In the University Archives, we often get research questions about family members who attended Duke. Using yearbooks, photographs, and other resources, we can provide a general sketch of a person—he was a member of this fraternity, she lived in this dormitory. What’s missing is a rich description of the person herself. Did she enjoy school? Did he have lots of friends? What was she really like?
“Personality” is not information provided by official university records. But occasionally the University Archives holds a diary, photograph album, or scrapbook that tells a little bit more. That is the case for Clara Odessa Massey, Class of 1928, a young woman who kept a detailed scrapbook of her personal life while at Duke. Through the bits of paper, letters, notes, and clippings pasted into her scrapbook, Odessa, as she was known, becomes as real and lively as if we were back in the 1920s.
Odessa Massey entered Duke University in the fall of 1924. She had grown up in Wilson’s Mills in Johnston County, North Carolina, the youngest of four, and the only daughter. While at Duke, Odessa participated in the Athena Literary Society and the Glee Club. Within her scrapbook, there is very little about these activities or her academic career—nothing about the courses she took or the books she read—and little can be found about the creation of Duke University, which happened during her freshman year. There is, however, plenty of fascinating information about her social life.
The scrapbook is a testament to Odessa’s popularity with young men on campus. One poem from a smitten suitor reads:
Beautiful Odessa with your dark brown eyes
You would certainly win a beauty prize.
I have now realized that I love you
And found out what your love can do.
It makes me hazy, lazy, wise
But when I’m with you, I never close my eyes.
A female friend wrote in the scrapbook with admiration, “Odessa you beat it all. 2 doz love affairs in one year.” Some of her suitors were less successful but no less ardent. A four-page letter from “Duck” to Odessa at the end of her sophomore year pleads: “I presume that you already have a date for next Thursday night, or something will happen to keep you from having one, or you just won’t give me one; but if you haven’t, and nothing happens, and you will give me one I’m sure nothing would please me more. Really, you should sacrifice a little of your time to making someone happy. Even if you should be bored to tears for two or three hours, think, if you can, how much I would enjoy it and perhaps you will give me the rare pleasure.”
In among the many calling cards from young men, valentines, and clippings about football games are signs that Odessa was a bit of a rule breaker. One letter from the end of her junior year informs her that she would be deprived of dates from May 18 to 28 for “dating on the ‘gym’ steps at night last week.” Female students at Duke were strictly monitored for their social activities, and were punished for lingering too long with a boy or leaving without official permission. Another letter declares: “The Council hereby deprives you of all dates (Sunday afternoon dates included) for two weeks March 21st through April 3rd for walking from the Library with boys Wednesday night and being with them long enough to count it as a date and failing to report. It would have been for only a week had you reported it.” It seems Odessa did not feel a sense of shame about these reprimands, or about dating, as she pasted them into the scrapbook with (one suspects) a sense of pride.
One envelope pasted into the scrapbook appears to date from October 1925, postmarked from her hometown, but contains no letter. In pencil, Odessa has written, “Brought very sad news!” It’s impossible to know for certain what it contained, but records show that her father, Patrick Massey, died five months later in March 1926. Odessa left Duke at the end of her junior year, for reasons that are unclear. Perhaps after her father’s death the previous year, paying tuition was too difficult. She taught school in Vance County until 1935, when she married Robert Wade Brady, a builder in Raleigh. Odessa Massey Brady died in 1992. However, her spirit and her scrapbook live on in the University Archives, providing a glimpse into the life of one special student in the 1920s—and the world of Duke at the time.
—Gillispie is the university archivist