's all, because now, it saddens me to see, I think she may be getting a little dementia now. And she can't see, that's the sad part. She doesn't see. But she loves singing, she loves to sing now.

 

Interviewer: Right. That's beautiful.

 

 

"Why I Retired in Cornelius," c. 2007. Houston, Lula Bell- Staff. Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC. 

 

 

2015-Now: The Legacy of the Davidson College Laundry

 

The laundry building was renamed in Lula Bell Houston's honor after her 2004 retirement and would remain "The Lula Bell Houston Laundry" until the closure of the Davidson College laundry service in 2015. 

 

Below, a 2009 flyer for the Lula Bell Houston Laundry describes the services of the laundry plant, as well as the dedication of the laundry after her retirement:

 

 

"Lula Bell Houston Laundry Brochure," c. 2009. R.G. 4-5-5. Laundry Services, Brochure. Davidson Archives, Davidson, NC.

 

In 2017, The Lula Bell Houston Resource Center was founded in the building of the former laundry plant. Lula Bell Houston was able to attend the dedication ceremony despite struggling with her health at this time. Here, she was able to meet Dr. Carol Quillen, the first female president of Davidson College. 

 

The Lula Bell Houston Resource Center, or "Lula Bell's,"  provides essential services to students and preserves the legacy of Houston and other members of the laundry staff who dedicated their working lives to cultivate community at Davidson College. 

 

 

“Lula Bell’s.” WildcatSync, Davidson College, wildcatsync.davidson.edu/organization/lula-bell-s. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023.

"The Lula Bell Houston Resource Center supports student success and wellbeing by increasing access to important resources. The center offers a variety of resources including food and hygiene items, interview clothing, winter clothing, cooking equipment, and academic resources. Programming in the space focuses on life skills for all students with topics ranging from financial literacy to social justice topics. Lula Bell’s is designed to feel like a home where everyone is welcome."

 

 

The Lula Bell Houston Resource Center 

The Lula Bell Houston Resource Center was funded in part by a generous donation from the family of Tom Anstrom, a 2004 Davidson alum who sadly passed away from a heart condition. The Anstroms believed in Lula Bell's Resource Center as a way of not only supporting students in meeting their basic needs, but also creating a sense of campus community just as Lula Bell and other members of the laundry staff made generations of students feel welcome at Davidson.  

 

 

Strickland , Danielle. “Resource, Gathering Place and Community Inspiration: Welcome to Lula Bell’s .” Davidson News , Davidson College , 17 Oct. 2017, www.davidson.edu/news/2017/10/17/resource-gathering-place-community-inspiration-welcome-lula-bells.

 

"Lula Bell's really captures Tom's values, and that's why we were so privileged to help," Decker Anstrom said. "Somewhere up in this big universe, we know that Tom has that big, warm, generous smile of his because of what's happening. We miss that smile, and we miss him, but we're very happy about what Davidson has made possible."

 

Lula Bell Houston's daughter, Peggy Rivens, spoke on her mother's behalf at the dedication ceremony: 

 

I wish she was able to see everything and everyone... But we have explained it all to her. She is happy, and we are, too.

 

 

Bibliography: 

 

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