Madame Luella Boyer:
Everett’s Pioneer African-American Businesswoman
By Margaret Robe Summitt
Luella Ruth Brown Boyer, probably the first African-American businesswoman in Everett, arrived here about 1902 with her husband John C. Boyer. Soon after they arrived, their marriage broke up, and Luella supported herself and her adopted daughter Esther Marie as a hairdresser, styling herself “Madame Boyer,” and later established a salon in Everett’s theater district.
Luella Ruth Brown was born in either October 1868 or September 1869 in Keosauqua, Van Buren County, Iowa, to Lewis and Elizabeth (Henderson) Brown. Her parents had come from Missouri to Van Buren County in about 1864. Lewis Brown traced his family lineage to the first 20 slaves brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Elizabeth Henderson Brown performed housework for white families, including several lawyers. Her son Samuel Joe Brown, Luella’s younger brother (1875-1950), fulfilled his mother’s dream that he would become a lawyer and went on to a distinguished career as an attorney and civil rights leader. Her mother’s dreams for her children likely also inspired Luella. Both parents, however, were dead by about 1889. Samuel Joe Brown, Lawyer
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 in Kansas, and possibly met Luella in Iowa. By 1900 the couple, now married, was living in Lewiston, Idaho. Two years later they arrived in Everett.
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 Seattle; nonetheless Luella, in the 1910 Census, maintained the polite fiction that she was a widow.
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, 2928 Colby Ave., residence same. John C. Boyer, a traveling salesman, res 2928 Colby.
1903: Boyer, Mme. Luella, ladies’ hair emp, 2928 Colby Ave., res same.
1904: Listed in the business section of Polk’s Directory under Hair Goods: Boyer, Mme. Luella, 2928 Colby Ave., Everett.
1905: Boyer, Mrs. Luella, hair gds 2928 Colby Ave., h 3816 Wetmore Ave., res 3615 Lombard Ave.
1906: Boyer, Mrs. Luella, hair gds 2006 ½ Hewitt Ave., h 3818 Wetmore Ave.
1907: Boyer, Mrs. Luella, hairdresser 2006 ½ Hewitt Ave., h 3818 Wetmore Ave.
1908: Boyer, Mme. Luella, Hairdresser and Dermatologist, 1910 ½ Hewitt Ave., home same, Tels Sunset 1645 Ind 521Y
1909: same address, Tel Main 1645
1910: same address, Tels 1645 Ind 521Y
1911: Boyer, Mme. Luella, Hairdresser and Dermatologist, 2923 ½ Oakes Av, home same, Tels Sunset 1645 Ind 521Y
1912: Boyer, Mme. Luella, Hairdresser and Dermatologist, 11 Eclipse Block, Tel Ind 1948Y, Sunset 1645, h 5 Eclipse Block.
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 Indianapolis, who was developing her line of hair care products at the same time that Madame Boyer was establishing her business. One might speculate that Madame Boyer knew, or knew of, Madam C. J. Walker, and may even have sold her products.
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.Receipt for custodion services for Luella
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 London. Meeting them was a rare opportunity to network and maybe inspired her to expand her business.
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 King Counties. At the time of her death, 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 lost 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 paid by their insurance company for loss due to fire.
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.Gravestone of Luella Boyer Brent
At this point Madame Boyer disappears from the public records. I am still looking for a photo of her. 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.
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, Woodward Township, Clinton County, Pennsylvania.
- 1870 Census, Crawford Township, Clinton County, Pennsylvania.
- 1880 Census: Keosauqua, Van Buren County, Iowa; Central City, Lawrence County, Dakota Territory.
- 1900 Census, Lewiston, Nez Perce County, Idaho.
- 1910 Census, Everett 3rd Ward, Snohomish County, Washington.
- 1920 Census, Seattle 230th Ward, King County, Washington.
- Polk’s Everett and Snohomish County Directories, 1902-1912.
- Marriage Certificate of Luella Boyer and Bertrand Brent, Snohomish County, Washington.
- Death Certificate for Ruth Brent, Everett, Snohomish County, Washington, registered no. 213.
- Probate file of Luella Ruth Brent, 1912-1918, Washington State Archives, Northwest Regional Branch, Bellingham.
- Tiffany Gill, Black Beauty Shops: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry, University of Illinois Press, 2010.
- Biographical Dictionary of Iowa (2008), entry for Samuel Joe Brown.© 2010 Margaret Summitt, All Rights Reserved