The house is still there on Berkeley Street in Durham, but in the early days of Duke University and Trinity College, when the street was called Fourth Street, the house was a second home to many university students. In 1954, writer Jack Edmonds introduced readers to Ma Cross.
Ma’s boarding house is a University tradition. It’s a tradition older than the Blue Devils, or even older than the Duke Chapel.
Trinity College has played an intimate part in Ma’s life since its moving to Durham in 1892. For the past thirty-two years she has been feeding students at 814 Fourth Street in the same big, white frame house with the row of rocking chairs on the front porch. She still cooks on the same old-fashioned wood stove. She maintains it’s the only stove on which she can bake good rolls. The old Victrola that Ace Parker and Fred Crawford used to play still sits in the corner of the dining room. …
Mrs. Cross’ association with Trinity College began in 1892. At that time she was young Effie McDonald. Trinity College opened near Durham in 1892, and her father, Mr. McDonald, was there next to the campus with a general store ready to serve the young preachers. And his was the only store there for them; about the only thing around his place and the school building was woods and farm land.
It was nice there – a good business, plenty of room to keep livestock and start up a little farming again. And then in the evenings students would congregate in the store to sit and talk about preaching, big plans for the future, the old plantations, how their folks’ homes used to be before the war, how they were babies when it was going on but they heard lots about it. There was plenty to talk about.
The young men were a good influence for McDonald’s twelve children too, and he wanted to make sure that they were brought up properly. There was always something for them to do – help with the store or the farming or the housework. Everybody went to Trinity’s yearly flag raisings and lowerings and went over to Hanes Field to see the ball games.
Time passed. A few more homes sprouted near the campus. Mr. McDonald got old. The school grew up; the children grew up. Some of them left; some of them stayed. Effie McDonald became Mrs. Cross. She soon had two daughters.
As soon as Trinity College began expanding to more than just a ministerial school, Mr. and Mrs. Cross decided that the girls were going to go to school there. In order to earn enough extra money to provide for her daughters’ education, in 1922 Mrs. Cross began feeding students at her home. Ma, as Mrs. Cross soon came to be called, for a quarter a meal served the college men all the steaks, chops, fresh vegetables and desserts they could eat and all the milk they could drink.
Boarding houses were common in those days, because there weren’t any cafeterias or dining halls on campus and the men were expected to find a place to eat elsewhere. Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Daniel, Mrs. Wilkerson, Mrs. Thompson, and Mrs. Cross all took in boarders. Only one of them, however, was known as Ma.…
The Crosses’ first home was on what is now part of East Campus. When Trinity College expanded, they had to move. They moved a half a block away from the new campus boundary. As years went on, Trinity College became Duke University. School dining halls relieved the need for the boarding houses, till finally Ma’s was the only one still in business.
Ma’s boarding house continued. Her girls, like their mother and grandfather, went to the flag raisings and lowerings, and, of course, the ball games. When they were old enough they entered Duke University as students. They graduated and became teachers in local elementary schools. They married and began raising more future Duke students.
But Ma kept her boarding house. Students ate there three times a day, and between meals they loitered around the house, on the front porch or inside playing the piano or the phonograph.
Times got bad and good and bad again. The first big blow was the depression. On the day of the bank failure the boarding house was hit hard. The Crosses lost their money; the students lost theirs. Many of the boys couldn’t pay for their meals. However Ma managed to keep on feeding them, though she had to stop serving some of the fancier food. One of the boys couldn’t pay her back till after he had started his practice as a lawyer.
Then things became easier for a while till December, 1941. During the war, Ma almost needed a special bookkeeper for the ration coupons. Many students left; many soldiers came. Ma’s policy up to the Second World War had been to serve only Duke students. When Camp Butner was established the need changed from serving students to serving soldiers and their wives. They lined up in front of the house and on down the street sometimes, waiting to be fed. The N&O, Sept. 12, 1954
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