Remembering Davidson Icon Lula Bell Houston 20 Years After Her Retirement

Hi everyone – Ellen Huggins, JEC Archives Fellow, here with another blog post for you! While we’ve been working on the “Women of Davidson” website, one of the names that kept coming up again and again in students’ recollections of their time at Davidson was Lula Bell Houston. She worked in the college laundry service for 57 years (!) and made countless connections with generations of Davidson students, alums, faculty and staff. Although she retired all the way back in 2004, her influence can still be felt on campus through the Lula Bell Houston Resource Center. 

In celebration of her retirement almost 20 years ago, we’re revisiting the life and legacy of Lula Bell Houston. If you’re interested in reading more of Lula Bell’s story in her own words, we encourage you to access the full transcript of her 2012 oral history, here.

Fun fact: April 29, 2004 was officially declared “Lula Bell Houston Day” by the town of Davidson! This is mentioned in the Congressional record of May 2004, when Davidson alum Senator John M. Spratt gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives honoring Lula Bell Houston.

From the 1990 Quips and Cranks Yearbook.

Lula Bell Houston was born in Cornelius, North Carolina, in 1923. She was raised by a single mother along with her older brother, with whom she shared a close relationship throughout her life. Her mother, Rosa Carr, was an early employee of the Davidson College Laundry. In 1943, she began her career at Davidson College in dining services, serving meals to soldiers at Davidson during World War II, before she moved on to working at the college laundry a year later. Following a short time at the laundry, she decided to leave her hometown and go on to new adventures. Lula Bell traveled to Washington D.C and New York City, meeting plenty of new people and working a variety of jobs (including at a pen factory and a toy factory!) before she decided to return to Davidson in 1948. Here, she took up a job ironing at the Davidson College Laundry alongside her mother.

For more than twenty years of her time at the laundry, Lula Bell did the behind-the-scenes work of taking care of student’s clothes. This changed in the late 1970’s, as Lula Bell took up the role of manning the laundry check-in desk. According to Lula Bell, she was the first Black staff member to have the job, which allowed her to regularly interact with students. Arguably, this was when Lula Bell’s reputation at Davidson truly got the chance to shine; students through the years remember noticing her friendly smile when they walked in the Laundry door, leading many to strike up conversations with Lula Bell as they dropped off their clothes. In her oral history from 2012, Lula Bell speaks fondly of one student in particular, a foreign exchange student from Nicaragua who wrote her a heartfelt letter about how speaking to Lula Bell at the laundry check-in made him feel less isolated at Davidson. 

When she retired in 2004, Lula Bell was awarded with a variety of honors from student groups at Davidson, including the “Spirit of Davidson” award from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Lula Bell, a lifelong Cornelius resident, jokingly responded in her oral history, “I didn’t live in Davidson, so why was I the Spirit of Davidson? But to the boys, I was the Spirit of Davidson. [laughing]”

“Changed College Says Warm Goodbye.” Charlotte Observer, 2004. From the Maggie Smith scrapbook, Davidson College Archives and Special Collections.

Along with her connections with students, Lula Bell also reminiscences in her oral history about the tight knit community of laundry staff at Davidson. She and several other staff members would form a singing group called “The Laundrettes,” inspired by the group humming in harmony during the work day. The Laundrettes sang at Davidson College events, and Lula Bell even remembered being requested by a faculty member to sing at his funeral once he passed. Singing was a lifelong passion of Lula Bell’s. After her retirement, Lula Bell would continue to sing at her home church even during the health struggles of her later years, according to her daughter, Peggy Rivens. (You can read Peggy Riven’s oral history here.)

After her retirement, the laundry was renamed “The Lula Bell Houston Laundry” in Lula Bell’s honor. The college laundry service closed in 2015, but two years later the building would reopen as The Lula Bell Houston Resource Center. The resource center was funded in part by a generous donation from the family of Tom Anstrom, a Davidson alum from the Class of ’04 that passed from a heart condition in 2015. Lula Bell attended the dedication ceremony and met Carol Quillen, the first female president of Davidson College.

President Carol Quillen and Lula Bell Houston at the Dedication of the Lula Bell Houston Resource Center. Davidson News, 2017.

Today, Lula Bell’s (as it’s called by Davidson students) provides important resources such as easily accessible food, professional clothing for interviews, and programming like communal trips to the grocery store for students. The center describes its mission to carry on Lula Bell Houston’s legacy:

“Lula Bell Houston, a name associated with making others feel valued and loved, will once again be attached to a space that makes a lasting difference in the lives of students. Her legacy will live on in Lula Bell’s, an on-campus resource center that aims to prepare students for success at and after Davidson.”

Mural painted by Davidson College Students at The Lula Bell Houston Resource Center, 2023. (Photo by Ellen.)

If you’d like to learn more about the Davidson College Laundry, its origins and the women who worked there, you can come see the in-person “Women of the Davidson College Laundry” exhibit at the E.H. Little Library! Or, visit the “Laundry History” and “Laundry Staff” pages of the Women of Davidson College website. 

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