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Helen McDowell

Born on September 28, 1903, in Abingdon, Virginia, Helen Newberry McDowell was the fourth of fourteen children. Her mother, Caroline, was orphaned in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised by her uncle Frank Donahue in Abingdon, where her mother met her father, Samuel.

McDowell attended Morristown Industrial School, where her mother taught, and went on to Bennett College. Graduating in 1924, she attended Teacher's College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. McDowell then attended Howard University from 1928 to 1931, earning her M.A. in education.

McDowell began teaching in 1925, and after earning her M.A. went on to teach at Morgan State University in Baltimore. In the 1940s, McDowell bought six houses in Washington, D.C., and converted them into rooming houses for students. These buildings became known as the Newberry House and from 1949 to 1973, was the home to hundreds of students from Howard University's School of Religion. McDowell also ran a wedding salon out of Newberry House. McDowell began teaching at Phelps Vocational High School in Washington, D.C., in 1950, and taught English there until her retirement in 1973. She then moved to California with her husband but relocated to Washington D.C. in 1993. McDowell continues to teach

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Kings Mountain School

Morristown College

Bennett College for Women

Howard University

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If a task is once begun, never leave it till it's done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.

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District of Columbia

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Lodging entrepreneur and high school english teacher Helen McDowell (1903 - 2010 ) has owned and operated Newberry House, a boarding house for Howard University students, as well as a wedding boutique. McDowell was also a teacher in the Washington D.C. area for over 47 years.


Morgan State University

Phelps Vocational High School

Newberry House

Board of Education

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Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Slating of Helen McDowell's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Helen McDowell lists her favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Helen McDowell talks about her mother's family, childhood, education, and early career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Helen McDowell describes her mother's thwarted career plans and methods of teaching her children</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Helen McDowell talks about her father and his family's heritage</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Helen McDowell recalls her cousins moving away in 1912 and a happy visit to see them in Los Angeles, California in 1934</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Helen McDowell recounts her father's work as a cook for the Southern Railroad and later for a family in Abingdon, Virginia</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Helen McDowell describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Helen McDowell recalls childhood memories, including a word game that she later used when teaching</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Helen McDowell remembers her early education at King's Mountain School in Abingdon, Virginia</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Helen McDowell explains how she was able to attend school despite financial hardships</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Helen McDowell recalls her college education and her first years teaching at a Rosenwald school in Wilkesboro, North Carolina in 1924</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Helen McDowell details her time completing her teacher training at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Helen McDowell recalls meeting her husband Newberry at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Helen McDowell recalls meeting her husband Newberry at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, pt. 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Helen McDowell recounts her marriage to her husband and their work at an elementary school in Liberty, North Carolina</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Helen McDowell talks about her husband's family in North Carolina</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Helen McDowell recalls happy memories of attending Bennett College and living with her in-laws in North Carolina during 1927</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Helen McDowell explains how she was able to continue at Howard University while raising her siblings after her mother's death in 1931</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Helen McDowell remembers her mentors at Howard University, Washington, D.C.</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Helen McDowell reflects on her religious beliefs and raising her siblings</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Helen McDowell explains how she began operating rooming houses, including the Newberry House</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Helen McDowell recalls Dr. Thomas Wright, a Civil Rights leader who stayed at Newberry House</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Helen McDowell remembers Howard Thurman and his story about Haley's Comet</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Helen McDowell describes how Dr. Benjamin Mays inspired her</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Helen McDowell recalls how Dr. William Leo Hansberry conducted a slide-show lecture at Newberry House</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Helen McDowell mentions Dr. Ernest Everett Just and Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and explains why she does not join organizations</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Helen McDowell talks about the influence of Mary McLeod Bethune and George Washington Carver</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Helen McDowell recalls the highlight of her educational career at Phelps Trade School in Washington, D.C.</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Helen McDowell talks about providing guidance and support for her students</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Helen McDowell describes helping a former student and his family succeed</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Helen McDowell explains her teaching philosophy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Helen McDowell attributes her longevity to a disciplined and religious life</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Helen McDowell describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Helen McDowell reflects upon her legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Helen McDowell talks about how she would like to be remembered</a>







