The “Down South Kitchen” and Family Life in Princeton University’s Isabella McCosh Infirmary

When I wrote about the myth of slave quarters in Princeton University dormitories, there wasn’t room to tell you about the service workers who did sleep under the same roof as Princeton students for half a century. Today’s post considers the home one Black family made at Isabella McCosh Infirmary while they cooked and cleaned for students sick in body or in soul as well as the medical staff. Theirs was in some ways a typical life for African Americans of their time, a generation removed from enslavement yet still constrained by sociological factors that meant few other roles would have been possible for them than what the U.S. Census usually recorded as their occupation: “Servant.”

It began with Mabel Hillian, who came to Princeton to visit relatives in the fall of 1916. Her age at this time is a bit unclear; different sources would either have her as about 25 years old or as about 19, but based on most sources it seems she was probably 19. In January 1917, she started working in McCosh Infirmary as a dishwasher. It was not her first job. She’d previously worked picking cotton in Cheraw, South Carolina, where she was born, and where she had an apparent reputation for picking more cotton faster than any of the other roughly 100 farmhands who worked alongside her. Her younger sister, Bessie Hillian, then just 14 years old, soon joined Mabel in Princeton as an infirmary dishwasher. Even at that young age, Bessie arrived with her own work experience, because she, too, had been picking cotton in Cheraw. Though they both started as dishwashers, they quickly took over the kitchen. Mabel remained head cook until her retirement, when Bessie assumed the role.

This 1932 photograph is the earliest one I’ve been able to find of Bessie and Mabel Hillian, shown here in the Isabella McCosh Infirmary kitchen. Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

Helen Gross was the Infirmarian at the time. Gross’s brother, John M. T. Finney, was a doctor. Gross and Finney, Bessie later told the Princeton Herald, had told the Hillian sisters to move in to the infirmary, which the Hillians commonly referred to as a hospital. “They said we should live at the hospital and make it our home, and we always have.”

McCosh Infirmary, 1910. In 1925, this first building was replaced with the one that still stands today. Historical Postcard Collection (AC045).

The sisters weren’t alone in the infirmary overnight. In addition to students who stayed there when they were ill, census records show that other service staff and several nurses also lived in McCosh Infirmary, all of whom where white; many were immigrants. The sisters soon expanded their own family’s presence there, too. Around 1928, Bessie married Harley Dargan, who also moved into the infirmary and worked as a waiter, and their younger brother, Thomas Hillian, moved in with them as well and began working as an orderly. Another relative, Rosa Malachie—known as “Big Rosa”—joined them in 1928, too, helping with the cooking and cleaning. In 1942, their niece, Lucy Rosa Malachie—known as Lucy or as “Little Rosa”—moved in. Because the family was from South Carolina, they called the kitchen Mabel ran the “Down South Kitchen.”

When World War II food shortages began to make the job of cooking for the students more difficult, the family had an idea. They wrote to Princeton’s president, Harold Dodds, to ask permission to start a garden. He assented and asked the greenhouse manager to set aside a few acres on the path to Lake Carnegie for them. The greenhouse manager asked Mabel why she hadn’t just come to him in the first place rather than going straight to Dodds. “Well, Mr. Dawson,” Mabel said, “you see we knew the president and we didn’t know you.”

With Tom as the “Head Man” in charge of the garden, and the dedication of the rest of the family, the enterprise was a resounding success. Princeton did not have to buy any fresh produce at all for the infirmary in 1943. It was instead supplied from the array of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, said to include every common variety known in the area except parsnips, in the “Down South Garden.” They worked to preserve what didn’t get eaten fresh, canning vegetables, pickling cucumbers, bottling sauces, and making jams and jellies. It does not appear that Princeton compensated the Hillian-Dargan-Malackie family for the food, though they did get some support in the form of fertilizer and $25 to spend on equipment, and were allowed to continue gardening through the Korean War.

“Big Rosa” Malackie; Mabel, Bessie, and Thomas Hillian; and “Little Rosa” Malackie in the infirmary store room displaying the produce of the “Down South Garden,” 1951. Photo from Princeton Alumni Weekly.

The effort was significant. Every day from 2:00-4:00PM after lunch duties were finished, they worked in the garden, then took a break from gardening to “get supper ready for the boys and the nurses and everybody” and serve it, and then would return to the garden to work until dark. When school was no longer in session, they took advantage of the two-month break to start canning everything. When the Board of Trustees met, the family would put the year’s bounty on display in the infirmary store room. In 1950, they preserved a record of 981 quarts of food. Their garden consistently produced more than the population of sick Princeton students and the infirmary staff could eat, so the group began giving food away to the sick and needy in the area.

