Nettie Craig Asberry was an extraordinary, early African American resident of Tacoma who was known for her work in fighting racism and in helping to open doors for women. A founding member of the Tacoma NAACP, a music teacher, a club woman, and in later years a volunteer social worker in the community, she was a Tacoma icon.
Nettie Asberry was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, on July 15, 1865, the only free child of Violet Craig's six children. Her father was William Wallingford, the owner of a plantation on which Violet was a slave. She began studying piano when she was eight years old and later on began composing her own music. A precocious 13 year old, she became interested in women's suffrage after listening to Susan B Anthony in Leavenworth and became secretary for a Susan B. Anthony Club. (Susan B. Anthony's brother Daniel R. Anthony was editor of the Leavenworth Times and an anti-slavery activist.)
Few women of any color were enrolled in college in 1883, but Nettie Craig Asberry graduated from the University of Kansas and received her Ph.D. degree from the Kansas Conservatory of Music and Elocution in Leavenworth, Kansas, on June 12, 1883. She is believed to be the first African American woman in the United States to receive a doctorate degree. Her diploma was lost for a number of years but was discovered after her death. It hung briefly in the African American Museum in Tacoma, but when the museum closed in 2005, items there were auctioned off.
She was a music instructor and teacher in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, (Nicodemus is now a National Historic Site in the U.S. National Park Service and the only remaining western community established by African Americans after the Civil War.) She also taught music in Kansas City and in Denver. After marrying Albert Jones, the two set out on the train for Seattle in 1890. Upon arrival, she immediately put her musical talents to work by becoming the first organist and musical director in the newly established First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
A New Life with Henry Asberry
Tragically, her husband died in 1893, and she went back to her family in Kansas. Shortly thereafter she and her family returned to the Northwest and settled in Tacoma. She met Henry Joseph Asberry (1862-1939) and they married on February 23, 1895, and the two prospered -- he amassing a large amount of property and she becoming a respected leader.
Henry Asberry had been a barber in New Orleans at the old St. Charles Hotel during the first year of the World's Cotton Exposition. Venturing north he landed in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1890, where, while shaving and cutting the hair of Col. Chauncey W. Griggs, one of the founders of the Tacoma & St. Paul Lumber Company, he learned of the opportunities in the Pacific Northwest, and particularly in Tacoma, which was one of the fastest growing cities in the area. Again, he moved to seek his fortune, this time in Tacoma.
He took over the Gottleib Yaeger's barber shop in the new Tacoma Hotel, at 915 A Street near the site of the present-day Fireman's Park. The distinguished building was designed by Stanford White (1853-1906), one of the most prominent architects of the time and famous men came and stayed at the hotel. Many of the guests frequented Asberry's barber shop. They included Mark Twain, who spent several weeks on Puget Sound and made his headquarters at the hotel, William Rockefeller when he was looking over the prospects of getting terminals for the Milwaukee railroad, Calvin Coolidge who was vice president at the time, and Joaquin Miller, known as the "poet of the Sierras."
It was customary in those days for regular clients to have individual shaving mugs with their names inscribed. These mugs lining Asberry's shelves read like a who's who of Tacoma. There was Henry Hewitt, co-founder with Griggs of the lumber company, William Blackwell, proprietor of the first hotel in Tacoma, real-estate magnate R. E. Anderson, S. A. Perkins, Superior Court Judge, and many others. The mugs survived the 1935 fire that destroyed the hotel. After Asberry's death on July 26, 1939, Nettie Asberry presented the collection of his shaving mugs to the Washington State Historical Society Museum.
Musician and Teacher
Shortly after arriving in Tacoma, Nettie Asberry became organist and choir director for the Allen AME Church of which she remained a member for the rest of her life. She was also a devoted believer in the Bahai faith the last 25 years of her life.
In 1902, she organized the Mozart Musical Club for young people to broaden their musical culture and knowledge of the lives of great composers. She had a massive upright piano in her home, which still stands at 1219 South 13th Street and where she lived for more than 50 years. Earlier residences where she taught music were at 1022 South Tacoma in 1896, and at 1012 South 12th Street from 1897 until 1902. She taught hundreds of young people and was one of the best-known music teachers in the city. She presented 45 or more in recital each year. Because her home was in the melting-pot area of the city, her students were of all colors and from all walks of life. She played the piano every day and in later years donated musical instruments and material to a library and music hall in the Hilltop neighborhood.
