Guest Blogger: Alice Garner, “A Lady in the Shadow: The Elusive Truth Masked in the Bourgeois Society” (Part Two)

This post was written by Alice Garner, a member of the Class of 2024, for an assignment in Dr. Devyn Spence Benson’s AFR 101: Introduction to Africana Studies class. For the past five years, the Africana Studies Department has collaborated with Davidson College Archives, Special Collections and Community to uncover the experiences of Black individuals at the college. Garner is an intended Psychology Major and possible Latin American Studies minor from Norwich, Vermont. Her interests include the intersection between the African diaspora and Latin American history and childhood developmental psychology.

Mary Lacy’s letters demonstrate her extreme ignorance as well towards blacks as a whole. Lacy reveals her husband’s utter exhaustion to “living in this country,” as he must complete tasks, such as making fires and feeding the animals, unsuitable to his high ranking position as President of the college.[1] She expresses that they “must conform to the ways of the people and buy [their] own servants,” a job that proves to be much harder than it appears to the Lacy family, despite serving as a ‘necessity’ in their privileged eyes.[2] On August 6, 1856, Lacy’s referral to her family friend’s plantation as a “favorite resort of Davidson professors and Davidson students” further establishes her dehumanizing angle towards those who work for her and her ignorance of the atrocious acts on the plantation.[3] In February of 1859, Lacy described an ‘incident’ in which a Davidson student’s belongings were stolen. A black man was whipped for this, despite “confess[ing] nothing” and another for merely “having a pistol.”[4] Lacy flits by this fallible case, stopping only to highlight how “poor Barry never got back his things.”[5] Lacy’s lack of acknowledgement towards the central issue of blatant racism shows her utter disrespect towards black people. The way in which Mary Lacy, wife to the former President at Davidson, glossed over such events raises a critical issue of the absence of general education and respect at the college towards human beings as a whole.

The vast difference in Lacy’s treatment towards her own children in comparison to those enslaved serves as evidence towards her sole focus on being the quintessential wife of a slave-holder. In her letter on August 6, 1856, she expressed desperation as one of her slaves fell ill: “Aunt Maria must needs make herself sick….she is a hard old case.”[6] In choosing the word “must needs,” Lacy called Maria out, turning the slave into the one culpable for being sick, making the bourgeois life even harder. Lacy even went to question if her slaves were actually ill, denying them right to a doctor, claiming that her “black baby” was “getting well without any doctor.”[7] In reality, it was common for slaves to suffer “internal conflict and stress” due to long hours they were subjected to in the household.[8] Lacy’s interactions with her own children described as “fractious” vastly differed to those with the slaves who were chastised for no valid reason.[9] Lacy paid no mind to her young kids who would “keep [her] busy [trying] to keep them from killing each other.”[10] Lacy’s differences in reaction to when her slaves fell ill, compared to when her own children acted out, highlights her dependence upon slaves to provide her a path to be a proper slave-holding wife.


[1] Carlina Green et. al, “January 2, 1857.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carlina Green et. al, “August 6, 1856.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[4] Carlina Green et. al, “February, 1859.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[5] Carlina Green et. al, “February, 1859.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[6] Carlina Green et. al, “August 6, 1856.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[7] Carlina Green et. al, “July 15, 1859.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[8] Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 111.

[9] Carlina Green et. al, “July 2, 1856.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[10] Ibid.


This is the second post in a three-part series about Mary Lacy, the wife of Drury Lacy, the third President of Davidson College. In our collection, we are fortunate to retain a collection of Lacy Family Papers, which includes correspondence from Mary Lacy to her step-daughter Bess. In Spring 2017, Dr. Rose Stremlau’s History 306: “Women and Gender in U.S. History to 1870” class transcribed, annotated, and analyzed these letters. Their work can be found on this website. To view digitized items from the Lacy Family Papers, please explore Digital Davidson, our platform to view born-digital and digitized versions of archival materials, special collections, and college scholarship.

Guest Blogger: Alice Garner, “A Lady in the Shadow: The Elusive Truth Masked in the Bourgeois Society” (Part One)

This post was written by Alice Garner, a member of the Class of 2024, for an assignment in Dr. Devyn Spence Benson’s AFR 101: Introduction to Africana Studies class. For the past five years, the Africana Studies Department has collaborated with Davidson College Archives, Special Collections and Community to uncover the experiences of Black individuals at the college. Garner is an intended Psychology Major and possible Latin American Studies minor from Norwich, Vermont. Her interests include the intersection between the African diaspora and Latin American history and childhood developmental psychology.