Thanks in large part to the Hillians, the infirmary had a family atmosphere. They treated the students like their own relatives—and indeed, as time went on and Princeton’s exclusionary practices toward African Americans began to change, some of them actually were. Robert Rivers ’53 was their nephew and sometimes he, like other students, sought out meals at the infirmary as its own sort of medicine when the stresses of college life got to him. This became an important refuge for Black students at a time when there was little sense of community for them on campus. But white students also considered the Hillians an important part of their college experience. When they returned for Reunions, alumni would bring their children and later even their grandchildren to meet the Hillians.

Bessie Hillian discusses the infirmary menu with Dr. Willard Dalrymple, director of University Health Services, 1967. Photo from Town Topics.

The family had their own cures on offer alongside the medical staff’s. Bessie, for example, would treat homesickness with cake. Milkshakes and cold juices soothed sore throats. On one occasion over the winter holidays, the Hillians said they learned of a student left on campus over Christmas who was alone in his room and sick. Tom went to get him and brought him to the infirmary, where Mabel and Bessie called the doctor to secure permission to give him some medicine and they kept him there for Christmas dinner. They told journalists about students who would come to the infirmary just because they were tired of the food elsewhere, just to be fed. The farm-to-table approach at McCosh Infirmary, with its fresh herbs and high-quality produce, was a far cry from the University Commons, after all. Mabel described one student as having claimed to be very ill, but his roast beef dinner “must have cured him, because he never even saw a nurse or a doctor.”

Tom was a dedicated football fan, attending nearly every home and away game, though he did not travel with the team, even making it to Cambridge for a match against Harvard in a hurricane. During the games, Tom sat with the team and assisted the team doctor in treating injuries. His major responsibility was to hold fractures in place while the casts were put on. When he became too ill to sit on the bench, he watched the games from a car parked in the end zone. Bessie also enjoyed football games, though she was less of a fixture at them than Tom.

The stories that have been preserved of the Hillian-Malackie-Dargan family present familiar patterns in African American history, especially the narratives about the Hillian sisters. At a time when they were younger than the “boys” they served, they took on a nurturing, even maternal, role for Princeton students, at least in the retrospective tale as it was usually told. Stereotypes of Black women as nurturing, strong, untiring, and selfless reverberate from what journalists chose to record about them in their lifetimes. Similarly, though perhaps to a lesser extent because the stories appeared less often, we can see a reinforcement of messages about the ideal Black man being subservient and accepting of his lower-class status in the accounts of Tom’s devotion to the football team and the garden. The legacy of the “Mammy,” “Aunt Jemimah,” and “Uncle Tom” tropes of white American imagination are pervasive in what aspects of their lives have been recorded and venerated.

This is not to say that the Hillians themselves were not nurturing, hard-working, or generous in their service to Princeton; it appears they were and took pride in it. However, those who encounter these stories in our records would do well to remember how much the role they played was one constrained by racialized expectations, with the daughters of illiterate parents who picked cotton in South Carolina leaving home at a very young age to serve white elites, without having many other options. There is unquestionable exploitation inherent in the story of their lives, regardless of how much one may admire their service to Princeton. Bessie Hillian’s long career is rightfully distressing to those who read about it today, when both social attitudes and a network of laws would expect a 14-year-old girl to be in school and living with her parents, not washing dishes as a live-in servant at a college infirmary alongside her older sister. Such reflections do not appear to be present in the archival record, but are an important part of interacting with the materials we have.

I’ve been unable to track down the fate of “Big Rosa” or Harley Dargan. “Little Rosa” moved to Rocky Hill in 1959, where she lived with her husband, Roy E. Ross, until her death in 1978. Mabel retired in 1963 after 46 years of running a kitchen, leaving Bessie to take over as head cook, but she continued to live in McCosh Infirmary with her relatives after her retirement. Tom died of an illness in 1967 after 45 years of service to Princeton at the age of 64. Bessie was the longest-serving Hillian, retiring in 1968 after 51 years. At that point, she and Mabel moved off campus, relocating to a house on Mt. Lucas Road in town. Mabel lived five years there before her death in 1973. Bessie’s death followed in 1981. With them, they took the memory of a side of Princeton unknown to us in this century. Lewis Thomas Laboratory now sits on the land formerly occupied by the “Down South Garden,” the food served to inpatients at McCosh Clinic is similar to the fare found elsewhere on campus, and the staff don’t make their homes in the infirmary.

 

Sources:

Historical Postcard Collection (AC045)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton Directory: A General Directory of Princeton, N.J. and Vicinity

United States Census Records, 1900-1930

For further reading:

Walker-Barnes, Chanequa. Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. Cascade Books, 2014.