Helen McDowell describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood
Helen McDowell talks about providing guidance and support for her students
Now, what was it like to grow up? What did the place look like? And what were some of the sights and sounds and smells of growing up? What do you remember from your childhood?$$I know we lived in a four-room--in Bell's place, we called it. It was a four-room house. There was a hydrant, the water--there was a hydrant out there on the, I think that hydrant was on the front porch, right by the step. There was one step up to the front porch. And one night the house caught on fire (laughter). Somebody put--there was lamp sitting on the sewing machine. And there was a cover out on the sewing machine. And we were going to bed. We always had family prayer before going to bed. It was Monday night. My father was at a lodge meeting. When mama [Lucy Ellison Newberry] got through with the prayer, we always had a little verse we'd say. I had one brother who never could get enough to eat. And mama always said he had a tapeworm. And, but we got ready to go to bed, mama had a little verse she used to say, "To bed, to bed said sleepyhead". And she'd point out the one, whoever said, "I'm sleepy, let's go to bed." Mama said, "To bed, to bed, said sleepyhead". That'd be that one. "No, no, said, slow. Put on the pot said, greedy gut"--that's Carl. "Let's eat before we go." Every night, we'd go off to bed saying that. And on our way to bed that night, somebody pulled--that cover on the machine had tassels on it. And somebody pulled one of the tassels and pulled the lamp off of the sewing machine. That's the only reason I have that lamp today. There's a lamp on that commode, over there by the window. That's what we used to see, but I keep that for old time's sake (laughter). They pulled the lamp off of the machine, and the oil exploded and set the lamp on fire--I mean set the cover on that machine on fire. And it went up and burnt the curtains. And one of the boys pulled the curtain down, and he pulled it down. Instead of throwing it out the door, he threw it on the floor, and that caught the rug on fire. And (unclear) then the older brothers got the, went out there to this faucet (laughter), and got water and put the fire out. And they wet the floor all over. My father [Samuel Newberry] was at a lodge meeting. And when he came home, he smelled something burning and said, "What's burning?" Mama never did tell him. She never did tell him what happened--$Tell us about the jail story again?$$Oh, I went down to jail as a character witness for one of my students. And while there, they had a group of prisoners waiting to come into court. And I went by there, and I saw a lot of 'em put their hands up over their faces when they saw me. And I said, you needn't hide your faces. I know you by the shoes 'cause they had ole dirty tennis shoes all the time (laughter). And they laughed. They said, Ms. Newberry [Helen McDowell], I knew you would know who I was (laughter). I didn't know them. I didn't even know that--if they hadn't done that, I wouldn't have known if they (unclear), you know. But I told 'em I knew 'em from--but that school, I never--every time I'd see anybody with some shoes untied, I'd make him stop and tie his shoes up. And then those were days they were wearing plaits [braids]. I told 'em men didn't wear plaits on their heads. And I'd make 'em go get those plaits off there. I wouldn't let 'em in my classroom with plaits on their head. And then when they started to wearing "bush" (laughter), I had a time fighting all that during the '60s [1960s] stuff that was coming in. But, and then when my students were beginning to use dope, you know, dope was coming in at that time. And I had one little boy--I can't think of that child's name. At any rate, he had a name that could be pronounced two different ways. If I call it one thing, then all the students would tell me to pronounce it another way, and--but at any rate, one morning I called his name. I had my students seated in alphabetical order, and I didn't have to call the roll. I'd just look at the seat, I'd know who would be absent. And Montague, but, oh, yeah, I called him Montigue [ph.]. And they'd say Montague, Ms. Newberry. If I'd say Montague, they'd say "Montigue". Anyway, when I called his name one morning, they said, he won't be coming anymore, Ms. Newberry. I said, why? Said, he got killed last night. He robbed a filling station down there at Fourth and Front Avenue [Washington, D.C.]. And he put his gun on the man, got $30.00, and he kept the gun on the man until he got back to his car. And when he turned around to get in the car, the man shot him in the back. And he died with the $30.00 in one hand and his gun in the other. When they told me about that, I'm telling you all, I felt so badly. I broke, I started crying. I couldn't stop crying to save my soul. That hurt my heart. And all the rest of that day, I could not teach. I couldn't do a thing. And I think after that, the students, their attitude, their conduct and everything about them changed completely. They were the most wonderful students, and when you hear about all this stuff going on, there's never one of my students involved. And when they had the riot, I told all of 'em to go home. I said, don't follow the crowds. You follow the crowd, somebody's gon' get hurt. And they--I said, go home. One of my boys got burned up in the Five and Ten Cents store up on 14th Street [Washington, D.C.], one of the best boys in my class, in any of my classes, nice boy. They said he went home and changed clothes and then followed a group of boys back into the streets. I went to his funeral. They just had his picture on the casket 'cause he was burnt up. You know, those students have never forgotten me (laughter). Those boys just, they just seemed like my children, and so I love every one of 'em. And they loved me. They call me. They always want to do something for me. They call every day. I got some of 'em, I haven't turned loose since they were in the tenth grade.