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

The Early 20th Century Japan Bazaar on Hewitt Avenue

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. This is an opportunity to pay tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history—at the national, state, and local level. Asian Americans have a complex and difficult history in the Northwest since the mid-19th century, when waves of immigrants began arriving from China, Japan, and the Philippines.

Today, we are sharing one striking image from our Northwest History collection: a portrait of the Chinese Kan family inside their Hewitt Avenue business, the Japan Bazaar. This compelling image from the summer of 1907 offers a glimpse inside their lives and hints at the complexities and conflicts this community may have faced in early 20th century Everett.

Although we do not have a full history of the Kan family or their business, we are able to stitch together pieces of their story based on the image and other Everett Public Library resources such as: oral histories, Polk’s City Directories, Everett Herald archives, and genealogical and archival databases.

As the Northwest region’s Asian population grew, so too did anti-immigration hostilities and policies. Chinese immigrants in California and Washington faced discriminatory taxes, prohibitions against marrying white people, and owning land. In 1882, Congress passed a national Chinese Exclusion Act to restrict Chinese immigration entirely. Chinese populations were expelled from Seattle and Tacoma in 1885 and 1886.

It was amidst this culture of anti-Chinese fears and policies that Charles Kan and his wife, Beam Owyong Kan, arrived in the Pacific Northwest.

JapanBazaarEDHDec31901

Everett Daily Herald, December 3, 1901

We know that the Charles and Beam Kan family arrived in Everett from China by way of Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle, but it is unclear when and why they first immigrated to the United States. Like many Chinese immigrants, they may have felt a combination of push and pull factors that caused them to seek a better life in the United States.

The earliest record of Charles Kan is from 1892, when he was identified as a merchant from Japan in the Washington state census. This description matched his listing in the 1892 Seattle city directory as a purveyor of Japanese goods. The Kans operated Everett’s “Japan Bazaar” on Hewitt Avenue, from 1901 to 1910.

japanesegoods

Seattle City Directory, 1892

Birth records indicate that the oldest Kan children, Samuel and Ruth, were born in Portland, Oregon, in 1897 and 1899. The youngest two children, Mary and John, were born in Everett, in 1904 and 1907. Unlike the 1892 census records, all other readily available public records indicate Chinese—not Japanese—ancestry.

The family moved back and forth between Oregon and Washington cities for many years before arriving in Everett. In some years, Charles Kan operated his own business. In others, he clerked for Andrew Kan, an importer primarily based in Seattle. While Charles Kan seems to have consistently marketed his business as Japanese, Andrew Kan’s businesses varied between Chinese, Japanese, and simply “Oriental.” This fluid ethnic identity may have been a simple marketing tactic designed to sell more goods. Or, perhaps, it was a response to heightened tensions facing Chinese immigrants.

EDHNov211901

Everett Daily Herald, November 21, 1901

When the Kans arrived in Everett in 1901, the city was less than a decade old. Brimming with economic and industrial opportunities, it attracted an influx of immigrants and job-seekers during the first decade of the 20th century. On November 21, 1901, the Everett Daily Herald announced the opening of Charles Kan’s Japanese Bazaar on Hewitt Avenue. On the next page, the Herald ran a story entitled, “Says Keep the Heathen Out.” The article described President Roosevelt’s attitude toward the policy of Chinese exclusion: “The heathen has been slipping in…either by stealth or bribery of immigration officials…”

In this environment of prosperity, opportunity, and overt hostility, it is unsurprising that the Chinese family wanted to pass as Japanese, a more culturally and politically acceptable ethnicity at the time.

In December of 1907, a few months after our photo was taken, the Everett Daily Herald featured the store in an article on Christmas shopping. They author described the busy manager, Mr. Kan, peddling a colorful range of affordable, quality products for all ages, such as “humming tops and other amusing toys for children, delicate drawn work, embroider, brasses, ivories, paintings on silk, cigar cases, match safes and countless other artistic oddities…” The writer was enthusiastic about the store’s exotic Japanese atmosphere. He described a “fairyland to be sure in these purely Oriental windows” before enthusing: “one may almost see the cherry blossoms fall from imaginary trees and hear the soft tones of busy Japanese in far off Mikadoland…” The Herald writer seemed perfectly convinced of the Japan Bazaar’s authenticity.

In a 1975 oral history interview, Rita Yeo Richmond, an early Everett pioneer and the daughter of a local business owner, reminisced about visiting the Japan Bazaar as a child. According to Rita, the other business owners in town all knew—and accepted—that the Kan family was Chinese, not Japanese. She recalls:

“And then there was a Chinese store. Did anybody speak of that? That was nice. He stayed open until nine o’clock in the night, and my dad used to take us down there. And oh, he had so many Chinese things. Big store. He had a little girl named Ruth and a boy named Sam. My dad used to go down there real often, and was real friendly with them, you know. In Everett they wouldn’t allow a Chinese in at that time. But he kind of posed as something—as a Jap or something. But anyhow, my dad got talking to other merchants in town, and they all thought he was so wonderful that they should let him stay, you know. So they let him stay. They kept it hush.”

Sometime between 1910 and 1912, after a decade in Everett, the family moved back to Seattle, and then, eventually to Los Angeles, California. Although the Kan family’s story remains largely unknown, they nevertheless filled a unique role and left a mark on the business community of early Everett.

Recommended reading on early 20th Century Chinese and Japanese American experiences in the Northwest:

Reflections of Seattle’s Chinese Americans: the First 100 Years

Dreams of the West: a history of the Chinese in Oregon, 1850-1950

Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste, and Borders, 1885-1928

May is Jewish American Heritage Month

In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, the Northwest Room—the library’s local history collection—is highlighting two notable Jewish families in Everett’s history and their stories.

