Who was Madame Luella Boyer, a pioneering African American?

Everett Public Library takes looks at what we know, and what we wish we knew about her life.

Margaret Summitt, of the Mukilteo Historical Society, painstakingly examined decades worth of genealogical records, newspapers, and city directories to reconstruct Luella Ruth Brown Boyer Brent, aka Madame Boyer’s, life story. (Everett Public Library)

Margaret Summitt, of the Mukilteo Historical Society, painstakingly examined decades worth of genealogical records, newspapers, and city directories to reconstruct Luella Ruth Brown Boyer Brent, aka Madame Boyer’s, life story. (Everett Public Library)

By Mindy, Everett Pubic Library staff

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.

Most 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.

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:

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

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 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 by Esther Hall Mumford

The Warmth of Others Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Be sure to visit the Everett Public Library blog for more reviews and news of all things happening at the library.

Talk to us

More in Life

Low-cal craft beer becomes vital during the quarantine

Don’t reach for the Michelob Ultra Light just yet. We tasted 18 beers and picked the winners and losers.

Jump on the everything bagel bandwagon with this zesty salad

If Whole Foods is sold out of the seasoning mix, relax — you can make it yourself.

Need a fun weekend quarantine project? Try citrus marmalade

The preserves are as delicious spooned on toast as they are over grilled pork or chicken.

2020 Nissan Altima is quiet, comfortable, and fuel efficient

One year after a complete redesign, more safety features have been added to lower-cost models in lineup.

Rick Steves on Pompeii, Italy’s frozen-in-time Roman city

The volcanic ash that destroyed the city also ensured its remarkable preservation, down to the folds on victims’ togas.

Ask Dr. Paul: Adjusting to the new normal with COVID-19

Here are some tips to help you embrace and cope with our new way of living in a pandemic world.

Keep frozen bay scallops on hand for a sweet quarantine dinner

The dish can be ready to eat in less than 15 minutes — even including the time to defrost the shrimp.

Traveler wants full refund after virus halts flight to Vegas

Southwest Airlines agreed to a refund, but didn’t include the EarlyBird option that he paid for.

Local Girl Scouts adapt to the pandemic by scouting at home

The coronavirus isn’t stopping these Snohomish County girls from earning badges and awards.

Most Read