Everett's Pioneer African-American Businesswoman
by Margaret Robe Summitt
The news circulated around Everett at Christmastide 1912 that “Ruth BRENT is dead.”
“We always knew her as Madame BOYER.”
“Oh, God rest her soul,” or such words would come from her neighbors, beauty salon customers, theater people, and parents of students at St. Dominic’s Academy. Readers of her obituary in the Everett Herald for 18 December 1912, the date of her death, were not told much about this pioneering African-American business woman who lived in Everett for ten years (ca. 1902-1912). (1) The story of Luella Ruth (BROWN) BOYER BRENT and the story of her first husband, John C. BOYER (1844-after 1920) -- she was a beautician and he was a barber -- are pieces of history that have faded and are by now only partly recoverable. In writing this article I hope to strike a spark of interest in bringing more about Madame BOYER to light.
Luella Ruth BROWN, later known as Madame BOYER and as Ruth BRENT, was born in either October 1868 or September 1869 in Keosauqua, Van Buren County, Iowa, to Lewis BROWN and Elizabeth HENDERSON. (2) Her parents had come from the state of Missouri to Van Buren County, which is just across the state line, in about the year 1864. They settled in a part of Keosauqua known as Hangman’s Hollow. Lewis BROWN traced his family lineage to the first 20 slaves brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. He is listed as a 46-year-old teamster in the 1870 Census.
Luella was the third of six children. (3) Her younger brother Samuel Joe BROWN (1875-1950) was to become a notable and effective civil rights leader in Iowa. Samuel Joe, known as Joe, in a typescript autobiography written after a lifetime of achievements, described his mother’s remarkable influence. (4) Elizabeth (HENDERSON) BROWN performed housework for white families, including several lawyers. She told Joe she hoped he would become a lawyer someday. In the 1870 and 1880 Censuses enumerating this family, as a consequence, all the children of school age are found to be in school. In 1885 the family moved to Ottumwa. By the time Joe was age 14 (i.e., ca. 1889), both his parents were dead. Joe worked as a bellboy to pay his way through Ottumwa High School. He went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from the State University of Iowa in 1896, was an attorney before the Iowa state bar, and founded the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP.
Luella’s life between the ages of 12 and 26 is not illuminated by any documents I have found. According to the 1900 Census for Lewiston, Nez Perce County, Idaho, she had been married to J. C. BOYER for four years, indicating that she had married about 1896. As yet I have not found a marriage record.
John C. BOYER, Luella’s first husband, moved with the frontier westward in search of business opportunities and likely networked with black barbers through his connections in the East. Barbering was a fraternity to which aspiring young black men could rise in social status by offering luxurious services to their customers. (5) BOYER was born into a family of free blacks in Woodward Township, Clinton County, PA in 1844. His father John BOYER is listed in the 1850 Census as a laborer, in the 1860 Census as a grocery man, and in the 1870 Census (by which time the family was living in Lock Haven, Crawford Township) as a farmer, with personal estate valued at $500. (6) According to a history of the county, more African Americans lived in Lock Haven in 1850 than in any other community, and they held a wide variety of occupations. (7) This history lists four black men in Lock Haven who were barbers in 1850, the trade that John C. BOYER would follow.
In 1870 John C. BOYER is listed as age 24 and still living at home. Ten years later (1880) J. C. BOYER is found in Central City, Dakota Territory, aged 35 and single, and working as a barber. (8) Aside from the 1900 Census reference to his marriage to Luella in 1896, I have found only one possible reference to his peripatetic life on the frontier:
An item in the Winfield, KS Courier for Thursday, 19 November 1885, related that J. C. BOYER, alias Jumbo, a boarder at THOMAS’ boarding house in the first ward, was fined four dollars and costs (total $11.25) for fighting. BOYER and another man accused each other of being lousy, went into a back yard and fought over it. If this is the same man as our John C. BOYER, I can imagine that for a barber to be called lousy was an insufferable insult. (9)
The Courier also related a news item from Arkansas City, KS, on Thursday, November 5, 1885, approving of the formation of a committee there to encourage the only Chinaman in town to leave. Where one of these “depraved and debased” heathens takes up residence, the article opined, more are sure to follow. In another item later that month, the Courier writes approvingly of promotion of education for people of color rather than “colonizing the negroes and sending them with all their ignorance and superstition to Liberia to sink again into barbarism.”
The tone of these items possibly offers a context to the social atmosphere in which J. C. BOYER resorted to fighting to preserve his dignity.