Always sensitive to injustice, Nettie Asberry was a consummate letter writer to newspaper editors protesting racial discrimination. She was the founder of the Tacoma chapter of the NAACP in 1913, the first chapter founded west of the Rockies, and she personally submitted the application to the New York office. When queried she said, "What was our first official act? -- A measure against inter-racial marriage was pushed through the state legislature. We had an underground worker there who let us know and overnight we got together a caravan of several cars of people of several races, whites, colored, Filipinos, and others. We descended on the powerful rules committee as a surprise and defeated the measure." (Bence).
Her service to the association was legendary. She served as regional field secretary and later as local branch secretary. Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, in its 1943 issue, listed her as one of the "First Ladies" of colored America and published a record of her achievements.
In 1916, a mass meeting was held at the AME church over concern about the showing of the movie Birth of a Nation in which freed slaves were portrayed trying to rape white girls and attack white settlers. It was Nettie Asberry who was chosen to write the letter to the press protesting the release of the movie. In 1918, she was also in the forefront protesting the establishment of segregation at Fort Lewis.
Other efforts of Nettie Asberry included challenging the practice of restricting seating for blacks in theatre balconies. The practice was eventually stopped by an outpouring of protest letters to theater managers. It was she who put forth an effort to have letters sent to store managers downtown protesting insults by store clerks, letting them know that it would no longer be tolerated or ignored. Another target of protest was the practice of putting signs in restaurant windows stating that the management reserved the right to refuse service to anyone.
A number of influential African Americans came to the Northwest because of her efforts. They included Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), the hair-care entrepreneur; James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), author prominent in the Harlem Renaissance; W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963), civil rights activist and author; and Roland Hayes, internationally acclaimed lyric tenor.
Black Women and the A-Y-P
In 1908, Nettie Asberry heard that there would be a world's fair to be called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909, and that there would be a women's building. She got busy and organized the Clover Leaf Art Club to foster an interest in needlework and handicraft and also to bring about a closer relationship among members, give assistance to the unfortunate ones, and to bring about, ultimately, the formation of a state federation of colored women's clubs.
The following year the club and its members earned medals at the exposition for their handiwork: a Battenberg lace opera coat made by Asberry's sister Martha Townsend won a silver medal. The over-all exhibit won a gold medal, and the paintings and ceramics of Matilda Baker (d. 1954) won a bronze medal. (Matilda Baker appears in some sources as Mrs. Hiram Moore-Baker.)
The Club Movement
This was the beginning of the African American women's club movement in Washington state. Ms. Asberry went about the state to encourage African American women to organize clubs. In Longview, Victoria Freeman started a study club, and in Seattle in 1910, the Dorcas Charity Club was organized by a group of women with Susie Revels Cayton (1870-1943) as its president. When the Washington State Federation of Colored Women was formed in 1917, it brought together city federations and individual clubs from Spokane, Tacoma, and Seattle as well as some in Idaho and Vancouver B.C. Nettie Asberry served as its president and was a frequently requested speaker.
At one time there were more than 120 individual clubs with 500 members. Its focus was on self-help activism as advocated by Booker T. Washington in order to upgrade the social, economic, and political status of African Americans. Although the State Federation began to decline in the 1970s, several African American women's clubs still exist in Tacoma and Seattle.
In 1918, Asberry formed the Allen Red Cross where friends loaned sewing machines and made hospital garments. She was also a member of the Progressive Mothers' Club of Tacoma and the Tacoma Inter-Racial Council.
In her honor the Nettie Asberry Cultural Club was formed in Tacoma. It is still in existence and promotes black history in the schools and in the community. In 1961, she was honored for her music and her volunteer social work by 110 co-workers in the City Association of Colored Women. The music room in the club house of the Tacoma Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc. which was built in 1970 and dedicated by Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) is named in her honor.
Dr. Nettie Asberry died in 1968 at the age of 103. The following year, Mayor A. L. Rasmussen proclaimed May 11, 1969, as Dr. Nettie Asberry Day in Tacoma.