The Women’s History Month story of Louise Reid

by Tatiana Paden, CH Conservancy, Archives Coordinator
Posted 3/7/24

The following is an account of the life of Louise Reid, drawn from an oral history conducted by Andrew Jarvis on Sunday, January 10, 1988. 

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The Women’s History Month story of Louise Reid


The following is an account of the life of Louise Reid, drawn from an oral history conducted by Andrew Jarvis on Sunday, January 10, 1988. 

by Tatiana Paden 

Louise Reid was born in Burkeville, Va. in 1906, the second youngest of five siblings. Her mother died when she was young, so her father moved her and her siblings to live with their aunt and uncle in Powhatan, Va. 

She grew up on their farm and attended a small local schoolhouse for a few years until it was closed down. Her aunt, who was a formerly enslaved person, never got the chance to get an education and didn’t have any children of her own. 

Reid’s favorite thing when she was young was sewing. She taught herself to sew by hand, cutting up anything she could get her hands on around the house. Her aunt was not too fond of it, as once she cut up her bonnet to make a dress for her doll. Her passion for clothes-making ignited after she got her first doll as a gift from her oldest sister. 

“She wasn’t around much after our mother died... she used to come down and bring me nice little dresses and things, so she brought me a doll, a great big doll like that...and I was so proud of it,” Reid recounted. “And I always liked dolls because I like to make clothes for them.”

Once Reid was old enough to work, she left the farm and took the train to Richmond, where she worked as the nanny for a doctor with three sons and one daughter. At 16, Louise moved to Flushing, New York, where started working for the Melcher family – a post she got after posting an ad in the newspaper. 

This job was the start of a lifelong change for Louise. 

“I stayed with Mrs. Blannon three years... but all my happy days was after I came to your grandmother,” Reid told Jarvis. 

Reid would remain with Bill and Clarissa Melcher and their family for 52 years. Over the years, Louise and the Melchers would move a couple of times. First to West Orange, NJ, and then to settle in Chestnut Hill in 1932.

When Reid first started working for the Melchers, she only had experience in childcare, less so cooking, but she learned that skill while in their employment. 

The Melchers had two daughters: Deborah “Debbie” and Sally. Reid scratched her sewing itch by creating clothes for the Melcher girls' dolls. An entire photographed catalog of her creations is available in the Conservancy’s Archives collection.

During the Great Depression, Bill Melcher lost his job at Baldwin Locomotive Works and struggled to support the family. 

Even through this challenging time, Reid decided to stay. “I stayed on, yes... because I tell you I didn’t mind, I didn’t have anywhere special to go either, so I was glad they was willing to let me stay on, you know?” she said. “It would have been so hard for me to go and get some new job because by that time I had got very well adjusted to the family. It would have been hard for me to go off and find somewhere else.” 

While unemployed, Bill found a way to pay her $5 weekly until he found a new job at the Smythe Paper Company.

Reid continued to work for the Melchers for long after Debbie and Sally grew up and went on to have children of their own. She would care for their grandchildren, as she had cared for their mothers whenever they visited their grandparents' house.

By the 1960s, she started taking summer vacation bus trips through the Chestnut Hill Travel Agency. On one trip, she began to notice the racial discrimination she experienced when traveling. 

“It never occurred to me... I made my arrangements with the lady,” she told Jarvi “And I did ask her... will any colored be in the group... at first I wasn’t scared or nothing, but I felt a little funny... of course, the people was real nice, but some of them was looking at me, you know, but I didn’t let it... I always try to be nice to people.” 

She was always the only Black person on each bus tour she went on, she said, but she had no problem with that. She would send postcards to the Melcher family while she was away, sharing her experiences as she traveled from Tennessee to California and Canada.

Finally, after 52 years, Reid moved from the Melcher family home in Chestnut Hill to her own home in Germantown. She attempted to reconnect with her family in Virginia a few times but decided to stay in Philadelphia. 

Reid passed away in 1994. Her ashes were interred beside Bill and Clarissa Melcher’s at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. 

“I hope I said something that amounts to something,” she said at the end of her interview. “My life wasn't exactly a happy one when I was a little child, but I had to live through it anyhow... but I am very happy and like my apartment here. I’m very happy now.”