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race relations

Early Davidson and a few intricate Familial Connections

Hello everyone! Andrés Paz ‘21, current JEC Fellow here. As the days get colder and we switch our attires to warmer ones, I figured it would not be a bad idea to talk about some of the early days of Davidson. Why not grab a warm drink and let me tell you a bit about how it looks to research about Davidson as part of the Archives, Special Collections and Community team? 

Before anything, it is relevant to say that some of the sources I touch upon depict racist, discriminatory, or violent language and/or actions. This content can be distressing. It is also helpful to acknowledge that the life of individuals and communities in the past was as complex as we can feel ours to be now. For this reason, much of what I share will be incomplete, but hopefully encourages at least someone to keep reflecting on the meaning of living, working, studying, and just being around Davidson.

As we become increasingly interested in certain aspects of Davidson’s past, figuring out how to present a somewhat complete narrative of anything tends to be a hard task, particularly because official records and archives can, in subtle and overt ways, silence the lives and actions of certain groups: enslaved people, women, and children are important examples. As we grapple with such circumstances, it is too easy to write yet another narrative about powerful, influential white men. More important, however, is simply to abstain from grandiose stories of great men who had virtually no flaws. As I just said, we know life is more complex than that!

So, how can it look to do research about Davidson as part of the ASCC team? Let me answer that by (re)telling fragments of a story, which is perhaps more a compendium of facts and half-facts difficult to corroborate that can begin in many places… in the same way that your own research about a person, place, or event could do! 

In its early days, Davidson College opened its doors to young men that came mostly from North and South Carolina. Many of them, as in the case of Dr. James Hiram Houston, Jr. (class of 1845), often came from nearby plantations and the prominent families that ran them.  Only one mile north of campus, Houston came from Capt. James Houston’s “Mt. Mourne.” The Houston house (today known as the George Houston House) is also close to Rufus Reid’s own “Mt. Mourne Plantation” and George W. Stinson’s (Davidson trustee 1842-47) “Woodlawn.” These three 19th century buildings are all in the National Register of Historic Places.* Incidentally, they are also located in an area that was once the land-grant property of Alexander Osborne and later his son Adlai Osborne, an area or plantation that was known as “Belmont.” 

“George Houston House” – Preservation North Carolina Historic Architecture Slide Collection, 1965-2005 (PNC slides), Preservation North Carolina

According to the 1800 Iredell Tax List, “Bellmont” was then valued at $1,800, the Houston’s place at $700, and Ephraim Davidson’s at $550. These were the highest valued properties in lower Iredell. Many decades later, the 1860 Iredell County Slave Schedule still recorded these families among the most prominent slaveholders: Isabella Reid (Rufus Reid’s widow) registered the possession of 62 enslaved persons; James Smith Byers (George W. Stinson’s twice father-in-law) registered 54; George W. Stinson himself reportedly had 43 enslaved people at “Woodlawn”; George F. Davidson (Ephraim Davidson’s son, and you guessed correctly: also J. H. Houston’s guardian while a student at Davidson College) registered 50; William Lee Davidson II also appeared in the records with 26. 

J. H. Houston’s familial connections did not only grant him much economic and social power in the area, but were in fact, fundamental to the history of Davidson College in one way or another.  He was part of Davidson’s Board of Trustees from 1850 to 1856. Observing important sessions as secretary to the board, his name appears, for example, in the minutes of meetings held to accept and manage Maxwell Chamber’s donations to the College. His mother was Sarah Davidson Kerr, whose second husband (they married in 1850) happened to be her cousin William Lee Davidson II, a Davidson trustee from 1836 to 1853. According to the Presbytery Minutes, he sold the initial 469 acres for $1,521 to the institution that would bear his father’s name. Additionally, you might find it interesting that this sale consisted of two tracts, a 269 acre tract referred to as the “Jetton” tract, and a 200 acre tract known as the “Kerr” or “Lynn” tract. Before belonging to W. L. Davidson II, the latter piece of land was in the hands of Alfred D. Kerr, Houston’s uncle. 

Both W. L. Davidson II and A. D. Kerr appear prominently as “grantors” and “grantees” in the Iredell County “Slave Deeds,” which are property deeds such as bills of sale, deeds of trust, divisions of property that are registered with county courts and that contain information about enslaved individuals (see: People Not Property project).  In 1847, for instance, 5 adults named Jim, Mary, John, Amelia, and Caroline, as well as an unnamed child, were bought for $2,375 by W. L. Davidson II, A. D. Kerr, and George F. Davidson (who was also a UNC trustee 1838-1868).[i] In comparison to the great majority of other records, this one stands out for the relatively high amount it represented and the fact that there were 3 different grantees. Could the amount be a hint of the types of skills these 6 people had or the work they would be forced to do? It is also possible that they travelled with W. L. Davidson and Sarah Kerr when they moved to Alabama before 1850. 

Iredell County, North Carolina Register of Deeds – Book X, p. 463.

