February is African American History Month. Libraries, archives, museums, and other organizations around the country observe this month as a way to recognize and honor the rich and challenging history of African Americans. In honor of this occasion, I am sharing the story of one of the most fascinating individuals I’ve come across in my work in the Northwest Room at the Everett Public Library— Luella Ruth Brown Boyer Brent, aka Madame Boyer. Boyer was a successful African American businesswoman in early Everett at a time when few economic opportunities existed for African Americans or women.
Most of what I know about Madame Boyer I learned from local historian and genealogist, Margaret Summitt of the Mukilteo Historical Society. She painstakingly examined decades worth of genealogical records, newspapers, and city directories to reconstruct Boyer’s life story.
Luella was born in Iowa in 1868. Her father’s lineage traces back to the first slaves brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Her parents had moved to Iowa, a free state, from Missouri, a slave state, in 1864 while the nation was still engulfed in Civil War. Her father worked as a laborer and her mother worked as a domestic servant. Neither could read nor write, yet they worked to ensure their children could achieve more. Luella’s brother, Samuel, became an attorney, civil rights activist and NAACP leader in Des Moines, Iowa.
The available historical records only reveal bits and pieces of Luella’s life. We know that by 1900 she was married to John C. Boyer, a barber, and living in Lewiston, Idaho. They moved to Everett around 1902 and became part of the black community in this region. Around the time they moved to Everett, Luella began marketing herself and her professional services—hair care products—as “Madame Boyer.” She was likely inspired by Madame C.J. Walker, a self-made millionaire and wildly successful African American entrepreneur with a popular line of hair care products. (Walker was the Oprah Winfrey of her generation.) The couple adopted a daughter in 1903 and separated around 1905.
Even as a single mother, Boyer’s career flourished during these years. She promoted herself not just as a hair dresser, but also a dermatologist by 1908.
Boyer remarried in 1910 to Bertrand Brent at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. Mr. Brent was white and employed as a waiter and a janitor at Everett Public Library.
Luella was a trailblazing entrepreneur during a time when few economic opportunities were available to black women. But she is also notable for her contributions to Everett’s cultural life and as a leader on issues of race and social change.
In May 1902, Madame Boyer and her husband went to a theater performance in Seattle by Bert Williams and George Walker, pioneering black entertainers. Boyer—who also made ends meet by working as a housekeeper for the Everett Opera House for $1 a night—is thought to have been a key player in bringing Williams and Walker to perform their landmark musical “In Dahomey” to Everett in 1905.
Madame Boyer’s social activism was well-documented in the Seattle Republican, an African American newspaper. She participated in the newspaper’s Sunday Forums regarding social issues, submitted discussion questions, and addressed the forum twice. She offered one talk on racial discrimination and another on prostitution and gender inequality. She died from diabetic complications in 1912, at age 44.
Although we may know a lot about when, where, and what Boyer did in her life, I am more intrigued by all that we don’t know. What did she look like? (There are no known photos!) Why was she in Idaho and Washington at a time when 90% of the country’s African American population still lived in the South? What motivated her to move here, and what hardships did she endure? What inspired her business, civic, and familial decisions? What was it like to be an African American woman in Everett in the early 20th century, a rough-and-tumble mill town?
African American Women Confront the West: 1600-2000 by Quintard Taylor
Seattle’s Black Victorians, 1852-1901 by Esther Hall Mumford
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson