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.

Dear Mr. Mudd: How Did Princeton Students Treat Campus Servants?

This post is the second in a two-part series.

Dear Mr. Mudd,

If Princeton University dormitories could not have housed enslaved persons, why does the rumor persist that they did? What were the experiences of campus servants really like? How did students treat them?

 

Last week, I outlined the factual evidence that proves that dorms at Princeton were not designed with enslaved residents in mind, and that enslaved people did not live with students in dormitories. Though fictional, however, the myth does hint at some of the hidden truths of marginalized lives spent within the walls of buildings on campus. Today’s post considers the levels of personal service students were given and the dehumanizing treatment many employees endured from Princeton students in the past.

Though it is unclear how this rumor originated, there are some historical clues. Family tradition holds that Charles Haile, Class of 1855, brought an enslaved valet, William Doby, Jr., with him to campus, though it is clear that he would not have been able to have had Doby living with him under the campus rules at the time. In 1924, the Daily Princetonian ran an interview with George McGow, a Black resident of Princeton, then 75 years old, who said he had been Woodrow Wilson’s personal valet:

“He stopped me on Nassau Street,” he said, speaking of his first meeting with the great man, “and asked me if I would keep his room in Witherspoon Hall for him. I began that way, but soon became his personal servant, a thing I guess the boys don’t have now; but lots of southern lads in those days brought their own servants with them from home.”

McGow is listed on the 1920 census as having parents from “The South,” but without a state specified. I’ve been unable to determine where he lived before that. If McGow did act in this capacity, or others acted in this capacity for other students, they would not have lived with their employers if they were living in dorms, as Wilson was in Witherspoon Hall, even if McGow was cleaning Wilson’s dorm room periodically.

Waitstaff is visible in this photograph of graduate students dining in Proctor Hall ca. 1950s. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP191, Image No. 5162.

Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for November 11-17

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Princetonian suggests students start making their own beds on Sundays, a new highway cuts Nassau Street’s traffic in half, and more.

November 12, 1941—Noting that the staff is not being paid well and will not be given any raises while the University is operating at a loss, the Princetonian suggests students start making their own beds on Sundays so the janitors can begin to have one full day off per week.

Fritz (no last name recorded), a janitor in Laughlin Hall, 1931. Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067), Box 1. According to mid-20th century policies, janitors worked seven days per week and were required to turn out the lights in dormitories every night and make the beds every morning. They had a standard work week of 57 hours. In the 1930s, students began debating the fairness of making their own beds. Janitors unionized in 1942, demanding higher pay and fewer hours, including one full day off per week.

Continue reading

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 June 17-23

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a gas shortage causes headaches in town, the baseball team begins a tour playing against New England colleges, and more.

June 18, 1882—Marquand Chapel is dedicated.

Marquand Chapel, ca. 1880s. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP29, Image No. 688.

Continue reading

The Princeton Pullman’s “Filipino Boys”

We’ve previously told you about the Princeton Pullman, a specially-designed railroad car that took faculty and students across North America in the 1920s and 1930s to collect geological specimens and fossils. Today, we’d like to highlight one aspect of these journeys: the Filipino staff who attended to the practical needs of the travelers, one of whom had an impact far exceeding his apparent official role as head chef.

Staff in front of the Princeton Pullman, 1926. Department of Geosciences Records (AC139), Box 39.

Continue reading

“Studying Is Fine, but Living Has Been Another Problem”: Mary Procter *71 and Coeducation at Princeton

Earlier this year, I began telling the story of the female graduate students who paved the way for undergraduate coeducation at Princeton University starting in 1961. This blog continues that story with a focus on Mary Procter *71 (often misspelled as Mary Proctor *71) and her unusually influential role while a Princeton graduate student.

Procter got then-Provost William Bowen’s attention with a 1968 letter to the Daily Princetonian that took campus men to task for their treatment of the few undergraduate women who were in Princeton classrooms at the time as exchange students in the Critical Languages Program. Procter made vague reference to the fact that the band had referred to these women as “cunning linguists” and made other crude jokes about them during the halftime show at the Princeton-Harvard game. Anonymously signing her letter as simply “Female Graduate Student,” Procter had written, “I had always thought that men’s universities produced men, lusty and bawdy if you will, but not sniggering sickly creatures, obsessed with double meanings which suggest that they are not interested in girls so much as lollipops or bits of mashed potato.” Procter later said she wrote in to the Prince because she was “furious” and felt “Princeton does not deserve to be coed.”

Jackie Johnson *70, Katie Marshall *69, and Mary Procter *71. Photo from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 13, 1969.

Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for January 23-29

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a drawing is held for room assignments in a new dorm, the basketball team plays its first game ever, and more.

January 23, 1767—Jonathan Baldwin secures an affidavit from Job Stockton to defend himself against accusations that he has defrauded the College of New Jersey of about 30 pounds of mutton. “Tho’ I have been employed ten years in buying and providing for the college, this is the first instance, in which I have been charged with this surprising facility, in being imposed upon in my bargains,” Baldwin writes.

January 24, 1898—Students participate in a drawing to secure lodging in the newly-built Blair Hall. Rents range from $200-$300 per year including meals.

blair_hall_ca_1897_ac111_box_mp04_no_69

Blair Hall, ca. 1897. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP04, Image No. 69.

Continue reading

African Americans and Princeton University

Dear Mr. Mudd:

Q. What information do you have about African Americans and Princeton University?

A. Until the twentieth century, Princeton’s history has mostly been dominated by white men, typically from prosperous backgrounds. Though decidedly pro-Union during the Civil War, the campus had strong Southern influences, and its reputation as the “northernmost university town of the [segregated] south” was not undeserved. Yet that is not to say that Princeton’s story can only be told in terms of its loudest voices. Here, we give a brief overview of some of the ways African Americans fit into Princeton’s past.

Cheerleaders_1995_AC112_SP9_No.2484

Princeton University cheerleaders Holland Gary ’97 and Tiffany O’Brien ’97, 1995. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box SP9, Image No. 2484.

Continue reading