In 1826, when J. H. Houston’s father died, and with A. D. Kerr as executor, 8 children with the names of Sarah, Betty, Lucy, Phebe, Simon, Debby, Bill, and Molly were all granted to W. L. Davidson II for $10.[ii] Similarly, in 1835, Dick, Mary, Jackson, Jane, Isaac and Ibby, appear in the records as a gift from Alfred Kerr to his sister Sarah and George F. Davidson.[iii] These records tell us almost nothing but the names of these children, who surely had descendants of their own.

Despite the fact that our little fragmented story begins with Dr. J. H. Houston Jr., he fails to be the center of it. On the other hand, what appears to be central from this are the questions it raises about the connections between groups such as early trustees, students, nearby plantations, and the communities within and near Davidson. How was the geography of what we know as “Davidson” different? What type of connections did it foster?  Who was able to attend Davidson and in what capacity? Why was it overwhelmingly supported by wealthy slave owners? As our interest and knowledge about the early days of Davidson College increases, maybe similar questions can continue to be our best guide. 

Notes and References:

[i] Iredell County, North Carolina, Deed Book X: 463.
[ii] Iredell County, North Carolina, Deed Book M: 314.
[iii] Iredell County, North Carolina, Deed Book R: 150.

*Many thanks to Andy Poore of Mooresville Public Library for access to relevant documents and his extensive knowledge of the area.

More resources:

Guest Blogger: Dr. Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire Visiting Assistant Professor, Anthropology “Historical Archaeology and the Enslaved of Beaver Dam”

This is the first of five posts from Dr. Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire’s Ethical Archaeological Research seminar (ANT-380) summarizing the results of their preliminary work on the Beaver Dam Plantation in Davidson, North Carolina.

The role of archaeology is to study societies of the past by examining their material record and the landscapes they inhabited. Historical archaeology juxtaposes the written record to these evidences to gain an even richer understanding of past societies. This written record may come from archives or can literally be found on the artifacts found during excavations. In this, historical archaeology has two incredible advantages as a social science: (1) it offers a rich type of evidence that is unavailable to non-historical archaeology and (2) offers a vast amount of material culture while paying attention to landscapes in ways that are typically evacuated from strict historical lenses. Historical archaeology can thus fill-in the many blind spots of the historical record, which tends to be written by the powerful or literary elite of the past; in this, historical archaeology can be framed as “anti-history” (Lee-Dawdy 2016). In other words, this anti-historical power can shine a light on past realities which were either erased or muted by history; those of past people suffering from intersectional inequities.

For decades, historical archaeologists have documented the lives of people whose stories were muted. This approach has had great success in studying the socioeconomic context, personal practices, challenges, and violence which characterized the lives of the people who were enslaved by plantation owners in the USA and beyond. More recently, historical archaeologists have also studied the realities of the post-emancipation life of African American households (Franklin et al. 2020). This broad research field is known as African Diaspora Archaeology and is spearheaded by members of the Society of Black Archaeologists, who are actively encouraging accomplices to contribute in steering the discipline towards an antiracist future (Flewellen et al. 2021).

A view of the Beaver Dam Plantation house from the hypothesized location of the historical cemetery used by the enslaved (photo by the author).

In this series of blog posts, my four students – Mandy Muise, Paul Mullinax, Isabel Nowak, and Sara Wilson – from the Ethical Archaeological Research seminar (ANT-380) and I summarize the results of our preliminary work on the Beaver Dam Plantation. This past semester, we studied the archival record, the landscape, and the potential for a community-engaged archaeology project at the site. The remaining estate is a small park – located at 19600 Davidson-Concord Rd – owned by Davidson College and currently leased to the Town of Davidson. Our work has identified important features of this landmark which have been effectively muted from its history and contemporary landscape: namely, the probable locations for the homes and cemetery of the enslaved who lived and labored on these grounds in the 19th century. This project has antiracist roots and goals: it aims to redress history through a historical archaeological program to give back the voices to those who’ve been muted by history.

The design of this project was influenced by experienced historical and community-engaged archaeologists and by the rich and recent literature on the Archaeology of African Diaspora and Community Engaged Archaeology (Agbe-Davies 2017; Atalay 2012; Battle-Baptiste 2017; Colwell 2016; Dunnavant 2014; Engmann 2019; Flewellen 2017; Flewellen et al. 2021; Franklin 2019; Franklin et al. 2020; Fryer 2020; Joseph 2016; Kawelu 2014; McAnany 2020; McDavid 2007; Odewale 2019; Ogundiran and Falola 2007; Reeves 2004; Shackel 2013; White 2016, 2017).

We, the five members of this project, are white. We’ve strived to use our various privileges to position ourselves so that we may launch a small, ethically-grounded project seeking to collaborate with the local Davidson community to identify and achieve antiracist goals. In fact, any future research as part of our project will be developed in collaboration with members of the Davidson Community. The powerful lenses of historical archaeology and our preliminary findings give us confidence that this project could transform Beaver Dam into a place of positive historical awareness that would benefit the broader community.