Between this possible residence in Winfield, KS and his residence in Lewiston, ID, BOYER met Luella Ruth BROWN, possibly in Iowa. She must have learned through her husband the essentials of hair care and especially the networking skills that enabled him to establish his business in the mining and trading towns of the Old West. (10) J. C. BOYER was 25 years Luella’s senior. He may have felt like settling down at that point in his life, but not in Lewiston in 1900. Within two years J. C. and Luella BOYER made their home in the burgeoning new city of Everett, Washington.
In Polk’s 1902-1903 Everett and Snohomish County Business Directory (see The Sounder, 24:3, p. 99) I found Mme. Luella BOYER as the proprietress of a ladies’ hair emporium at 2928 Colby Ave., where she resided with her husband John C. BOYER, listed as a traveling salesman (I assume he sold hair care products). In 1904 the BOYERs adopted their daughter Esther Marie, who was born in Oregon in 1903. (11) The 1902-03 Polk’s Directory is the first and only listing for John C. BOYER in Everett.
What happened to John C. BOYER? He turns up again in the 1920 Census, lodging at 911 Hiawatha Place in the 230th ward of Seattle, listed as black, aged 75, and single, born in Pennsylvania (as were his parents), and his occupation is wig maker for a hair goods company. (12)
Left with a small child, in a town to which she had only just moved, Luella BOYER must have turned to her husband’s business connections, and to her own schooling, to make a living. She may have begun by continuing to sell her husband’s line of hair care products. The Polk’s Directory listings for the years Luella was living in Everett suggest that around 1906 she expanded her business into a salon for hairdressing and scalp treatment. Year by year, they offer a fascinating look at her hair care business and her frequent changes of address:
1902: Boyer, Mme. Luella, Ladies hair emp, 2928 Colby av, res same. John C. Boyer, a traveling salesman, res 2928 ColbyMadame BOYER, like her husband, counted all races among her customers. It was a matter of necessity. At the same time, I imagine that she developed a long reach through business networking. Although at that time the African-American community in Everett was tiny (just 111 Snohomish County heads of household are listed as black in the 1910 Census), it must also have been close-knit and supportive of her. The title “Madame” seems to have arisen out of her networking. According to Dr. Tiffany GILL, a historian of black women hairdressers, “Madame” was frequently adopted by them and came to signify them almost exclusively. (14) The most famous of these styling themselves “Madame” was Madam C. J. WALKER of Indianapolis, who was developing her line of hair care products at the same time that Madame BOYER was establishing her business in Everett (see sidebar for details). To me it seems imaginable that Madame BOYER knew, or knew of, Madam C. J. WALKER, and may even have been one of her sales representatives.
Nonetheless, sales and customers alone did not make ends meet. Madame BOYER, as had her mother, also did maid work. As evidence, the Everett Public Library has the receipts she signed, for $1.00 a night, for occasional backstage housekeeping that she did in 1905 at the Everett Theatre at 2911 Colby, nearly across the street from her business address. She may also have done hairdressing backstage. (15)
I was told of these receipts by David DILGARD, historian at the Public Library’s Northwest room. The life of Madame BOYER in Everett has fascinated Mr. DILGARD, in particular her presence surrounding the performance of the all-black musical comedy “In Dahomey,” a landmark show in African-American theater history, which played at the Everett Theatre on Monday, January 16, 1905. Mr. DILGARD shared with me a very brief idea for a drama that he dreams of writing, in which Luella meets Bert WILLIAMS, a comedian who was one of the show’s principals (see sidebar for details).
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, 1905-1906 was around the time that Madame BOYER expanded her business. Meeting these significant black achievers in the performing arts must have encouraged her, although the manner and results of that encouragement are not known.
Just before she was married for a second time, Luella BOYER was enumerated in the 1910 Census. (16) The census shows that she gave her age as 42, and that she had her own hairdressing parlor, and that she employed a black maid named Jennie B. GALLOWAY. Her husband-to-be, Bertrand BRENT, is listed in the census twice: as a roomer at 1802 Pacific Ave., and as a lodger at 1910 ½ Hewitt; in the latter entry he is said to be born in Missouri, aged 32, married (but there is an X in the column instead of the number of years married); he is white, and his occupation is listed as a waiter in a restaurant. Five days after the census was taken, on April 20, 1910, Luella BROWN BOYER and Bertrand BRENT were married by Reverend Father H. P. SAINDON of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (aka Riverside) Catholic Church. I assume that Luella was not Catholic, but that Mr. BRENT was, and it would have been a condition of their marriage that she agree to have her daughter Esther raised Catholic. Probably at about this time, therefore, Esther began boarding at St. Dominic’s Academy (adjacent to the church) at Everett Ave. and Cedar St. In the 1911 Polk’s City Directory Bertrand BRENT’s occupation is given as a janitor at the Everett Public Library.
