On June 25, 1924, Everett resident Jennie Samuels (1868-1948) welcomes more than 200 African American clubwomen to the Everett Knights of Columbus auditorium for the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs of Washington convention. Mrs. J. B. Samuels, as she is usually referred to in records of the time, is the president of the federation and one of the founders of the Everett-based host club, the Nannie Burroughs Study Club. The convention lasts for three days and includes talks about club projects, gatherings for prayer and song, social receptions, an art exhibition, and welcoming addresses by Everett's current mayor John Henry Smith (1858-1956) and former mayor and future Washington governor Roland H. Hartley (1864-1952).
Segregation in the Women's Club Movement
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women in the United States began to organize around what later became known as the women's club movement. While these clubs strove to be inclusive politically, they were usually still segregated along racial and ethnic lines. Women who were excluded from the largely white Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs formed their own clubs and federations. One of the largest was the Washington State Federation of Colored Women's Organizations, which was founded in 1917 and affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. In the Everett Herald coverage of the 1924 convention, it was referred to as the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs of Washington; the federation went through a handful of name changes during the course of its operation.
Members, more than 2,000 statewide, were subdivided into different committees that treated both local and broader topics. Like the clubs made up of white women, the Federation of Colored Women's Organizations focused on areas such as peace, arts and crafts, education, legislation, health and temperance, and homemaking, mothers, and children. However, members also studied interracial relations and race history, among other topics of more pressing concern to black women.
Leading the State Federation
Jennie Samuels, or Mrs. J. B. Samuels as she appeared in club records, was one of the most prominent early members at the federation's executive level. Also occasionally appearing as Jane, she was an Everett resident and founder of the Nannie Burroughs Study Club there. Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961), was an African American educator, feminist, and civil rights activist. Burroughs had gained national attention by calling on Baptist women to combine their charitable works into one federated movement, providing an inspiration for African American women's clubs all over the country. She later became a supporter and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.
Samuels was highly motivated to keep her Everett colleagues closely involved with the activities of the state's federated clubwomen. Her Nannie Burroughs Club hosted the 1920 state federation conference, held at Everett High School and addressed by Roland Hartley, a former Everett mayor and state representative who would be elected governor in November 1924. Alice Chase (ca. 1869-1958), the Lowell-based president of the Federation of Women's Clubs of Snohomish County, also spoke. Attendees discussed the importance of civic works, different projects underway within the federation, the life of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), and matters concerning child welfare. Special attention was given to the administration of homes for the elderly and the establishment of scholarship funds for students.
Coverage in the Herald announced that all sessions were open to the public and that the schedule included many programs of general interest. The group's meeting minutes remarked how accommodating the high school was in giving them use of the school's kitchens to prepare meals and access to all rooms and buildings on campus for meetings and lodging. The basement of the school was filled with a large display of artwork made by the clubwomen, which the Herald said demonstrated "excellent workmanship" ("74 Delegates ...").
The following year, Samuels was elected the second president of the Washington State Federation of Colored Women's Organizations. Her first order of business as president was to pursue the establishment of scholarships for children of color who wished to pursue higher education. In her president's address at the 1924 federation meeting in Everett, she spoke of the importance of club work to furthering the cause of equal rights for African Americans:
"It is our duty, as representative of the colored people of the state, to do all in our power to assume our true position in the life of the nation, and to break down a barrier of misunderstanding of the colored people. In this work our churches and clubs should take an active part. Faith, trust, push and stability are essential to our cultural and social growth. We should also assist with all our power those coming from the South who have not had the opportunities we have had" ("200 Attend ...").
At the Center of the Action
Though Samuels only held the post of president for four years, and the federation's membership was largely based in Tacoma and Seattle, most of the biannual officers' meetings during her involvement with the federation were held at the Samuels home in the 2200 block of Wetmore Avenue. Club records paint a picture of the residence as a hub of activity not only for meetings, but also for social gatherings among clubwomen and their families from Everett and points all around the Puget Sound region. The proceedings of the federation's eighth annual conference in 1924 included a celebration of John and Jennie Samuels's 34th wedding anniversary as a conference after-party at their home.
When not busy with the activities of the state federation, Samuels continued to work at the local level with the Nannie Burroughs Study Club, doing benevolent works within Everett. Much time was spent giving aid to those who were homebound due to illness or old age, and looking after the needs of children living in lower-income households. In addition to their charitable works, members focused heavily on issues affecting African Americans in the United States -- bringing in speakers and discussing papers and other publications. By the 10th annual meeting it was noted that the Study Club was the only organization in Everett affiliated with the state federation, yet its members still frequently ranked at the top of federation fundraising lists and a handful of its members were active in leadership roles.
Though most of what we know about the life of Jennie Samuels comes from club records archived in the University of Washington Special Collections, some information about her family life can be gleaned from other sources such as newspapers, census records, military records, high school yearbooks, and Polk City Directories.
Jennie Samuels was born on October 1, 1868, in Salem, North Carolina. Not much is known about her early life, but she remained in school until the end of her second year of high school. In 1890 she married John B. Samuels (1864-1955) a laborer from Louisville, Kentucky, who was literate but had left school in the fourth grade. The Samuels family briefly lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where their only child, John Wesley (1891-1954), was born in September 1891. The Samuels family moved to Everett around 1897 and by 1900 owned one of the first homes built on the 2200 block of Wetmore. By 1939, their home was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book as a "tourist home" where African American travelers could find safe lodging. John B. Samuels worked as a cook for one of the railroads when he first arrived, but soon switched to custodial work that would remain his profession until retirement. Jennie Samuels was a homemaker in addition to her numerous club activities (Negro Motorist ..., 44).
John Wesley Samuels, known as Wesley or J. Wesley, graduated in 1912 from Everett High School, where he had been active in the drama club and athletic club. He served overseas in World War I; before his honorable discharge he had reached the rank of battalion sergeant major in the army. Federation records noted that he suffered from lingering health issues related to his military service. He returned to Everett, where he worked for many years as the secretary of the American Boiler and Iron Works at 700 Hewitt Avenue. He appears never to have married, and he spent the remainder of his life sharing the Wetmore home with his parents.
After a long illness, Jennie Samuels died peacefully at her home on August 13, 1948. She had remained active in several clubs and her Methodist church until the very end of her life. Sadly, J. Wesley Samuels died only six years later in a veterans' hospital in Vancouver, Clark County; his father died seven months after that at a hospital in Everett. The entire family is buried in a family plot in Evergreen Cemetery, not far from their beloved home and the now-bustling city center that Jennie Samuels devoted so much of her life to improving.