Funding for this project was provided by Davidson College’s Stories (Yet) to be Told program.


Agbe-Davies, Anna

2017    Where Tradition and Pragmatism Meet: African Diaspora Archaeology at the Crossroads. Historical Archaeology 51:9-27.

Atalay, Sonya

2012    Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Battle-Baptiste, Whitney

2017    Cruise Ships, Community, and Collective Memory at Millars Plantation, Eleuthera, Bahamas. Historical Archaeology 51(1):60–70.

Colwell, Chip

2016    Collaborative Archaeologies and Descendant Communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 45:113–27.

Dunnavant, Justin

2014    Rehistoricizing African Archaeology through the Archives: The Intellectual Life of William Leo Hansberry. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 29(2):34-49.

Engmann, Rachael A. A.

2019    “Archaeo, That Useless Subject”: Excavating the Past through Autoarchaeology and Community Outreach Education. Ghana Studies 22:173-190

Flewellen, Ayana Omilade

2017    Locating Marginalized Historical Narratives at Kingsley Plantation. Historical Archaeology 51(1):71–87.

Flewellen, Ayana Omilade, Justin P. Dunnavant, Alicia Odewale, Alexandra Jones,

Tsione Wolde-Michael, Zoë Crossland, and Maria Franklin

2021    “The Future of Archaeology Is Antiracist”: Archaeology in the Time of Black

Lives Matter. American Antiquity 1-20 .Online Article.

Franklin, Maria

2019   Enslaved Household Variability and Plantation Life and Labor in Colonial Virginia. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 24:115-155.

Franklin, Maria, Justin P. Dunnavant, Ayana Omilade Flewellen, and Alicia Odewale

2020    The Future is Now: Archaeology and the Eradication of Anti-Blackness. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 24(4):753–766.

Fryer, Tiffany C.

2020    Reflecting on Positionality: Archaeological Heritage Praxis in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 31(1):26–40.

Joseph, J. W.

2016    Marks from the Past, Signs of the Future—the Dikenga of Historical Archaeology. Historical Archaeology 50(3):5–23.

Kawelu, Kathleen

2014    In Their Own Voices: Contemporary Native Hawaiian and Archaeological Narratives about Hawaiian Archaeology. The Contemporary Pacific 26(1):31–62.

Lee Dawdy, Shannon

2015    Anti-History. In Social Theory in Archaeology and Ancient History: The Present and Future of Counternarratives, edited by Geoff Emberling, pp. 328-342. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

McAnany, Patricia

2020   Imagining a Maya Archaeology That Is Anthropological and Attuned to Indigenous   Cultural Heritage. Heritage 3:1-11.

McDavid, Carol

2007   Beyond Strategy and Good Intentions: Archaeology, Race, and White Privilege. In An  

Archaeology of Civic Engagement and Social Justice, edited by Barbara Little and PaulShackel, pp. 67-88. AltaMira Press, Lanham.

Odewale, Alicia

2019    An Archaeology of Struggle: Material Remnants of a Double Consciousness in the

American South and Danish Caribbean Communities. Transforming Anthropology 27(2):114–132.

Ogundiran, Akinwumi, and Toyin Falola

2007    Pathways in the archaeology of transatlantic Africa. In Archaeology of Atlantic Africa and the African diaspora, edited by Ogundiran Akinwumi and Toyin Falola, pp. 3-45. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Reeves, Matthew B.

2004    Asking the Right Questions: Archaeologists and Descendant Communities. In Places in

Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology, edited by Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, pp. 71–81. Routledge, London.

Shackel, Paul

2013    Working with the Difficult Past: Examples from the University of Maryland. Annals of Anthropological Practice 37(1):57-71

White, William A. III

2016   Creating Space for a Place: The River Street Archaeology Project. Arizona Anthropologist 27:69-82.

2017    Writ on the Landscape: Racialization, Whiteness, and River Street. Historical Archaeology 51(1):131–148.

Justice, Equality, Community Project Archivist: A 3 Year Retrospective

I was hired as the Justice, Equality, Community (JEC) Project Archivist as part of the campus-wide Justice, Equality, Community (JEC) grant initiative at Davidson College in August 2017. The 3.5 year JEC grant aimed to “reimagine humanities curricula through the lens of three ideas that cut across cultures, time, and disciplines: justice, equality, and community…to demonstrate the critical role of humanistic inquiry in public discourse, global problem-solving, engaged citizenship, and democratic leadership.”

To accomplish these lofty goals, the initiative included funding for research partnerships between faculty and students, a series of practitioner-in-residences, community-minded experiential learning projects, and archival collecting and digitization efforts centered on questions about race and religion in the greater-Davidson area. As the JEC Project Archivist, I was responsible for the following tasks in support of the grant’s archival component:

  • Identifying and digitizing JEC collections.
  • Integrating JEC materials into at least 5 new courses.
  • Expanding archival collections related to JEC.
  • Leading public programming about JEC materials, both on campus and in the larger community.
cover the coeducation edition of the davidson journal
Recently digitized special edition of the Davidson Journal celebrating 25 years of coeducation.