The first Jewish settlers arrived in Everett in the early 20th century. The Michelson family was among the first to arrive. Abe Michelson first emigrated from Latvia to Tacoma. In 1906, Abe and his wife, Etta, relocated to Everett. Abe and his brother, Sam, opened a second-hand store on Hewitt Avenue, the Riverside Junk Company.

The Michelson family was active in building Congregation Moses Montefiore, in a house-turned-synagogue on Lombard Street. There were about 60 Jewish families in Everett in the 1920s and 1930s, who participated in Orthodox services and organized religious classes for children. Attendance declined with the construction of Highway 99, which made it easier for Everett’s Jewish community to attend other synagogues in Seattle.

Michelson

(Moe Michelson portrait, Northwest Room Collection, Everett Public Library)

 

Abe and Etta’s eldest son, Moe Michelson (1908-1996) is remembered as an active member of Everett City Council. He served in position #2 from 1968 to 1989. Find more pictures of Councilman Michelson in the Northwest Room Digital Collections.

The Glassberg family was also familiar in Everett and its Jewish community. The Glassbergs—Maurice, Susie, and children Abe and Ruth—moved to Everett from Salt Lake City, Utah, in the early 20th century. They operated a pawnshop at 2905 Hewitt Avenue.

While a student at Everett High School, Abe Glassberg (1898-1994) began writing for the Everett Daily Herald. He became the newspaper’s managing editor in 1937, and held the position until retirement in 1963. In 1975, Glassberg was recorded for a brief interview, which is part of the Northwest Room’s Oral History Collection.

 Recommended reads:

Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State, by Molly Cone, HoFoSward Droker, and Jacqueline Williams (2003)

Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge
by Ellen JofPCEisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll (2009)

The Northwest Room has many resources to help you research and explore your history at your library.

Historical Photos Come to Life

Brue Building

Amongst the many treasures here at Everett Public Library are the historical digital photo collections maintained by the Northwest History staff. We are currently highlighting the King & Baskerville Studio photos which were taken in a short period in 1892. These amazing pictures offer some insight into what the lay of the land used to be in and around Everett, and what day-to-day life looked like. I would sum up this world with one word: mud.

Historian David Dilgard will make a presentation on this collection, Saturday, May 2 at 2pm in the Main Library Auditorium. This is your opportunity to experience early Everett in a unique and personal manner.

But if you want to sit in your own home and examine early Everett at your leisure, go to the Northwest History digital collections and prepare to be transported to a time when rough and tumble scalawags perambulated wooden planked streets and punched the occasional bovine. And enjoyed it.

A Day in the Life: Local History Librarian

Last weekend the Northwest History Room celebrated its 37th anniversary. For those who are well acquainted with our local history department, this longevity comes as no surprise. The uninitiated, on the other hand, may be wondering what we’ve been doing with ourselves all this time. In order to giver you a clearer picture, I thought I’d take you through a day in my life as a local history librarian:

Picture of jar with image of the Everett courthouse on lid.Early in the day I received a call from a woman who had acquired a little porcelain jar. On the lid was a lovely painting of the 1897-8 Everett courthouse building, and on the bottom was an inscription related to ‘B. W. Fargo.’ My caller was interested to find out whatever she could about the building pictured, and if possible, her jar. I asked her if she could send me a photograph of the jar and told her I would see what I could find out.

Black and white photograph of courthouseMy first stop was to check our resource files. Our department keeps files of clippings and other documents in a row of file cabinets, but we also keep a large digital file of scanned documents and photos, as well as typed histories of people and places. These files serve as an excellent shortcut when we’re looking into notable people and places in the area, because a lot of the work has already been done in the past. Here I was able to find the exact dates of the courthouse, as well as some historic photographs to send the caller.

Photograph of the ruins of the courthouseThis particular courthouse was designed and built in 1897 by architect A. F. Heide at the corner of Wetmore and Pacific. It was operational until 1909, when it was ravaged by a fire. County operations moved into an adjacent annex while Heide oversaw restoration work. Little more than load-bearing walls were able to be salvaged, so a new Mission-style facade was constructed and opened in 1911.

Photograph of Polk City DirectoriesNext up was figuring out who or what ‘B. W. Fargo’ referred to. For this I turned to our collection of Polk City Directories. Polks, as we call them, are similar to today’s phone books, except they lacked phone numbers in the earlier years and generally gave more information out about the businesses and individuals listed. You can often use Polks to find out a person’s occupation, spouse’s name, address, and sometimes even annual salary. When looking up a business you can find out the address, owner, and type of business.

Scan of Polk directory pageBy looking in the Polks, I discovered that Bert W. Fargo and Elizabeth Goerig owned and operated a business at 1809 Hewitt Avenue (blocks from the courthouse) called Fargo B W & Co. This business was concerned with selling crockery, art goods, furniture, and other domestic products. According to our Polks, the company operated under that name from roughly 1901 to 1905.  While there are no records in our collection from this business, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to assume that this company either produced or commissioned souvenir ceramics of the courthouse and possibly other Everett landmarks. From the dates in our Polks, we may be able to date the jar between 1901-1905.

I was able to find all of this information out using our resources in about two hours. We frequently do the same for visitors looking into the history of their families or buildings that they’re curious about. That’s just a small portion of the work that we do as local history specialists. If you’d like to learn more about our work, or if you have a local history question related to the Everett/Snohomish County area, please feel free to get in touch.