At the time of her second marriage, Luella was at her most prosperous. It may have been about this time that she and her husband began buying property in Snohomish and King Counties. At the time of her death in 1912, they owned in Pinehurst Lot 13, Block 14, and Lots 23 & 24, Block 23; in the Climax Land Co.’s Addition to Everett, Lots 24 & 25 in Block 2; and, in Interurban Heights in King County, Lot 13, Block 14. For the Pinehurst lots Luella paid $100 out of her own funds out of a total of $143.95. These were unimproved lots except for those in Everett, for which was paid $894.41, of which the BRENTS recouped $500 by money their insurance company paid for loss due to fire.
Luella BOYER BRENT died December 18, 1912; cause of death, according to the death certificate, was a diabetic coma. Upon her death Bertrand BRENT began the long (1912-1918) and frustrating process of administering her estate. Luella’s only will was dated 21 August 1909, it having been drawn before her second marriage; in it she left all property to her daughter and instructed her executrix, Mrs. B. H. VOLLINS, to pay for her daughter’s schooling “in some good Catholic school.” (17) Because of the outdated will, Mr. BRENT had Luella declared to have died intestate, and he petitioned to be named administrator. Besides the real property, she left a stock of merchandise and furniture and fixtures of the estimated value of $350 (this stock is not enumerated) and three life insurance policies.
Notices to Luella’s creditors were posted in Everett and published in the Sultan Star newspaper and creditors came forward: A. R. MAULSBY for the ambulance, the Sisters of Charity of Providence Hospital; Dr. S. HARTMAN; Undertaker John F. JERREAD; Fr. H. P. SAINDON for the funeral services; A. LeGROS of Broadway Floral; Robbins Transfer Co. for the hire of four funeral hacks; J. J. SULLIVAN for the lot and burial in Evergreen Cemetery (block 26, lot 193). Past due bills from the Gas Company, for hair products from the Western Fancy Goods Company of San Francisco and Alfred LINZ, wholesaler in human hair goods, were attended to. After another round of notices in the Everett Morning Tribune, more bills came in: from a Dr. Felix A. SCHMIDT of New York City for one dozen sets of unspecified goods at 2 oz. each, from other doctors, and for tuition, board and music lessons for Esther BOYER at St. Dominic’s Academy. A. H. HALL, who in 1913 was Esther’s legal guardian, decided that it was in Esther’s best interest that payments be continued on her mother’s life insurance policies.
Attorney’s and appraisers’ fees were paid and on 19 June 1915 Bertrand BRENT declared that due to the costs and expenses of closing the estate, it would be necessary to sell Luella’s real property. He petitioned that Luella’s real property be distributed between the heirs (i.e., himself and Esther). W. P. BELL was appointed by the Superior Court guardian ad litem to represent Esther’s interests in Snohomish County, since A. H. HALL did not reside here. Notices of property for sale were published in the Marysville Globe and Everett Daily Herald; the property was appraised, and it failed to sell.
In April, 1918, Bertrand BRENT declared to the court that he was unable to sell Luella’s remaining salon fixtures and hair goods as well as the real property, and that therefore the balance of the estate should be distributed between the heirs. Mr. BRENT would pay all the costs and take the lots in Everett and Pinehurst and all the unsold personal property as his share, and give to Esther one lot in Block 13 of Pinehurst and the King County property as her share. Mr. BRENT was then residing in Machias, and Esther in King County. More notices about the proposed final distribution were published in the Marysville Globe. Finally, on June 14, 1918, the estate was declared to be fully and finally settled and closed.
At this point Madame BOYER disappears, it would seem, from the public records. I am still hoping a photo of her will turn up. Her former residences on Hewitt Ave. are now lost to the complex of the Everett Performing Arts Center and Comcast Arena. At the address where her salon was located on Colby Ave. there is today a nail salon.
Receipt from Everett Theatre Company to Mrs BOYER 16 Jan 1905
(1) I wish to acknowledge the help of David Dilgard of the Everett Public Library for encouragement in preparing this article, for sharing the scanned image of Mrs. BOYER’s signed receipt from the night “In Dahomey” played at the Everett Theatre (pictured above), and in pointing me toward the location of her grave in Evergreen Cemetery. I wish also to acknowledge my husband Christopher Summitt for the photographs taken in Evergreen Cemetery and for his helpful comments.
