Nettie Nichols Bemis, 1st Lady Supervisor, Oxford Orphan Asylum

Nettie Nichols Bemis came from New England to the South via Haverhill, Massachusetts, where she taught for ten years, and Pratt Institute in New York City, where she received instruction in drawing and manual training. She arrived in the area of the country that was to become her home in September 1893. In that year, she began drawing and manual training courses for the students of Durham, North Carolina’s one public school, and received her own lessons in ‘the ways and manners […] of the people in the South.’

Nettie-BemisIn 1897 Nettie made her first trip to the campus at Oxford, seeing for the first time the bustling, busy life of the children and staff in residence at the Asylum.

On June 22, 1898, Col. W.J.Hicks was unanimously elected Superintendent, and Miss Nettie N. Bemis, Lady Supervisor, by the Board of Directors of the Asylum.

For the next 30 years, until age and infirmity beckoned her back to the care of family in the Northeast, Nettie made her home in Oxford and provided unflagging devotion to the Orphan Asylum, then Orphanage, and all the children and staff who were her family here.

Upon her retirement in 1931, the Board of Directors of the Orphanage passed a unanimous resolution expressing appreciation for:

Nettie’s long and devoted service both to the Orphanage and to the cause of childhood in North Carolina;

Her thirty years of service as a devoted and efficient head matron, giving herself unstintingly to the cause of orphan children in North Carolina;

Her personal role in preparing hundreds of children to attain for themselves higher and better things after leaving Oxford.

The Board directed that ‘a perpetual record of her service and devotion be kept in the archives of the Orphanage.’ In 2009, on the opening of the Ligon Gallery, the bronze relief of Nettie commissioned in 1932 by the Alumni Association of the Home was permanently installed, fulfilling that promise.

Few photographs of Nettie have survived until now; those that have are not particularly flattering. They show Nettie to be, for the most part, an unsmiling woman of less than jovial temperament, even, perhaps, a bit fierce.

The legacy Nettie created here belies her public countenance. In Nettie’s words:

Teachers, matrons and friends alike from my earliest years there until the last; from the mountains to the sea; from Delaware to Florida frequently send loving messages. These are treasured among my most precious memories of the past.

There is nothing I can say to express my love for you…all these are my rewards. I bless you all.