Mabel Hillian was the first to leave her family’s farm in Cheraw, S.C. Heading north during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South, in 1916 Mabel made her way to Princeton, where she had family. Within a few months her young sister Bessie arrived, and both found work as kitchen assistants at McCosh Infirmary.
They stayed for half a century, Mabel — who became the head cook — working for 46 years, Bessie for 50.
Although Mabel claimed to The Daily Princetonian that she “couldn’t even cut butter” when she arrived at McCosh, the meals the Hillian sisters prepared were so scrumptious that students and staff in the know would stand outside and ask for food to be passed through the kitchen windows. The kitchen became a gathering place at meal times, drawing ordinary workers and Princeton presidents. The Hillians’ nephew Robert J. Rivers ’53 — among the first African American students at Princeton — was a member of Prospect Club, but he still ate most of his meals at McCosh: The food was better, ice cream filled the freezer, and the visits with his family served as a support system at a time when Princeton was not welcoming to its few students of color.
After long days at McCosh, the family spent hours picking, then canning the harvest — which included everything from “B for beans to W for watermelon” — back at their apartment in McCosh.
For at least a decade during World War II and the Korean War, the Hillian sisters and their brother Tom, who had become an orderly at McCosh in 1922, planted and tended the Down South Garden on about two acres of land where the Lewis Thomas Laboratory now stands to ease the pressures of war rationing. After long days at McCosh, the family spent hours picking, then canning the harvest — which included everything from “B for beans to W for watermelon” — back at their apartment in McCosh. They used the produce in the infirmary food and gave the remainder — up to 1,000 quarts each year — to local families in need.
The Hillians were among the many members of Princeton’s African American community who worked in service jobs at the University or its eating clubs. Bessie’s husband, Harley Dargan, was a butler at McCosh (Mabel never married), and other family members also worked at Princeton — for a family total of 200 years of employment at the University.
Beyond McCosh and Princeton University, the Hillians were pillars of their church community, and Bessie earned a beautician’s license in the 1940s. Each summer Bessie and Mabel traveled to Nova Scotia with the family of John Finney, a University trustee. In 1955, they went on vacation to Bermuda, the Prince reporting that it was the “first time since the beginning of World War I that they have been away with nothing to do and no one to take care of.”