Richard Groves: ‘Great Houses Do Not Run Themselves’

In December 1917, Richard Joshua Reynolds, his wife, Katharine, and their children moved from their house on “millionaires’ row” in downtown Winston-Salem, “with its turrets, gables and wraparound porch where tobacco men smoked cigars on Sunday afternoons,” to their new home on their country estate: Reynolda.

In the decades that followed, dozens of families who made their fortunes in tobacco and textiles built grand houses in the suburbs (Stratford Road marked the city limits in the early 20th century), material evidence of the prosperity of Winston-Salem, which in 1931 was known as “the town of 100 millionaires.”

Margaret Supplee Smith, Harold W. Tribble Professor of Art Emerita at Wake Forest University, writes about 75 of those residences in “Great Houses and Their Stories: Winston Salem’s ‘Era of Success,’ 1912-1940,” which was published by Preservation North Carolina last year but already is in its third printing. The stunning photography is by architectural photographer Jackson Smith.

“Great Houses” is for preservationists, local history buffs and architecture lovers. It is also for those of us for whom the “great houses” have simply become part of the passing urban landscape. And if you’re looking for enticing tidbits about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, there’s enough to keep you entertained.

What sets “Great Houses and Their Stories” apart from other books of its type is the final chapter, “Great Houses Do Not Run Themselves,” in which Margaret Smith introduces the reader to the housemaids — upstairs and downstairs — chauffeurs, cooks, governesses, butlers and gardeners, which is to say, the workers, mostly but not exclusively Black, “who kept it all going.”

While some domestic workers lived on the premises, often in garage apartments, most lived elsewhere in the city — primarily in East Winston — and rode the bus to work.

The hours often were long, and the pay was low. Thirty-nine-year-old Addie Woodruff, who began working as a child care nurse when she was just 12 years old, earned an annual salary as a cook of $9,500 in today’s money.

But options were limited in the South for Black women. Smith notes, “Black women looking for paid work had little choice but to become domestic servants and clean the houses, cook the meals, care for the children and do the laundry of white families.”

Thanks to “Great Houses,” the “help” are no longer anonymous figures standing in the back of old black-and-white family photos in crisply starched uniforms.

Smith introduces them by name.

Mabel Smith, nanny. Jim Martin, cook. Lisa Little Worton, housekeeper. Cora Bailey, cook. John Carter, steward.

Addie Siewers appears in a photo with five Womble children and their pony, Gentry, on a family vacation in the North Carolina mountains.

The greatest act of respect one can show for another person is to listen to his or her story. One’s story is the content and meaning of one’s life. To listen to and retell another person’s story is to pay respect to a life.

Margaret Smith notes that “most stories about domestic workers in Winston Salem have not been captured.” Drawing on interviews with children and grandchildren of both the early occupants of the “great houses” and of those who served them, plus the meager information that could be extracted from census records and city directories, Margaret Smith tells some of those stories.

Dock Grier worked 47 years in the Hanes household. He was retained as “plant coordinator” when the mansion became the home of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. The library at SECCA was named in his honor.

Joanne, a granddaughter of Cephus Alphonso Grier, chauffeur for Pleasant Henderson Hanes, founder of Hanes Knitting Co., married Phillip Cousin, who became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and who, in 1984, became the first Black president of the National Council of Churches.

Oscar-nominated actress Pam Grier was the granddaughter of Clarence Grier, Cephus Alphonso Grier’s brother.

“These are the stories of just a few of the men, women, and sometimes children who were essential to the smooth functioning of the great households of Winston-Salem,” Margaret Smith said in the very last sentence of “Great Houses.”

Lest we be smug, the stories of the workers who roof and paint our houses or who mow our lawns and work in our fields have not been, and probably never will be, “captured.”

Though they, too, play a significant part in keeping it all going, we don’t know their stories either.

By Richard Groves