Madame Luella Boyer:
By Margaret Robe Summitt
Luella Ruth Brown Boyer, probably the first African-American
Luella Ruth Brown was born in either October 1868 or
September 1869 in Keosauqua, Van Buren County, Iowa, to Lewis and Elizabeth (
More information is needed about Luella’s life between the
ages of 12 and 26; i.e., between her appearance in the 1880 Census and her first
marriage around 1896 to John C. Boyer.
She was 25 years younger than her first husband. Born in 1844 to free blacks in Clinton
County, Pennsylvania, John C. Boyer moved westward with the frontier seeking business
opportunities as a barber, and likely networked with black barbers in the
East. He worked in Dakota Territory and
Around the time they came to Everett, John and Luella Boyer
legally adopted baby Esther Marie.
Polk’s 1902-03 Everett Directory lists John as a traveling
salesman--probably of hair care products—and Luella as the proprietress of a
ladies’ hair emporium at 2928 Colby Ave.; this address was also their
residence. After this John C. Boyer disappears
from Polk’s Everett Directory. He turns
up again in the 1920 Census for
As a single mother in a new town, Luella, however, was not without resources. She must have turned to John Boyer’s business connections, and to her own schooling. The Polk’s Directory entries for the years 1902 through 1912 show how she established and expanded her business:
1902: Boyer, Mme. Luella, ladies’ hair emporium,
1903: Boyer, Mme. Luella, ladies’ hair emp,
1904: Listed in the business section of Polk’s Directory
under Hair Goods: Boyer, Mme. Luella,
1905: Boyer, Mrs. Luella, hair gds 2928 Colby Ave., h 3816 Wetmore Ave., res 3615 Lombard Ave.
1906: Boyer, Mrs. Luella, hair gds
1907: Boyer, Mrs. Luella, hairdresser
1908: Boyer, Mme. Luella, Hairdresser and Dermatologist,
1909: same address, Tel Main 1645
1910: same address, Tels 1645
1911: Boyer, Mme. Luella, Hairdresser and Dermatologist,
2923 ½ Oakes Av, home same, Tels Sunset 1645
1912: Boyer, Mme. Luella, Hairdresser and Dermatologist, 11
Madame Boyer’s obituary indicates that she was well known in
the community, yet I suspect that she was following trends developing
elsewhere. According to historian Tiffany
Gill, “Madame” was frequently adopted by black women hairdressers and came to
signify them almost exclusively. The
most famous of these “Madames” was Madam C. J. Walker of
Luella also worked as a housekeeper. The Everett Public Library has the receipts that she signed, for $1.00 a night, for occasional backstage housekeeping at the Everett Theatre at 2911 Colby, nearly across the street from her business address. She may also have done hairdressing backstage.
A peak event in her life must have been the performance, on
January 16, 1905, of the first all African-American musical comedy, “In
Dahomey,” at the Everett Theatre. The
touring company featured show business legends George Walker, his wife Aida
Overton Walker, and Bert Williams, song and dance comedians who had recently
entertained the King of England in
Just before she remarried, Luella Boyer was enumerated in the 1910 Census. She was age 42, with her own hairdressing parlor, and she employed a black maid. Her husband-to-be, Bertrand Brent, who was white, was born about 1878 in Missouri, and was working in 1910 as a waiter in a restaurant. In 1911 his occupation was a janitor at the Everett Public Library. They were married just after the census was taken, on April 20, 1910, by Father H. P. Saindon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. Presumably Bertrand Brent was Catholic, but Luella was not, and as a condition of their marriage she agreed to have her daughter Esther raised Catholic. At about this time Esther began boarding at St. Dominic’s Academy, adjacent to the church.
At the time of her remarriage, Luella Boyer Brent was at her
most prosperous. It may have been about
this time that she and her husband began buying property in Snohomish and
Luella Boyer Brent died December 18, 1912 from diabetes. Upon her death Bertrand Brent began the long (1912-1918) and frustrating process of administering her estate. Luella’s only will, drawn in 1909, was outdated; Mr. Brent therefore had Luella declared to have died intestate, and petitioned to be named administrator. After he had paid all her creditors, and the attorneys and appraisers, he declared to the court the necessity of selling Luella’s real property in order to pay his costs and expenses. But none came forward to buy either the real property or the remaining salon fixtures and hair goods. Finally, Mr. Brent declared that since no sale had been made, the balance of the estate should be distributed between the heirs, i.e., him and Esther. On June 14, 1918, the estate was fully and finally settled and closed.
At this point Madame Boyer disappears from the public
records. I am still looking for a photo
of her. Her former residences on
Thanks to David Dilgard of the Everett Public Library for the image of Mrs. Boyer’s signed receipt from the night “In Dahomey” played at the Everett Theatre. Thanks to my husband Christopher Summitt for the photo of the grave marker.
1850 and 1860 Censuses,
1880 Census: Keosauqua, Van
Polk’s Everett and Snohomish County Directories, 1902-1912.
Marriage Certificate of Luella Boyer and Bertrand Brent,
Death Certificate for Ruth Brent,
Probate file of Luella Ruth Brent, 1912-1918, Washington
State Archives, Northwest Regional Branch,
Tiffany Gill, Black
Beauty Shops: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry,
|© 2010 Margaret Summitt, All Rights Reserved|