The Importance of Our Laundry Staff
Though the college laundry service remains an iconic piece of Davidson history, the women who worked there for decades are often forgotten as important contributors to this story.
Nowhere is this gap in information more apparent than in the college archives, themselves. While our initial intention was to create a webpage with fully fledged profiles of women who worked in the Laundry, we found that there was not enough in our records alone to wholly capture the lives of these important women.
By compiling and presenting the information we have access to through the archives, gaps and all, we aim to offer a small glimpse of some of the women who made the Davidson College laundry a decades-long instituion, the legacy of which can still be found on campus today. We hope this material inspires further research about the stories of the staff of the college laundry.
Some of the archival sources we used to find information on the laundry staff women were:
Names of laundry staff from Presidential Commencement speeches.
Individual and group photographs from the "Staff" section of the Quips and Cranks yearbook.
Interviews collected for various oral history projects, including the "Shared Stories" collection.
The list of laundry staff below is from the special program for the 1988 Sesquicentennial Closing Convocation Celebration for the 150th anniversary of Davidson College. Listed are the names of then-current laundry staff, along with symbols denoting years of service over twenty years. One of the staff members listed is Harry L. Johnson who worked at the college laundry for over 50 years. He and his brother, Walter Johnson, were two of the longest employees of the college laundry.
Reverend Brenda Tapia, the first female chaplain of Davidson College, speaks about being a neighbor of Walter Johnson in her oral history. Reverend Tapia also speaks to how local black community members were employed by the college.
Tapia, Brenda. "Interview with Brenda Tapia." Interview by Fox, Clarence. 5 January 2017. Davidson College Archives and Special Collections.
Brenda Tapia: My aunts and uncles were my first playmates because the street that we lived on, there was only one other black family on it at the time and they lived to the right of my grandparents. Esther and Walter Johnson. Esther was a librarian at the Torrence-Lytle High School. Walter and his brother, Harry, both worked at Davidson College in the laundry and over their lifetime, together, accumulated, I think, 150 years of employment because they started very young working at the college, because the college was the source of employment for many, almost all, of the black people in this area at some point in time if not their whole working life.
List of Laundry Staff, 1988
"Laundry Staff from Davidson College Sesquicentennial Closing Convocation," 29 January 1988. Sesquicentennial Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Pictures from the Quips and Cranks Yearbook
Through comparing the unlabelled archival images below against yearbook images from the staff section of the 1990 Quips and Cranks above, we can identify the staff women in the photographs as being Hazeline Knox and Dianne Forney.
Interviews with Women of the Davidson College Laundry
Excerpts from the oral history interviews below offer a glimpse into the experiences of female staff of the college laundry, as well as their lives outside of their work.
A common theme across these testimonials is the importance of childcare at the Davidson College laundry, as many of the women who worked there would bring their children to work with them.
Mary Archie speaks about her long tenure at the laundry and bringing her young daughter to work with her:
Archie, Mary. "Interview with Mary Archie." Interview by Moody, Lara. 27 February 2007. Davidson College Archives and Special Collections.
Mary Archie: “I turned around and worked 47 years over there, over at Davidson College, forty seven years. I did a little bit of everything in laundry. Oh I loved it! But they tell me it is so much different now. Different bosses, different supervisors. We had good supervisors, we did about anything we wanted to over there. My baby daughter, the one that died last year, I carried her to work with me. Under my table I carried a quilt and a pillow, when she got sleepy she’d lie down and take her a nap.”
Lula Bell Houston
Lula Bell Houston speaks about bringing her children to the laundry, where they would play with the children of other staff members:
Houston, Lula Bell. "Interview with Lula Bell Houston," Interview by Houston, Kelly. 8 October 2012. Davidson Archives and Special Collections, Davidson College.
Lula Bell Houston: "Mr. Stacks, one of my bossmen, he would bring his kid to the laundry. Oh yes, things changed, but it was just like a big family once upon a time. Everybody was so lovely and your family, you could bring—As I said, you could bring your kids there. But that was dangerous, though, you know?... 'Cause they could get burnt on some of those hot irons or something.
I remember one afternoon we were ready to go home, and I couldn't find my little boy. Now, I had more children by working there. I had three more. I looked for my boy, I couldn't find him, and Mr. Stacks, our boss man, was looking for his little girl. They was out on the ball field, playing ball."
Lula Bell Houston's daughter Peggy Rivens, who briefly worked at Davidson College as an adult, remembers her time spent at the laundry plant as a child with her mother and grandmother:
Rivens, Peggy. "Interview with Peggy Rivens." 5 November 2016. Shared Stories: African American in North Mecklenburg, Davidson College Archives and Special Collections.
Peggy Rivens: "They [her mother and grandmother] both worked in the laundry. And I used to go to the laundry— they'd keep in the laundry, fold me up in the clothes baskets. I remember that when I was just a little girl, you know, because that's where they were babysitting me, at the laundry. And my grandmother worked there until she retired. And, of course, my mama [...] used to work there until she retired, after 57 years, and went back to work the next day and worked another three years."
- Archie, Mary. "Interview with Mary Archie." Interview by Moody, Lara. 27 February 2007. Davidson College Archives and Special Collections.
- Houston, Lula Bell. "Interview with Lula Bell Houston," Interview by Houston, Kelly. 8 October 2012. Davidson Archives and Special Collections, Davidson College.
- "Laundry Staff from Davidson College Sesquicentennial Closing Convocation," 29 January 1988. Sesquicentennial Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
- Rivens, Peggy. "Interview with Peggy Rivens." 5 November 2016. Shared Stories: African American in North Mecklenburg, Davidson College Archives and Special Collections.
- Photograph of Hazeline Knox, Photograph Collection. 5-0028b. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
- Photograph of Dianne Forney, Photograph Collection, 1985.19-1125a. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
- Photograph of Laundry Staff, Photograph Collection, 1986. 5-0029a. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
- Tapia, Brenda. "Interview with Brenda Tapia." Interview by Fox, Clarence. 5 January 2017. Davidson College Archives and Special Collections.