Let’s take a look at how we faired with these four goals and the work that remains. In the last three years, we have digitized:

Davidson College Magazine October 1908 page 50 of Volume 25 1908-1909. Quotes include "a store building is being built on Main street, and there is also a new meat market with cold-storage facilities."
Davidson College Magazine October 1908, page 50.

We incorporated these digitized materials into at least two dozen course sessions, outreach programs like “An Evening with…” and multiple presentations to local historical societies. The collections were also used to support some of the research efforts of the Davidson College Commission on Race and Slavery. We then used the student work collections as examples when speaking to student activists and leaders about the importance of saving their records and establishing dialogues to help us learn how to more equitably and respectfully do that work through the JEC Student and Alumni Advisory Council.

Front page of the January 26, 1996 Black Student Coalition newsletter, "The Rainbow Revue."
Front page of the January 26, 1996 Black Student Coalition newsletter, “The Rainbow Revue.”

These class sessions and outreach initiatives led to several multi-year course collaborations that resulted in donations to the archives in some cases and high-profile projects in others. For example, the hard work of Dr. Jane Mangan’s HIS 259: Latinos in the United States course resulted in nearly two dozen oral history interviews documenting the Latinx experience of Davidson (now viewable, here). Another oft cited project is Disorienting Davidson, a multi-year student-led project that informed the senior thesis work of H.D. Mellin ’20.  Mellin utilized many of the collections later made digitally available by JEC grant funds over the course of several semesters for this groundbreaking student project. Their work also helped archivists identify highly sought-after collections that informed the digitization selection process.

While collaborations within the department and across teams have led to significant strides in terms of access to archival collections and course collaborations, much work remains in terms of community outreach and collections development around the issues of justice, equality, and community. In recognition of that need, the Justice, Equality, Community Archivist position was made permanent at Davidson College in March 2021.

To access the digitized collections mentioned in this blog post, please email archives@davidson.edu.

Related Posts:

Guest Blogger: Carlina Green, “Not Included in the Photograph”: Staff Underrepresentation in the Archives and How We Must Combat It (Part Two)

This is the second part of a two-part post by Carlina Green ‘20.

You see, the Archives cannot preserve sources that are never created. And when sources are not preserved in the Archives, their subjects can be underrepresented in narratives that draw on those sources or left out of such narratives entirely.

The staff of the Archives are committed to combating these historical silences, and they work to uncover and preserve the stories of populations underrepresented in the collections they administer.[1] This includes the stories of Davidson employees. Two examples of their exemplary work profiling 19th– and 20th-century staff include Niara Webb’s blog post on “Dean of Janitors” Mr. Enoch Donaldson and Hannah Foltz’s post on Davidson’s security officer “Cop” Ed Linker. Drawing on both archival materials and public records, Webb and Foltz try to piece together portraits of these historical actors about whom little has been preserved.

A photo of Enoch Donaldson standing in front of a building.
Photograph of Mr. Enoch Donaldson.

However, as Cottle mentioned, the content of posts dedicated to these past staff is limited to their work experiences, as that is the main focus of preserved, available sources. Furthermore, the Archives face a paucity of sources about the lives of current Davidson employees.[2]

One solution? Creating more of these sources by collaborating with staff who want to share their stories.[3] Students, consider interviewing interested college staff for your theses, capstone projects, or summer research. Faculty, please integrate staff history projects into your courses and into your own research. And compensate staff for their interview time; take advantage of research grants available for faculty, for students, and for faculty-student collaborations.

A portion of the College’s Statement of Purpose reads, “Davidson holds a priceless heritage bequeathed by those who have dedicated their lives and their possessions for its welfare.”[4] Part of honoring staff, who dedicate so much to this campus and its students, is valuing their life stories and memories. [5] They who offer so much to the College must be preserved in its history. So, let’s fight the silences; let’s create the sources that preserve their words and their legacies.

[1] One place this commitment is visible is in their documentary Always Part of the Fabric.

[2] Two examples of sources about current staff they receive consistently are speeches delivered on Employee Appreciation Day and winner lists for annual grants and awards like the Spirit of Davidson.

[3] For those concerned about protecting staff identities, remember that interviews donated to the archives can remain closed for a period of time (such as 50 years), or they can be anonymous.

[4] Some were forced to dedicate their lives to Davidson’s welfare, such as Susan, a young girl enslaved by former College President Rev. Drury Lacy.

[5] Today, many may choose to work at Davidson, but have little choice but to work long hours at salaries a few dollars above minimum wage to support their families.