Foodways for Princeton Students, Part II: Diversified Menus, 1855-2010s

This is the second post in a two-part series examining student foodways at Princeton.

As mentioned in the conclusion of last week’s post in this series, the campus refectory was no longer an option after the Nassau Hall fire of 1855. This meant that eating clubs became entrenched in Princeton’s traditions. There were many transient clubs with fanciful names at first, most of which simply pooled resources to engage the services of local boarding houses. In spite of the theoretical market forces that might have acted upon these establishments to encourage higher quality, W. F. Magie (Class of 1879) described “generally miserable eating conditions,” “poor food,” and “coarse service.” This motivated the formation of Ivy Club as a more permanent fixture in 1879 that would employ its own staff. Several other eating clubs followed suit, eventually building clubhouses along Prospect Street.

“A Baker’s Dozen” was one of many eating clubs that have come and gone in Princeton’s past. It was made up of members of the Classes of 1891 and 1892. This illustration is taken from the 1890 Bric-a-Brac.

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Foodways for Princeton Students, Part I: The Refectory, 1760s-1855

This post is the first in a two-part series examining daily foodways at Princeton.

Today, most Princetonians are likely to take it for granted that they can have a bagel with cream cheese and lox in the morning, pick up Chinese takeout for lunch, and relax over a dinner of spaghetti, but all of these things were unheard of for most of Princeton’s past. Indeed, many of the things considered standard American fare today were once mysterious and exotic. The converse is also true—we don’t expect many students today to have much experience with turtle soup or roasted peacocks, for example.

It can be a challenge to figure out what people actually ate on a day-to-day basis in earlier centuries. Many of the menus available in our collections are more of a guide to special occasion fare than they are for the everyday meals people ate to fuel studying, research, and teaching. However, through letters, diaries, editorials, advertisements, and other documentation in the University Archives, we also find glimpses of a changing palate that maps well onto a broader history of American foodways. This two-part series looks back at centuries of expansion from the daily snacks of bread and butter with “small beer” the Board of Trustees authorized in 1765 to the sushi and falafel delivered to dorms in the late 20th century. This first post considers the antebellum student’s diet, while the second will unveil the postbellum diversity in options for meals. When one looks into what was available in the antebellum period, economic concerns had a clear influence on foodways at Princeton, but consistent themes emerge in spite of this.

Full menus were not printed for everyday meals, but we do find representative special occasion menus in our collections. This is the reception menu for the celebration of Princeton’s centennial in 1847. All of the items listed on the menu, including the fruit, would have been special treats for students. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 307, Folder 11.

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This Week in Princeton History for April 6-12

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Evelyn College trustees vote to include women on their board, a shanty in Firestone Plaza demonstrates anti-apartheid sentiment, and more.

April 6, 1895—The Board of Trustees of Evelyn College votes to expand so its membership can include women. Rather than the current 15 men, the board will include 15 men and 15 women.

Evelyn College catalog, 1891-1892. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 330, Folder 4.

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This Week in Princeton History for March 30-April 5

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the library receives a new gift of F. Scott Fitzgerald correspondence, a campus publication rails against women’s suffrage, and more.

March 31, 1967— Charles Scribner Jr. ’43 presents the Princeton University Library with Charles Scribner’s Sons complete correspondence with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Class of 1917.

An excerpt from a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald, Class of 1917, to Max Perkins, his editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, December 20, 1924:
“Hotel des Princes, Piazza di Spague, Rome.
“Dear Max:
“I’m a bit (not very–not dangerously) stewed tonight & I’ll probably write you a long letter. We’re living in a small, unfashionable but most comfortable hotel at $525.00 a month including tips, meals, etc. Rome does not particularly interest me but it’s a big year here, and early in the spring  we’re going to Paris. There’s no use telling you my plans because they’re usually just about as unsuccessful as to work as a religious prognosticater’s [sic] are as to the End of the World. Iv’e got a new novel to write–title and all, that’ll take about a year. Meanwhile, I don’t want to start it until this is out & meanwhile I”ll do short stories for money (I now get $2000.00 a story but I hate worse than hell to do them) and there’s the never dying lure of another play.
“Now! Thanks enormously for making up the $5000.00. I know I don’t technically deserve it considering I’ve had $3000.00 or $4000.00 for as long as I can remember. But since you force it on me (inexorable [or is it exorable] joke) I will accept it. I hope to Christ you get 10 times it back on Gatsby–and I think perhaps you will.” 
Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons (C0101); Manuscripts Division (Firestone Library), Department of Special Collections.

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This Week in Princeton History for November 25-December 1

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the football team defeats Dartmouth in hurricane force winds, a student writes home to complain about the food, and more.

