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FOR WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: Early Female Employees at Davidson College

by | Mar 31, 2021 | Davidson History, News, Top Left Box

Even though Davidson College was founded as an all-male school, there were a few female employees at the college in the 19th century. The first of these was Ann Brown, who was hired in 1857 to oversee the college’s dining hall and guest house. Forty years later, the college hired Gertrude Williamson to teach mandolin and guitar and Eulalia Cornelius to teach voice. During the early the twentieth century, however, individual women began to be influential in the life of Davidson College.

Miss Cornelia Shaw was the first woman to join the executive staff of the college. According to her 1937 obituary in The Pilot, she came to Davidson in 1905 after serving as editor of Charlotte’s Presbyterian Standard. She started out as President Henry Louis Smith’s secretary, but the following year she was appointed registrar and college librarian. In 1918 Quips and Cranks, the college yearbook, described her as a “faithful and true advisor to every college man.” She filled this dual role until 1921, when she became the head librarian. In 1923 she published the first comprehensive history of the college, Davidson College: Intimate Facts. She retired from the college in 1936, and in a tribute written at the time of her death in 1937, President Walter Lingle noted that she “rendered distinguished service and was honored and loved by the whole college community.”

Alice Robson

Alice B. Robson was another early hire. Sources differ as to when she was hired, with some saying 1906 and others saying 1908. It appears, however, that she may have been at the college as early as June 1905 when the Davidson College Bulletin described her as “a trained nurse of long and successful experience” who was in charge of the college infirmary. Robson was educated at Stonewall Jackson College in Virginia and received her nurses’ training at the Retreat for the Sick in Norfolk, Virginia. There she met Dr. George R. Robson, whom she married in 1897. He died in 1901. A tribute in the Davidsonian called her “One of the truest of those who have served Davidson…Those for whom she has cared, alone, can tell with how great an interest and concern she looks upon every man of the student body.” She retired in 1937 and asked the students to continue to visit her at her home on North Main Street.

Some longtime female employees of the college were not as visible to either the students or the public. One of these was Mrs. Percy Simolton Scales, who was born near Davidson in 1888.  Mrs. Scales first helped to raise college president Henry Louis Smith’s children, even following the family to Lexington, Virginia, in 1912 when he became president of Washington and Lee. She returned to Davidson a year later and was hired by Cornelia Shaw as the custodian of the college library. She worked for three hours early in the morning, and later in the day worked for various families in town. An October 27, 1950 Davidsonian article about her retirement noted “the Simoltons were respected members of the colored community, noted for honesty and intelligence.” The article went on to say that “the students rarely saw her but they saw the results of her careful attention…For over thirty-five years she was a member of the College staff and there are few in its history who have rendered so long, so loyal, and so efficient a service as Percy Scales.” She died only five years after her retirement.

Born in Rock Hill South Carolina 1890, Orrie Steele arrived at Davidson in 1916 as college receptionist and assistant to the president. She served three presidents, and in his Memories of

Orrie Steele

Davidson College, one of those presidents, Walter Lingle, asserted that “all three presidents, if they could speak, would say that no president ever had a more loyal secretary, or a more faithful one. Not only so, but she knows how to keep silent in seven languages concerning the things she sees in the stream of correspondence that passes through her hands. “When she died in 1949, the Davidsonian reported that “the hearts of the people of the community and alumni of the college were saddened upon hearing” of her death.

According to historian Mary Beaty, Hattie Thompson came to work as assistant to the college treasurer in 1914. She was born in Davidson and was the daughter of John Nelson Thompson and Carry McGaw. She attended Statesville Female College but had to drop out when her father died in 1892. Beaty described Thompson as “a Davidson belle of the 1890s…the sort of quiet, dependable woman on whom a town’s social and civic structure can rest.” Thompson also served for many years as the organist at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church, and, according to Beaty, exhibited the same “high standards of conduct” in this role. According to Beatty, some years earlier the minister had jilted her, and sometimes when he announced a hymn, she would launch into quite a different one. In 1935 Ms. Thompson became the town’s first tax collector. She retired from Davidson College in 1946 and died ten years later.

In 1922 Mrs. Nancy T. Smith was hired to supervise the dormitories, making her the first female supervisor of dormitories at any men’s college in the South. Mrs. Smith (called “Mrs. T.N.T.) by the students, had served with both the YMCA and the Red Cross during World War I, and the Davidsonian reported that “her presence in the dormitories will add a touch of neatness and cleanliness to dormitory life that has been heretofore lacking.” The reporter praised her for her “refined personality and dignified manner,” and declared that “experience in working with young men will qualify her in a particular manner for her service at Davidson.” In 1938 she was elected a Life Member of the college’s Philanthropic Literary Society. She retired from her post in 1943.

Following in these footsteps, many more women were hired by the college in succeeding years. By 1937, eight of the seventeen staff members on campus were woman. The first woman, visiting associate professor of psychology Carolyn MacBrayer, joined the faculty in 1956, and continued in that role until 1960. The first female tenured professor was Cora Louise Nelson, who joined the faculty in 1964. In 1992 Nancy Cable was hired as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, and in 2001 she became Davidson’s first female vice president. Carol Quillen was hired as the college’s first female president in 2011.

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

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