Guest Blogger: Tracey Hagan on “The Ladies Missionary Society of Davidson College Presbyterian Church”

In Fall 2019, Archives, Special Collections, & Community (ASCC) had the privilege of working with Dr. Rose Stremlau’s “HIS 306: Women and Gender in U.S. History to 1870” course. Over the course of a semester, students researched the history of women and gender in the greater Davidson, North Carolina area using materials in the Davidson College Archives and other local organizations. The following series of blog posts highlights aspects of their research process.

Written by Tracey Hagan, a student-athlete senior psychology major from Ridgefield, CT. Student in History 306: Women and Gender in US History from to 1870.  

Davidson College Presbyterian Church (DCPC) began as a small congregation of six women, two male elders, Robert Hall Morrison as the leader, and fifteen Davidson students in 1837.1 As the Church grew, it became more than just a place for worship. The Church developed into a social institution for its members, specifically for the women of the church.  

The Ladies Missionary Society Constitution was created in 1885. In its first year, Mrs. Dupuy was nominated president, Mrs. Knox was vice president, and Mrs. Vinson was secretary. The constitution contains a preamble and twelve articles. The articles provide the details about what was to happen at each meeting of the society. According to the constitution, they were to meet at a minimum on a monthly basis to discuss selected articles about other missionary works in America, Asia, and Europe or Africa. Generally, the meetings consisted of attendance, reading, singing, general business discussion, and the president’s appointment of the readers for the next meeting.  

First page of the constitution of the Ladies Benevolent Society of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, 1885. Establishes the name and officer positions of the society.
First page of the constitution of the Ladies Benevolent Society of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, 1885.

This three-page constitution alone shows that the white women of Davidson in 1885 had a much more hands on role in DCPC than what was expected from the Presbyterian Church norms of that era. Women’s roles in the Presbyterian Church in general were limited to leading Sunday schools, attracting new members, running women’s prayer meetings and church organizations, furnishing the church and raising her own family.2 Women were not to be active members in the church, or hold any leadership positions.3 Despite the General Assembly’s restrictions on women’s roles within the church, the Davidson women formed this society.  

They wrote the constitution and ran this entire group on their own. In this way, this society gave them a position of power outside of the traditional roles and domestic sphere to which the Church and societal traditions confined them. The society also served as a form of group education. The members were essentially given homework assignments to learn about other missionary works across the country, and across continents. In this way, this society served to empower its members. It is important to note that not all the women of the town were members. As outlined article 8 in the constitution, members were strongly encouraged to give monthly donations to the society. This monetary element of the society may have made it so only affluent white women in Davidson could be members. While this society certainly gave white women in Davidson some more power in their lives, it did not extend this opportunity to all the women of the town.  

Works Cited:

[1] Beaty, Mary D. A History of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church . Davidson College Presbyterian Church, n.d.

[2] Boyd, Lois A. “Presbyterian Ministers’ Wives—A Nineteenth-Century Portrait.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 59, no. 1 (1981): 3-17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23328155.

[3] Brackenridge, R. Douglas, and Lois A. Boyd. “United Presbyterian Policy on Women and the Church—an Historical Overview.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 59, no. 3 (1981): 383-407. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23328186.

Guest Blogger: Michael McClelland on “Slavery was Present at Davidson”

In Fall 2019, Archives, Special Collections, & Community (ASCC) had the privilege of working with Dr. Rose Stremlau’s “HIS 306: Women and Gender in U.S. History to 1870” course. Over the course of a semester, students researched the history of women and gender in the greater Davidson, North Carolina area using materials in the Davidson College Archives and other local organizations. The following series of blog posts highlights aspects of their research process.

Michael is a history major at Davidson College who is taking a class entitled Women & Gender in US to 1870. He has taken an interest in slavery in the region especially with how enslaved women experienced the institution.

As much as we may want to deny it, the institution of slavery existed here at Davidson and the surrounding areas. North Carolina sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War, so it should not be the biggest surprise that slavery existed in the area. While the college itself did not own slaves, many plantations in the immediate area, as well as college presidents and trustees, owned slaves.  

In digging through the archives here at Davidson College, I stumbled across a rather interesting document from the Brevard Plantation which was only a few miles from the college. A man named Franklin Brevard McDowell, a local plantation owner, wrote a biography of some of his slaves which was unique. After reading through his biographies, an enslaved woman named Cynthia stood out to me more than anyone else because McDowell referred to her as his ‘nurse’ when he was young. While we may understand ‘nurse’ as a caretaker, Cynthia was most likely McDowell’s wet nurse.  

Typescript of a letter written by Franklin Brevard McDowell describing enslaved people on his family plantation. The contents is described in the paragraph, above.
Typescript of a letter written by Franklin Brevard McDowell found in the Brevard Plantation file from manuscript collection DC058: Chalmers Davidson Plantation Files.

