Madame Luella Boyer

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.

1908 Everett City Directory listingMost 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.

Receipt from 1905 for Luella Boyer

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?

Related readings:

book coverAfrican American Women Confront the West: 1600-2000 by Quintard Taylor

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 by Quintard Taylor

The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District, from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era 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

Celebrating Black History Month: Mrs. Jennie Samuels

Black and white portrait photograph of an African American woman with a hat decorated with ribbons. She appears to be wearing a suit jacket and a string of pearls over a light-colored blouse.

Portrait of Mrs. J.B. “Jennie” Samuels taken from a cookbook published by the Colored Women’s Federation of Washington. Nettie J. Asberry papers. University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries women in the United States began to organize around what later became known as the Women’s Club Movement. In cities, towns, and even rural areas women’s clubs formed to tackle the improvement of their communities in a number of different ways. Within Washington State there were so many clubs that by 1896 they had incorporated a statewide federation of women’s clubs in order to better coordinate efforts. While these clubs focused on unifying the efforts of women around common causes, the majority of them remained racially and ethnically segregated in those early years of organization.

Women who were excluded from the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs on the basis of race or ethnicity formed their own clubs and federations. One of the largest of these was the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Organizations which was founded in 1917 and affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. The Federation went through a handful of name changes during the course of its operation, but for this post I will be sticking with the abbreviation WSFCWO. The WSFCWO’s members were subdivided into different committees that focused on the following topics: constitution, peace, fine arts, business, history, arts and crafts, interracial issues, education, legislation, scholarship, race history, health and temperance, mother home and child, women in industry, music, credentials, press and publicity, and programs.

Black and white portrait photograph of an African American woman in a white lacy high-necked shirt. Her hair is piled on the top of her head, to which are attached silk flowers.

Nannie Helen Burroughs, by Rotograph Co., New York City, 1909. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b46093.

One of the most prominent early members at the WSFCWO’s executive level was an Everett resident named Mrs. Jennie Samuels or Mrs. J.B. Samuels as she appeared in club records (she occasionally also appeared as Jane). Samuels was the founder of the Nannie Burroughs Study Club in Everett which was named for Nannie Helen Burroughs, an African American educator, orator, feminist, and civil rights activist. Burroughs had gained national attention by calling on Baptist women to combine their charitable works into one federated movement, providing an inspiration for African-American women’s clubs all over the country.

Jennie Samuels was clearly highly motivated to keep her Everett colleagues closely involved with the activities of the state’s Federated club women. At the 1920 WSFCWO conference, held at Everett High School and hosted by the Nannie Burroughs Study Club, attendees were welcomed with an address by Roland Hartley who at that time had already served as Everett’s Mayor and a member of the Washington State House of Representatives and would go on to be the Governor of Washington. After the welcoming ceremonies the attendees discussed the importance of civic works, different projects underway within the WSFCWO, the life of Frederick Douglass, and matters concerning child welfare. In meeting minutes the group remarked on how accommodating the high school was giving them use of the school’s kitchens in which they could prepare meals for attendees and access to all rooms and buildings on campus for meetings and lodging.

The following year, Jennie Samuels was elected the second president of the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Organizations. Her first order as president was to pursue the establishment of scholarships for children of color who wished to pursue higher education. Though she only held the post of President for four years, and the WSFCWO’s membership was largely based in Tacoma and Seattle, most of the biannual officer’s meetings during her involvement with the Federation were held in the Samuels’s home on the 2200 block of Wetmore Avenue. Club records paint a picture of the Samuels’s residence being a hub of activity not only for meetings, but also social gatherings among club women and their families from Everett and points all around the Puget Sound region. The proceedings of one of the WSFCWO’s annual conferences even included a celebration of John and Jennie’s 34th wedding anniversary as a conference after party at their Wetmore home.

When not busy with the activities of the WSFCWO, Mrs. Samuels continued to work at the local level with the Nannie Burroughs Study Club doing benevolent works within Everett. Much time was spent giving aid to those who were home-bound due to illness or old age, and looking after the needs of children living in lower income households. In addition to their charitable works, the Study Club focused heavily on the study of issues affecting African Americans in the United States – bringing in speakers, and discussing papers and other publications. By the 10th annual meeting it was noted that the Study Club was the only organization in Everett affiliated with the of the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Organizations, yet its members still frequently ranked at the top of Federation fundraising lists and a handful of its members were active in leadership roles.

In a cookbook published by the WSFCWO during her tenure as President, Mrs. Samuels was quoted as saying:

“Thank our God that we have something to do, whether we like it or not. Doing our duty brings out the best that is in us and will breed in us self-control, strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a score of virtues which idleness fails to give.”

 

Three lines of text written in cursive containing the names and statistics about the Samuels household. John Samuels, head of house - male, black, 46, married 23 years. born in kentucky, as were his parents. Jennie, wife, female, black 41, married for 23 years. Born in North Carolina, as were her parents. John Wesley - son, male, black, 18, single. Born in Minnesota.

Information from the 1910 United State Federal Census Records for the Samuels family. This record was accessed through Ancestry Library Edition 2.14.18 at 12:51 pm.

Though most of what we know about the life of Jennie Samuels comes from club records archived in the University of Washington Special Collections, some information about her family life can be gleaned from other sources such as newspapers, census records, military records, high school yearbooks, and Polk City Directories.

