September Spotlight on the Archives presents a blog about International House Director, Celestine Mott. To support the Archives, please donate below!
by Caroline Donadio
One of the things that initially drew me to this field was archives’ ability to reveal complex stories about individual lives. A photograph, a piece of correspondence, a newspaper clipping, or a diary can instantly connect us with personal experiences from another time. By engaging with the past, one can better understand and contextualize the lives of others and place themselves within history’s timeline. Archives have the power to broaden our perspectives and expand our capacity for empathy- something we need now more than ever.
The records at I-House have been unprocessed and inaccessible for almost 100 years. Given the history and reputation of this institution, when I began as the Lead Archivist at International House last September, I knew the potential was tremendous. From our distinguished leadership, notable speakers, and successful alumni, I-House has welcomed an array of remarkable individuals throughout its history. Starting this archive from scratch was an irresistible opportunity. Now, after one full year, I have begun to pull on the threads to untangle these incredible narratives and excitedly anticipate presenting these stories to you.
Celestine Mott, circa 1940 / I-House Archives
The tenure of I-House Director Celestine Mott (note: the ‘Director’ title preceded ‘President’) is one story that caught my interest. Well before the women’s liberation movement, I-House retained female leadership amid one of the most turbulent periods in American history. On June 29, 1942, the Board of Trustees at International House New York approved John Mott’s resignation while he took on the role of Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army during World War II. The Board appointed Mott’s wife, Celestine, to serve as acting Director and recording secretary in his place. Given that Celestine was the Director of I-House while the very ideals and values that embody the International House movement were under threat, I was very eager to see what I could learn about her life during this difficult time.
However, as I began to search for Celestine in our records, instead of substance, I found absence. While disappointing, this was not a surprise. As an archivist, I fully acknowledge that archives are subjective spaces created and maintained by people in power. Archives reinforce dominant social dynamics and archivists’ control which narratives are emphasized and told—not all stories are treated equally.
Portrait of I-House Director John L. Mott, circa 1940
Though I-House continues to be a leader in promoting diversity and has welcomed women since day one, it is still an institution that exists within the confines of time. In 1942 America, women, and other disenfranchised communities (primarily black and indigenous people of color), were often subjugated and not in positions of power. Celestine is only represented in these archives because of the extraordinary circumstances of the time—while the men fought abroad, women went to work at home.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
And though World War II significantly altered gender roles, women were still women. Reflecting these values, in this Archive and elsewhere, Celestine Mott is often referred to by her husband’s name, “Mrs. John Mott” (for this reason, it took me a month to find her obituary). In the Archives at I-House, I have only located two photographs of Celestine, and one image captures her serving tea. In addition, during the three years Celestine served as acting Director, beyond a few mentions regarding administrative matters and her signature as the recording secretary, Celestine is largely absent from the Archives. She appears again in the Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes on October 23, 1945, when she steps down as the Director of I-House–when, like many other men returning from the war, John L. Mott resumed his post. In the minutes, Trustee Chauncey Belknap speaks of Celestine’s tenure:
“Mrs. Mott succeeded in maintaining the highest standards of efficient business management and of service to the members. Her own example of quiet and imperturbable composer…was an inspiration to her associates and an immeasurable contribution to the morale of the House.”
For her service, Celestine is presented with a commemorative watch as an act of gratitude. In the Archives, little else is written about her time as acting Director, and she is not mentioned in the Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes again.
Brief mention of Celestine Mott in the “The International Quarterly,” summer 1942 / I-House Archives
Outside of the Archives, it is possible to find traces of Celestine Mott. From census records and obituaries, I learned Celestine Mott was born Celestine Goddard on December 17, 1901. She graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College in 1923 and was active during the Labor Movement in the years following. Celestine successfully organized a union for a clothing factory in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was arrested and jailed several times. She married John L. Mott in Manhattan 1926 and spent five years in India working to improve working conditions and promote education (where she also learned Hindi). Celestine then returned to New York, where she eventually assumed the role of the I-House Director with a husband abroad and three young children. After the war and her time as Director of I-House, Celestine became the executive secretary for the Greater New York Council for Foreign Students and continued to advocate for and promote the rights of International Students in America. She died in Litchfield, Connecticut, on October 16, 1969.
Celestine was clearly an accomplished woman who led an extraordinary life. What is missing from our archives is evidence of her voice. What was it like to be the director of I-House and a woman? What was it like to manage international students when fascism and nationalism were on the rise? How did she cope with the House’s executive responsibilities and the domestic responsibilities of being a wife and mother? These are questions I do not have answers for yet. But as I continue to process the Archives and make new connections with past alumni, I am hoping to fill in these gaps and share this remarkable story with you.
Banner image: Celestine Mott (far left), 1949 / I-House Archives
What do you hope I find in this Archive? Is there a period, or individual event/ story you would like me to explore? Please email email@example.com with any questions or comments. If you would like to support the Archives at I-House, please click on the donate button below!
- “Mrs. John L. Mott, a Leader in Welfare Work, Dies at 67.” New York Times, 17 October 1969, p. 43. TimesMachine.
- The American as International Traveler and Host: A Discussion Outline and Work Paper Prepared for Citizen Consultations Initiated by the U. S. National Commission for UNESCO. United States, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955.
- “Celestine Mott in the 1940 Census.” 1940 US Census, U.S. Census Bureau, 1940.