The Magnolia Belles

In Their Footsteps

A fourth generation of the 'Magnolia Belles'
continues the tradition by graduating from ECU

undefinedBy Marion Blackburn

Few women were able to attend college in the 1920s and for those of modest means in eastern North Carolina, it almost was out of the question. Among those early pioneers were four determined sisters who made their way to East Carolina Teachers College—on horseback part of the way—and created a legacy that lives today.

Born in Magnolia, N.C., in rural Duplin County to a mill owner and hat maker, the sisters all eventually graduated and led ­exciting lives. They called themselves the “Magnolia Belles.” As the decades passed, at least one woman in every succeeding ­generation also found her way to Greenville. Last year, the fourth generation of the Belles—Marion Suzanne Stotesbury ’05—earned her ECU diploma.

Right: Marion Suzanne Stotesbury, a fourth-generation Belle, and her mother, Jacquelyn "Jackie" Owens Dotson. Photo by Forrest Croce

It was a proud moment for Jacquelyn “Jackie” Owens Dotson ’90, mother of Suzanne and founder of a scholarship ­memorializing the original Belles. “When my grandmother passed, I wanted to set up a small scholarship in their honor,” says Dotson, who represents the third ­generation of the Belles. “It will honor the women who set this fine example for the rest of the family.”

The strongest-willed of the original Belles was Mary Shelton McArthur, who earned a job at the Library of Congress after graduation. “She pulled herself through school and kind of pushed her sisters,” Dotson says.

“It was very honorable what they were able to do,” Dotson adds. “They did this when it was hard, when you rode a horse to get to school. The family did not have a lot of money. They were able to support themselves, to meet people and, in the end, have different lives.”

Another of the four sisters was Eloise Catherine McArthur Owens ’30, grand­mother of Dotson and great-grandmother of Stotesbury. She later married Edward L. Owens, who served as a North Carolina state senator.

Dotson remembers her grandmother as vibrant and intelligent. She taught geography for many years until retiring, then embarked on years of travel to places she once taught about. She became a member of the Circumnavigators Club, whose members have traveled around the world. She died in 1997 at 88. The scholarship was established soon after.

Dotson’s mother, Suzanne Owens Cunningham ’64, was a painter who majored in art history and interior design. She ­completed a three-panel mural at Bertie High School that remains there today. She died in 1994.

Dotson enrolled in 1986 after working for many years as a nurse. “At that time, I didn’t realize that my family had all gone to East Carolina,” she says. “But I was determined to have a four-year college degree to set a good example for my daughter. It was as if I was driven to do it. I had to work and go to school, too. But it was worth it because later, she went, too.”

By the time her daughter enrolled, Dotson knew the story. She also lost her grandmother, who for many years was an example for her.

Today Stotesbury, who earned her ­bachelor’s degree in communications, works at the Enterprise, a twice-weekly newspaper in Williamston. Despite the long hours, she enjoys her first reporter’s job. Dedication is her hallmark, too. “I’ve been told I’m obsessive about things,” she says. “It’s an inner drive to do the best I can.”

The Magnolia Belles scholarship offers $600 to a female student from Washington County in eastern North Carolina to attend ECU, commemorating the McArthur sisters.

Return to magazine index