Authored by anon in “In the Shadow of the Church: Black Study in the Town of Davidson“
last updated 02.09.2021
This same presence and fullness overflows in this photo of Ms. Lula Bell Houston, upon her retirement from the Davidson College laundry. Having worked at Davidson for over fifty years, Ms. Houston saw the Civil Rights Movement, the school’s slow desegregation, the creation of the BSC, and multiple struggles for labor equity and worker’s rights during her time at the College. Upon her retirement, the administration named what was then the laundry building after her. Now, Lula Bell’s is a resource center designed to serve low-income students, by providing resources such as food, clothing, and textbook rentals. Her retirement was profiled in the Charlotte Observer, in an article titled “Changed College Says Warm Goodbye,” (St. Onge, 2004).
Something that stuck out to me about this image, other than the tenderness of the embrace between Houston and Jackson, is the joy and love in the face of the Black man standing behind her. When she first came to Davidson, the student body was entirely white. She became the first Black person to work the front desk in the laundry, but when she left the institution surrounded by Black coworkers and Black students (St. Onge, 2004). In the Observer article, she recalls seeing the first Black men enroll at the College, and fondly recollects the relationships that she built with Black students over the years. While articles recall the College’s gratefulness and efforts to memorialize her, this image shows a Black woman being loved and appreciated, in a way so powerful that it transforms the physicality of an institution itself. The way that Lula Bell Houston loved and was loved renamed a building, put an end to the laundry practice (a holdover from the antebellum South), and continues to create opportunities and care for poor students and students of color, long after she passed away.
IV. Concluding Thoughts
After reflecting on these images, one after another, my image of the institution is a double exposure: intimacy and close hugs simultaneous with exploitation and disappearing homes. I don’t believe that Davidson’s “niceness” can be separated from its violence. Niceness as in affect, as in professionalism, as in noblesse oblige, as in liberalism, as in exceptionalism, and as in prettiness. The “Davidson aesthetic” of green lawns and stately pillars is an iteration of anti-Black violence, from its plantation inspirations (Mellin, 2020, pg. 61), to the dispossessions perpetuated by Covington and his associates in service of this image of Davidson. Afropessimist theory helps us understand that the knowledge that Davidson “equips” its students with is predicated on anti-Blackness, shaped by images in its own visual and cultural self-reproducing canon (Wilderson, 2020). Can we ask what it means for Davidson to hold itself accountable for the nice white people it has released into the world, for what they do in the empire of images that the College has built of and around them?
And in the same place, at the same time, what possibilities for Black study are opened up by the work of Lula Bell Houston and the people who loved her? How did people who lived “in the shadow” of the College shine a light on dark pasts and presents, use the tools in their possession to keep each other warm, and pass the torch to others? I hope that these photos allow us to interrogate the narrative of Davidson College as the only site of knowledge production, as separated from the consequences of its actions and from the legacies of white supremacy and anti-Blackness that animate its presence on this land. I hope that considering the power of Black women in the town of Davidson to subvert regimes of power through memory, care, and celebration calls us to action, even (especially) if that action comes in the form of new and more difficult questions.