Forced to uphold an innumerable set of standards, an ideal Southern lady was sculpted by the patriarchal society that surrounded her. In the 1860s, almost one in three North Carolinians were white slaveholders.[1] Although labor-intensive cash crops still played a staple role in the economy, many slaves served in white households. Mary Lacy, born in 1816 to a family of higher education, married Drury Lacy at age 33.[2] In 1855, her husband became President at Davidson College for five years. To pass free time and communicate with her close family, Lacy sent letters to her step-daughter, ‘Bess,’ from 1856 until 1859. Mary Lacy dedicated her time “garner[ing] respect in the private and public sphere” at her husband’s plantation who owned a family of slaves.[3] Cast in their husband’s shadow, women of this time were expected to be “gracious, fragile, and deferential to men whose protection [they were] dependent [upon].”[4]  Southern housewives relied on slaves to uphold their bourgeoisie status in society during the 1860s. The objectifying treatment to the slaves, revealed in Lacy’s writing, attests to the ignorance and disrespect of these upper-class white women, the gender normalities of the time, and the role religion played in society. Although held to a high regard in the public sphere, the disrespect of the Lacy family to their slaves highlighted within this document, questions Davidson’s commitment to transparency through the honor code.

Portrait of Mary Lacy (Photo found on HIS 306’s “The Mary Lacy Letters” website, linked at the end of this post.)

Lacy’s complete disregard to treat her slaves with basic respect is showcased in her letters by the pejorative language she used towards them. Enslaved peoples who worked within the household were commonly assigned jobs such as growing, preparing, and storing food and sewing.[5] “Little value [was] placed on [job] specialization,” yet this did not stop the slave-holding wives to label their servants—”maid,” “cook,” “nurse”—to categorize them.[6] Throughout Lacy’s letters, she refers to one of her servants as “Aunt,” a term for those of older age commonly used by white slave-holder wives.[7] These disrespectful names assigned to the slaves, implicate Lacy’s view—“incompetent, worthless, untidy, indolent, wasteful”—towards those who worked for her and the way in which she used these to make herself feel more competent.[8] In her letter on July 2, 1856, Lacy expresses her desire for Bess to “send round & get [her Zack]” (another slave).[9] Her phrasing dehumanizes the man, objectifying him as a form of transportation. Lacy writes to Bess about the process of finding a child they “could have bound” for “more reasonable terms,” referencing them as if they were products for sale, devaluing them as people.[10] When disappointed with the little girl they “expected to get,” Lacy brushed it off claiming that they would just have to “hunt for [another]” as there were a “great many to hire.”[11] “Hunt” is a term primarily used for animals and “great many to hire” makes it seem like those in the slave market are ‘desperate’ to be “hire[d].” Lacy creates a false reality for herself by stripping the slaves of their identity, allowing her to rise above and claim her wealthy status.


[1] Jeffery J. Crow, “Slavery” (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[2] Carlina Green et. al, “Introduction.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[3] Carlina Green et. al, “Slave Owning Women.” Mary Lacy Letters: (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[4] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Black and White Women of the Old South.” Within the Plantation Household (The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 104.

[5] Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 29.

[6] Jones, 112.

[7] Carlina Green et. al, “August 6, 1856.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[8] Jones, 113.

[9] Carlina Green et. al, “July 2, 1856.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[10] Carlina Green et. al, “January 2, 1857.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).

[11] Carlina Green et. al, “December 12, 1858.”, “January 2, 1857.” Mary Lacy Letters (Davidson: WordPress, 2017).


This is the first post in a three-part series about Mary Lacy, the wife of Drury Lacy, the third President of Davidson College. In our collection, we are fortunate to retain a collection of Lacy Family Papers, which includes correspondence from Mary Lacy to her step-daughter Bess. In Spring 2017, Dr. Rose Stremlau’s History 306: “Women and Gender in U.S. History to 1870” class transcribed, annotated, and analyzed these letters. Their work can be found on this website. To view digitized items from the Lacy Family Papers, please explore Digital Davidson, our platform to view born-digital and digitized versions of archival materials, special collections, and college scholarship.

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  

Bibliography:

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.