(2) Luella’s birthdate in the 1900 Census is given as September 1869; that given in her death certificate is October 1868. The 1900 Census for Lewiston, Nez Perce County, Idaho (11-12 June): ED 107, sheet 10, stamped page 122, 215 5th Street:
John C. Boyer, black, male, age 55, barber, b. Oct 1844, married 4 yrs, b. PA as were parents(3) 1880 Census, Keosaqua, Van Buren County, Iowa, p. 11, SD 1, ED 29, 113 Fifth St. (4 June 1880), line 15:
Brown, Lewis: black male age 56, husband, married, laborer, cannot read or write, b. VA, as were parents(4) “From ‘Hangman’s Hollow’ to a Chair of Greek and 46 Years at the Iowa Bar” is a typewritten manuscript at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, believed to have been written by Samuel Joe BROWN. This ms. was used as a source for the entry for Samuel Joe BROWN in the Biographical Dictionary of Iowa (2008), pp. 61-62, available online at Google Books.
Samuel Joe BROWN was named one of the ten most influential black Iowans of the 20th Century by the Des Moines Register <http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/99999999/NEWS08/50113019/Ten-most-influential-black-Iowans>.
(5) The social history of black barbers has been researched and analyzed by Douglas W. Bristol, Jr., in Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). According to Bristol, the 1890 Census showed that there were 17,480 black barbers.
(6) 1870 Census, John Boyer, age 24, black, b. PA, living in household of John Boyer, age 58, b. PA farmer (wife Sarah age 51, also b. PA), Crawford Township (Lock Haven P. O.), Clinton Co., PA. Series M593, Roll 1328, page 433.
1860 Census, John Boyer, age 12, black, b. PA, living in household of John Boyer, age 47, b. PA, grocery man (wife Sarah age 44, also b. PA), Woodward Township (Youngwomanstown P. O.), Clinton Co., PA. Series M653, Roll 1097, page 440.
1850 Census, John Boyer, age 5, black, b. PA, living in household of John Boyer, age 36, b. PA, laborer (wife Sarah age 30, also b. PA), Woodward Township, Clinton Co., PA. Series M432, Roll 768, page 69.
(7) “Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common” www.governor.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/change/18093/labor_and_occupation_to_1860/673924
(8) 1880 Census, Central City, Lawrence County, Dakota Territory, p. 31, SD 15, ED 119, stamped page 238, line 25: J. C. Boyer black male age 35, single, is working as a barber (b. in PA, as were parents).
(9) These 1885 files from the Winfield, KS Courier are transcribed online at: www.ausbcomp.com/~bbott/cowley/oldnews/papersup/885_11wc.htm
(10) At this time the black barber was almost an institution in the frontier; I recall my father and uncles mentioning Minor JACKSON, the barber of Brownsville, Linn County, Oregon, as part of the lore of their ancestral home town.
(11) The adoption of Esther Marie BOYER is referred to in Luella Ruth BRENT’s extensive probate file from 1912-1918, a copy of which I obtained from the Washington State Archives, Northwest Regional Branch, in Bellingham.
(12) 1920 Census, Seattle, King County, WA, 230th Ward, Seattle, Series T625, Roll 1930, page 134, sheet 10A, Supervisor’s District 151, Enumeration District 292. I have not found John C. BOYER in the 1910 Census or Esther Marie BOYER in the 1920 Census.
(13) The Eclipse Block was on the west side of Colby Ave. just south of Hewitt.
(14) Dr. Tiffany Gill, Black Beauty Shops: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry (University of Illinois Press, March 2010). Online at Google Books (Intro, Chapter 1, notes and bibliography). Note 56 to Chapter 1: “Other black business women would eventually use the term “Madam,” but it remained almost exclusively a term for black beauty culturists.”
(15) David Dilgard’s book Mill Town Footlights (Everett Public Library, 2001, p. 70) reproduces a program for the AcmeTheatre on Wetmore Ave., containing an advertisement for the beauty salon of Nellie B. SNYDER, located over the Grand Theatre at 1609 Hewitt: “Hot Oil Shampooing, Manicuring, Scalp Treatment, Face Massage, Plain Shampooing, Hair Goods, Face Creams and Powders” are offered at Nellie’s salon. So far I have not found an advertisement for Madame BOYER’s salon.
(16) 1910 Census for the 3rd ward of Everett, Snohomish County, Washington, taken 15 April, SD 1, ED 210, sheet 1A, page 88, 1910 ½ Hewitt Ave., dwelling 3, family 3:
Boyer, Luella Head F B 42 Wd mother of 1, 1 now living; b. IA, father b. VA, mother b. MO, hairdresser, hairdressing parlor, employer, can read and write. [This is where page 125 ends.](17) I have not found anyone surnamed VOLLINS in Washington State in the online census index at Heritage Quest . The witnesses who signed the 1909 will were Dwight DARLING and George A. OHMER; in the 1910 Census they are both listed as druggists.
Author Margaret Robe Summitt at gravesite of Luella Ruth BROWN BOYER BRENT
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