November 25, 1950—Despite 108-mile winds at kickoff, Princeton and Dartmouth still play their championship game in Princeton’s Palmer Stadium. About 5,000 fans attempt to watch the game in person, but an estimated 25,000 ticket holders simply stay home to wait out the storm. Most of those who do attend seek refuge in the dormitories.

The 1951 Bric-a-Brac‘s report on the 1950 Princeton-Dartmouth football game.

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This Week in Princeton History for September 23-29

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Princetonian complains about a change in staffing, a new kiosk is under construction, and more.

September 24, 1899—Today’s issue of Nature refers to the “Libbey Deep” off the shores of Newfoundland, newly named in honor of physical geography professor William Libbey, Class of 1877.

September 25, 1765—The Board of Trustees orders the buttery to provide bread, butter, candles, and small beer for sale to students, but prohibits sales to students of anything else.

September 26, 1878—The Princetonian complains about a change in staffing: “The men servants who last year did good service in the entries of the various dormitories, and proved such real comfort to the students, have been dismissed, and we are left to have all our work done by a few superannuated Irish women, who are required to do an immense amount of work in so short a time that they necessarily do it in a careless, partial manner, which is worse than absolute neglect.”

September 27, 1988—A new kiosk, designed by Robert Venturi ’47 to better blend in with surrounding architecture, is under construction at Princeton University’s Nassau Street entrance.

Artist’s rendering of Princeton University’s Nassau Street kiosk, found in Handbook of Information for the Administrative Staff, 1971, Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 241, Folder 6.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

This Week in Princeton History for November 26-December 2

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, graduates react to the possible admission of female undergraduates, a dean’s comments in a local newspaper arouse concern, and more.

November 26, 1968—The Princeton Alumni Weekly prints several letters responding to the Patterson Report, which has concluded that Princeton would benefit from admitting female undergraduates. Logan McKee ’48 writes, “Mixing, ‘integrating’ and polluting seem to be the trend of the times, so it is natural that the mixers would want to homogenize Princeton. Of course this is just the next natural step in the pollution process. Long ago they removed the Presbyterian religious bias, the prep-school, the fraternity and the white race preference, and the School’s independence from government grants—so why not remove its last distinction, that of being a men’s college? Then Princeton can be as ‘democratic’ and just as friendly, folksy and mediocre as any outstate A. & M. institution.”

November 28, 1989—The Dean of the Graduate School’s comments in the Trenton Times alarm graduate students, including his assertion that “I think that a graduate student ought to be here to study 120 percent. I worry very, very much that a graduate student has so much time available to worry about a social life.”

Editorial cartoon from the Daily Princetonian. This cartoon refers to later claims the dean made that graduate students should not be offered housing after their second year of study.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 14-20

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the third term of the academic year begins, dining halls begin serving water instead of milk for lunch, and more.

May 14, 1975—The Eastern regional conference of Women in Higher Education Administration meets at Princeton.

May 16, 1859—James W. Reese’s Valedictory Oration for the Class of 1859 seems precognitive in its reference to the battlefield.

Robert Edgar’s Valedictory Ode to the Senior Class of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) May 16, 1859. Princeton University Class Records (AC130), Box 4. Though the third stanza of Edgar’s ode refers to a metaphorical battlefield, many of the Class of 1859 fought against one another on literal battlefields. About half (35) of the 73-member class fought in the Civil War, 15 for the Union and 20 for the Confederacy.

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This Week in Princeton History for November 16-22

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the college president boasts about America’s educational system, Billy Joel draws crowds, and more.

November 16, 1772—The New York Gazette prints a letter from College of New Jersey (Princeton) President John Witherspoon that asserts that an American college education is the best in the world, because Princeton does not practice corporal punishment: “no correction by stripes is permitted: Such as cannot be governed by reason and the principles of honour and shame, are reckoned unfit for residence in a College.”

November 17, 1972—The University Council’s Executive Committee orders flags on campus to fly at half-mast in mourning for two students shot to death during a protest at Southern University in Baton Rouge under circumstances some say mirror deaths at Kent State University in 1970. The committee refers to the police killings as a “tragedy [that] represents a resort to violence as response to disagreement among people.” The Association for Black Collegians is taking up a collection to help provide for other students in Louisiana affected by the incident.

November 19, 2001—Billy Joel lectures on the history of music and performs in a variety of styles in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium.

Billy_Joel_AC168_Box_197

Billy Joel gestures to the crowd in Richardson Auditorium, November 19, 2001. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 197.

November 21, 1917—The Daily Princetonian runs an editorial suggesting “meatless and wheatless” days in campus dining halls and eating clubs in response to widespread food shortages.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.