In a reading for our Women & Gender in US to 1870, we discussed how plantation owners exploited enslaved women for both their reproductive capabilities and their manual labor abilities.1 Wet nursing for historians proves difficult to find and identify because rarely plantations used the term ‘wet nurse’.2 Most of the time, ‘nurse’ referred to those who wet nursed. Since Davidson is in the South and was surrounded by many rather large plantations, it is conceivable that wet nursing occurred in the area. I only came across one instance of a ‘nurse,’ however, wet nursing could have been common in the Antebellum South. Since wet nursing was probably not the most talked about issue during the time period, we do not have much tangible proof of the institution. I stumbled across mine in a biography about a prominent slave owner in the region, but most historians see proof of wet nursing only in literate women’s diaries and letters.3  


West, Emily and Knigh, R.J.. “Mothers’ Milk: Slavery, Wet-Nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South.” The Journal of Southern History, (2017): 37-68. 

Guest Blogger: Marshall Bursis on “Davidson during Reconstruction”

In Fall 2019, Archives, Special Collections, & Community (ASCC) had the privilege of working with Dr. Rose Stremlau’s “HIS 306: Women and Gender in U.S. History to 1870” course. Over the course of a semester, students researched the history of women and gender in the greater Davidson, North Carolina area using materials in the Davidson College Archives and other local organizations. The following series of blog posts highlights aspects of their research process.

Marshall Bursis is a senior political science major and history minor. He is from Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania. 

Handwritten childhood reminiscences of Lucy Phillips Russell during reconstruction in Davidson, North Carolina. Contents of the letter is discussed in following paragraphs.
Letter written by Lucy P. Russell in 1920 about life in Davidson, NC immediately following the Civil War.

Davidson College is a fundamentally Southern institution. Its antebellum founding and setting within the former Confederacy intimately connect the college and the town to the social context of Southern life in the 19th century. This may seem like a truism, but it is an essential acknowledgement. If we hope to more fully understand the history of the school and the town, we must interrogate the parts of the Southern experience that we may wish to overlook—like the systems of slavery and Jim Crow. Included in this more complete history is how the town reconciled with the realities of Reconstruction.  

The writings of Lucy Phillips Russell, daughter of professor Charles Phillips, provide a description, albeit incomplete, of Davidson College during Reconstruction and the childhood of the local elite. Lucy Phillips moved to Davidson in 1869, where she lived until 1875. Her recollection of her childhood at Davidson includes stories about the workings of the college and the town and a subtle assessment of her own experience as a young girl navigating the norms of the post-war South.  

Her account makes clear that religion dominated the lives of the students and those in the town. She describes religion and the church as “the shining element of the college and village life.” Russell characterizes her childhood in Davidson as “singularly monotonous and centered around the church.” Furthermore, her recollection of a single-mother living in the town is especially compelling. The exact source of the estrangement between the mother and father is unclear, but she implies that he abandoned her. Writing from 1920, Russell decries the “medieval times” that trapped this woman and made her miserable. “A modern woman” she writes, “would fly to a divorce court and make a joke of the whole situation.” It is clear that divorce, even for legitimate reasons like prolonged abandonment, were socially unacceptable in the Davidson of the 1870s. Russell’s characterization of this woman’s struggle indicates the significant transformation in marriage norms over less than fifty years.  

However, despite the source’s usefulness at examining the religiosity of the community and the town generally, it only tacitly acknowledges the broader context of Reconstruction. Russell remembers that during her childhood “every body was poor, because the whole South was.” Russell, however, makes no recognition of the source of this widespread condition—the destruction of war and the emancipation of slaves that previously provided incalculable amounts of free labor. 

From this believed universal poverty, Russell perceived her community as radically egalitarian, where “every body lived in charity with every body else, nurse each other in sickness, wept with each other in times of sorrow and death, enjoyed with each other when fortune smiled.” It is natural that Russell would hold nostalgia about her childhood, but her conception of an idyllic Davidson ignores the tension that remained in the South between the white community and newly freed blacks. Russell’s failure to adequately reckon with this troubled history mirrors our modern struggles with the problematic portions of our past.  


Russell, Lucy Phillips. Letter, “Lucy P. Russell 1920 Letter,” 1920. http://libraries.davidson.edu/archives/digital-collections/lucy-p-russell-letter-1920#Works.  

Guest Blogger: Anna Kilby on “Mary Lacy and The Need for Domestic Perfection”

In Fall 2019, Archives, Special Collections, & Community (ASCC) had the privilege of working with Dr. Rose Stremlau’s “HIS 306: Women and Gender in U.S. History to 1870” course. Over the course of a semester, students researched the history of women and gender in the greater Davidson, North Carolina area using materials in the Davidson College Archives and other local organizations. The following series of blog posts highlights aspects of their research process.

Anna Kathryn Kilby is a sophomore potential Gender and Sexuality Studies and Political Science major at Davidson College. 

Mary Lacy, wife of Davidson College President Drury Lacy, took her job as First Lady of the college very seriously. In her letters to her stepdaughter, Bess, she writes of cooking the best food, wearing the best clothes, and making sure people at the college are taken care of, including her own slaves. She also expresses her frustration at her female slaves when they grow ill but doesn’t address their work in the home directly. Mary Lacy seems to be striving for domestic perfection, but how much of her efforts are hers, and how much effort belongs to her female slaves? 