Mrs. Samuels was born on October 1, 1868 in Salem, North Carolina. Not much is known about her early life, but she remained in school until the end of her second year of high school. In 1890 she married John B. Samuels a laborer from Louisville, Kentucky who was literate but had left school in the 4th grade. The Samuels family briefly lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota where their only child John Wesley was born in September of 1891. The Samuels family moved to Everett around 1897 and by 1900 owned one of the first homes built on the 2200 block of Wetmore. John B. Samuels worked as a cook for one of the railroads when he first arrived, but soon switched to custodial work which would remain his profession until retirement. Jennie Samuels was a homemaker in addition to her numerous club activities.

Black and white portrait photograph of a young African American male in a dark suit and a high white collar.

Senior portrait of John Wesley Samuels from the 1912 Everett High School Nesika. – Everett Public Library Northwest Room Collections

John Wesley Samuels, known as Wesley or J. Wesley, graduated from Everett High School in 1912 where he had been active in the drama club and athletic club. He served overseas in World War I; before his honorable discharge he had reached the rank of Battalion Sergeant Major in the Army. In club records it was noted that he suffered from lingering health issues related to his military service. He returned to Everett, where he worked for many years as the secretary of the American Boiler and Iron Works at 700 Hewitt. He appears to have never married, and spent the remainder of his life sharing the Wetmore home with his parents.

After a long illness, Jennie Samuels passed away peacefully at her home on August 13, 1948. She had remained active in several clubs and her Methodist church until the very end of her life. Sadly J. Wesley Samuels died only six years later in a Veteran’s hospital in Vancouver, Washington; his father passed away seven months later at a hospital in Everett. The entire family is buried in a family plot in Evergreen Cemetery, not far from their beloved home and the now-bustling city center that Jennie Samuels devoted so much of her life to improving.

To learn more about the lives of people living in and around the Everett area, visit the Northwest Room at the Everett Public Library and take advantage of the phenomenal records available in the University of Washington Special Collections. The University’s Digital collections are available online at any time, but many may not know that their non-digitized records are also mostly available to the public by appointment.

Keep an eye on A Reading Life for a second post in this series celebrating Black History Month from Northwest Room Historian Mindy Van Wingen.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Warmth of Other Suns coverThe other day I was walking out with an armload of books on CD, and Richard our audio book selector got all excited because he thought I was getting non-fiction (something he’d like to see checked out more). Shamefacedly I had to admit that it was all fiction, and that I had been slacking a bit on listening to anything factual. His enthusiasm for promoting our non-fiction audio books inspired me to put some of my selections back and browse the other shelves.

I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, but for some reason this passion hasn’t translated well to audio books. I have a long commute and like to pass the time listening to stories. I’ve found them to be easier to listen to in the little 35 minute drives I have to do throughout the week because I don’t have to pay too close attention to make sure I’m not missing any important points. It’s also easier to pick up where I left off if I haven’t listened in a while because we’ve been using the other car; often with non-fiction audio books I have to rewind a bit to refresh my memory. The only things that combat these issues for me when listening to non-fiction books is to find ones that are written in a very narrative style and have great readers.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction audio books that I’ve listened to recently that have kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (read by Robin Miles). I guess if you need a place to start, choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning book generally isn’t a bad idea. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by tracing the paths of four African-Americans who migrated north and west to escape the Jim Crow world of the South. Because the author interviewed all four individuals, the book is rich with dialogue and personal stories. Miles does an excellent job of reading Wilkerson’s work, making each individual’s personality shine through, and adding appropriate emphasis and emotion to some of the more difficult passages.

Mushroom Hunters coverThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook (read by Kevin R. Free). Foodie, traveler, hiker, lover of the Pacific Northwest – no matter what you consider yourself to be, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this title. Mushroom Hunters reads like investigative journalism mixed with Food Network programming (in the best way possible). Cook tells the story of his quest to learn about the secret not-always-legal world of commercial mushroom harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I really enjoyed driving back and forth on Highway 2 as Free described the kinds of lush rainy mountains that surrounded me, and all the secret things that may be happening in them.

Detroit cover imageDetroit: an American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (read by Eric Martin). This is a book that I would have loved even if Mickey Mouse was reading it, but Eric Martin’s narration took it from good to perfection for me.  Martin’s gravelly no-nonsense delivery perfectly matches the tone of LeDuff’s vignettes of the rough, hard-working, beautiful, disturbing, hopeful, and troubled City of Detroit. This book isn’t another work of ruin porn aimed at exploiting what befell Detroit after the decline of its industrial might. It’s the honest collected experiences of a journalist who has spent his entire career covering every side of a city that seems to be almost universally hated and feared by the rest of America. No predictions are made about the future. No excuses are made for the past. It’s just the facts as he saw them happen, and it’s dark, light, and magnificent.

Naked coverNaked, by David Sedaris (read by the author and his sister, comedian/actress Amy Sedaris). Ending on a lighter note, I just have to say I’m a sucker for David Sedaris in any format, but I think experiencing his writing performed by himself is always the best. Whether it be appearances on This American Life, or full-length readings of one of his many titles, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained. Well, at least you would be if you and I share a similar sense of humor. In Naked, Sedaris tells stories about his upbringing; considering that his family spawned two comedians, you know things had to be unorthodox.  Even though he may be describing something completely ridiculous, his sense of humor remains dry and ironic. This tone is amplified when you hear him perform his work. His readings are so well-timed and pitch perfect that it’s almost impossible to later read something of his without hearing his voice in your head.

I hope some of these recommendations inspire you to treat yourself to some of the many excellent non-fiction audio titles we have in our collections. I know I’ll continue exploring!