Mary Lacy was Drury Lacy’s second wife. He served as president of Davidson College from 1855-1860, and, during this time, their family lived across from the college, where the Belk Visual Arts Center is now. Drury Lacy had children from his previous marriage, one of which was Elizabeth, or Bess, as Mary called her, whom Mary writes her letters to. Bess lived in Charlotte with her husband. Mary wrote her letters to Bess from 1856-1859 while her husband served as president1.  

Scan of the first page of a July 2, 1856 handwritten letter written by Mary Lacy to her step-daughter, Bess. She asks Bess about crops and food products.
Letter by Mary Lacy dated July 2, 1856. This letter is referenced in the following paragraph.

As First Lady of Davidson, Mary’s duties consisted of hosting guests of the college and making sure she was the perfect hostess. In her first letter from July 1856, she asks Bess about crops and food products, and then in the next letter she discusses dresses and blankets. In a December 1858 letter, Mary tells Bess of a purple scarf from New York that is “the exact shade of her bonnet strings” and tells Bess to send her furs if she won’t wear them. Throughout the letters, Mary often talks about both male and female guests staying with them. Mary’s quest to be the best housewife is evident. She clearly needs to look the part, act the part, and cook like the part. 

So much of Mary’s perfect image was due to her domestic enslaved women, a few of which she mentions in her letters. In a letter from August 1856, she writes about the inconvenience of enslaved woman “Aunt” Amy getting sick, and then expresses displeasure when another enslaved woman shows symptoms, claiming “Aunt” Maria was faking it to get time off from work. Mary calls Maria a “hard old case.” The state of these enslaved women is so frustrating to Mary because she needs them to upkeep her image. How could she possibly be the best first lady, host, and housewife without the help of her domestic bondwomen? She calls in doctors to help with Aunt Amy’s illness, but I assert that this is not out of compassion for Amy, but out of selfish concern. Without enslaved women like Aunt Amy and Aunt Maria, Mary’s image would deteriorate. These enslaved women shaped Mary’s identity, and got none of the credit. Readers can wonder which meals Mary actually cooked, which clothes she actually sewed, which guests she actually took care of, and which efforts were actually hers. 


Admin, Davidson College HIS 306 Spring 2017. “Introduction.” The Mary Lacy Letters. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://his306sp17blog.rosestremlau.com/introduction/ 

Lacy, Mary. “Letters and Transcriptions.” The Mary Lacy Letters, Davidson College. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://his306sp17blog.rosestremlau.com/ 

Guest Blogger: Amaya Bradford, AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration

After multiple class sessions introducing our archival and manuscript collections and oral history best practices, students in Dr. Nneka Dennie’s Spring 2019 AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic course produced a documentary using oral histories created throughout the semester. These materials will be donated to the Archives.

In addition to this main project, students were tasked with identifying primary sources from local archives, historic sites, and/or repositories that shed light on the lived experiences of enslaved women or women enslavers. The following series of blog posts are authored by these students upon the completion of this archival research process and serve as reflective pieces.

Thank you for your submissions-and a wonderful semester of fruitful collaborations!

“Primary Source Analysis”

written by Amaya Bradford

During the 1930s and 40s, the Federal Writers Project completed interviews with men and women who were formerly enslaved to tell their stories. This collection is called Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves. These interviews took place after slavery had been abolished, with many of these people being at young ages when they were set free. One particular woman was named Fannie Moore and was from Asheville, North Carolina. In her interview, she gives much insight into how enslaved women’s gender interacted with slavery in North Carolina, specifically around the Charlotte/Asheville area.

Moore mentions her mother frequently in her interview. It is revealed that her mother was fiercely protective over children as Moore states, “She stan’ up fo’ her chillun tho’. De ol’ overseeah he hate my mammy, case she fight him for beatin’ her chillun. Why she git more whuppins for dat den anythin’ else” (pg. 131). This depiction of Moore’s mother gives her the heroine title of Moore’s story, since she protects her children from physical punishment with her own body.

Similarly, a contract is created in 1867 that binds an enslaved woman, Vina, and her four to Margaret Torrance at Cedar Grove Plantation for two years of labor, in exchange for food and clothing. This is another example of enslaved women putting their children above themselves and using different methods to protect them. In this example, Vina is protecting her children from starvation and the weather, instead of explicit physical punishment, even though they were more than likely at risk for such.

Image of two pages of text from "Plantation World Around Davidson." The right page features a two story brick home, also known as "Cedar Grove."
Image of pages 70 and 71 from former College Archivist’s, Dr. Chalmers Davidson, “Plantation World Around Davidson.” Cedar Grove Plantation is pictured, here.

The interview with Fannie Moore and Vina’s contract reveals that enslaved women in North Carolina commonly used their bodies to protect their children. They ensued their roles as mothers, during a time when enslaved women were stripped of their maternity, with is also an act of resistance against the institution of slavery.

Since their bodies were constantly used as shields, they were the most subject to abuse. Going back to Moore’s interview, she also describes a woman named Aunt Cheney, who had light skinned children by the sexual assault of a white man, get sold separate from her children since she was a “breed woman”, and was frequently whipped by her abuser. While Aunt Cheney did not explicitly receive punishment to protect her children, her body was still used as an area of violence.  All these women were subject to physical violence by their enslavers, with the connection to their reproductive rights and maternity. Enslaved women in North Carolina had a lack of control over their reproductive choices because of sexual violence and lack of agency, but commonly, the children they had were fiercely protected with the continual use of their bodies.


Work Projects Administration. “SLAVE NARRATIVES.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Slave Narratives, North Carolina, Part 2, (A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves), by Work Projects Administration., www.gutenberg.org/files/31219/31219-h/31219-h.htm#Page_127.

“Vina’s Contract.” Torrance and Banks Family Papers, digitalcollections.uncc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p16033coll14/id/11.

Guest Blogger: Ashley Ip, AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration

After multiple class sessions introducing our archival and manuscript collections and oral history best practices, students in Dr. Nneka Dennie’s Spring 2019 AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic course produced a documentary using oral histories created throughout the semester. These materials will be donated to the Archives.

In addition to this main project, students were tasked with identifying primary sources from local archives, historic sites, and/or repositories that shed light on the lived experiences of enslaved women or women enslavers. The following series of blog posts are authored by these students upon the completion of this archival research process and serve as reflective pieces.

Thank you for your submissions-and a wonderful semester of fruitful collaborations!

“The Other Perspective”

written by Ashley Ip

History is made up of various stories told from different aspects and in some cases, said stories get distorted over time. It is the duty of historians to analyze who is telling these stories and who is left out in order to paint a full picture. Black women are often left out of the discussion when discussing slavery in the South. This can be attributed to the lack of sources and primary documents that focus on the role that Black women played during slavery. Archival research is important because it gives voice to those who are often left out in the retelling of history. These documents are vital to the research of Black women because it provides historians with a perspective that is often overlooked.

The article “More Slavery at the South” is a transcribed interview with an anonymous African American woman. This source was actually written by a reporter for The Independent. This African American woman is a nurse and goes into detail about the hardships she encounters as a Negro nurse in the South. Although this source was published after slavery was abolished in the United States, this document gives a first-hand look into Jim Crow laws and the way it affected daily life for Black women in the south.

This nurse goes into detail about the demands of her job by describing herself as the “slave, body and soul of [the] family.” She backs up this claim by explaining that she works “sunrise to sunrise, every day in the week” and thus, “[doesn’t] know what it is to go to church; [doesn’t] know what it is to go to a lecture or entertainment of anything of the kind.” She lives a life that is controlled by the family who she works for. From “watering the lawn with the garden house, sweeping the sidewalk, mopping the porch and halls, helping the cook, darning stockings of putting the three children to bed, she must “tamely submit and answer when called.”

Snapshot of the landing page A Negro Nurse More Slavery at the South. Source: Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill.
Landing page for A Negro Nurse More Slavery at the South. Source: Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill.

Not only were the work conditions horrendous, the wage is a “pitiful sum of ten dollars a month.” She explains how she struggles to get by because she has to pay house rent, feed and clothe not only herself but for her three children. She understands that nothing will be done to increase her wage because she means to the white family she works for, she is easily replaceable. If she were to quit, she understands “there would be hundreds of other negros right on the spot ready to take their places and do the same work, or more for the low wages that had been refused.” Thus, she must settle to work for less than nothing.

She also very eloquently explains how she must always present herself within the relationship of master and servant as she recalls her experiences on railroad trains and street cars. As long as she is with the white children and explains to white men when they ask that she is their servant, she will not be questioned when she sits in the white man’s coach. However, as soon as she doesn’t present within this relationship, she is subjected to the “colored people’s coach” section of the railroad.

Lastly, this nurse touches on something that is often very overlooked within the Black women experience – the sexual mistreatment and abuse they were forced to endure from their male employers. She adamantly claims that this is by far the worst part of her experience and that white men are always able to get away with their misconduct. When she reported to her husband that her madam’s husband tried to kiss her, her husband confronted him and was slapped and arrested. The police judge fined her husband $25 and the white man denied the charge. The judge looked up and said “The court will never take the word of a nigger against the word of a white man.” All white men are able to take their “undue liberties with their colored female servants.” This nurse emphasizes the need of research on Black women. By ignoring Black women’s experiences, historians unintentionally excuse white mens sexual abuse.

Archival research into Black women is vital to understanding the impact of slavery in the United States. By failing to incorporate Black women in scholarly discussions and conversations, a full picture cannot be painted.


A Negro Nurse, More Slavery at the South. From The Independent, 72 (Jan. 25, 1912): 196-200. New York: Published for the proprietors, 1912.https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/negnurse/negnurse.html