Rebecca Howard: An African-American Businesswoman in Early Olympia

olympia history
Painted by artists Ira Coyne, Vince Ryland, Arthur Crews, Sara Calland and Christopher Ross in October 2011 on the side of the Bread Peddler at 222 North Capital Way, the Rebecca Howard mural overlooks the parking lot where the Pacific House was located. Photo courtesy Jennifer Crooks.

 

By Jennifer Crooks

washington orthopaedic centerRebecca Howard is one of the most famous women to have lived in early Olympia. Although information on her is limited, she clearly lived a fascinating life. As an African American woman in the late mid-nineteenth century, she faced great prejudice and racism. In spite of this, she became a successful businesswoman and a beloved Olympia citizen in the eyes of many locals.

Rebecca H. Groundage was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1827 or 1829. Very little is known of her early life, even her exact age, except that she was perhaps born into slavery. On November 2, 1843 she married a 33-year old African American cooper (barrel maker) named Alexander Howard in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

By 1859, the Howards had moved west to Olympia. Very few African Americans lived in Washington Territory at that time. Despite being such a small minority, racism and prejudice were all too common and many sources about the Howards are full of racist gibes and stereotyping.

olympia history
Painted by artists Ira Coyne, Vince Ryland, Arthur Crews, Sara Calland and Christopher Ross in October 2011 on the side of the Bread Peddler at 222 North Capital Way, the Rebecca Howard mural overlooks the parking lot where the Pacific House was located. Photo courtesy Jennifer Crooks.

The Howards became hotel keepers, leasing and later buying the “Pacific House,” a hotel and restaurant originally built in 1854 and operated by Colonel William Cock. Located at what is now the corner of State Street and Capitol Way, it soon became both the leading hotel and best restaurant in Olympia. On September 9, 1859 the Pioneer and Democrat advertised the hotel under Alexander’s name, though later advertisements would be in his wife’s name. The Howards promised “to maintain the reputation this establishment has ever sustained since its opening as the BEST HOUSE in town.”

Rebecca Howard was the chief manager of the Pacific House and both her and her husband served as cooks. Mrs. Howard was clearly the face of the Pacific House as “hostess,” becoming the person most associated with the hotel. Under her excellent management, the Pacific House became the leading hotel in Olympia and thus one of the most prominent hotels in the Territory.

The Pacific House was largely successful and the Howards were noted as being some of the wealthiest people in Olympia. As the leading hotel in town, the building often served as a headquarters of lawmakers and lobbyists from the nearby Territorial Legislature. The large front room was nicknamed “the platform of the Republican party” as party organizers often met there, even using it as a headquarters. Also, many visiting dignitaries stayed at the hotel including President Hayes and Generals Sherman, McDowell and Scott.

olympia history
The Pacific House under Rebecca Howard became the leading hotel and restaurant in Olympia. President Hayes, his wife and General Sherman gave speeches on the front balcony on their visit to Olympia in October 1890. Photo courtesy public domain image on Blackpast.org.

Although the Howards had no children of their own, they adopted Isaac Ingalls Stevens Glasgow (1857-1926), the son of Thomas W. Glasgow and a Native American woman. Many people believed that Glasgow had been mistreating his son. The Howards renamed the young man Frank Alexander Howard, the name he kept the rest of his life.

Rebecca Howard died on Sunday, July 10, 1881 of a stroke at the age of 54. Many mourned her death. Even John Miller Murphy, editor of the Washington Standard newspaper who was well noted for his racism, wrote kindly that “she was one of our oldest residents, and had many warm friends.” In her will, Mrs. Howard divided her property evenly between her son and husband.

Alexander died nine years later and was buried next to his wife in Tumwater’s Masonic Memorial Park.

Various stories have been recorded about Rebecca Howard, especially about how she was addressed by others. Many people tried to call her “Aunt Becky” which was racially condescending. Rebecca allowed only her close friends to call her that, firmly asserting she was to be addressed as “Mrs. Howard,” a title of respect, by everyone else. For instance, when the newly installed Governor Pickering called her “Aunt Becky” she responded that she was neither the sister of his mother nor father.

olympia history
This May 1890 Tribune Souvenir of Olympia photograph depicts Frank Alexander Howard, the adopted son of Rebecca and Alexander Howard. Photo courtesy Washington State Library.

Frank Howard eventually sold the Pacific House to a Captain Hambright who operated a saloon in the building. Frank became a prominent citizen and businessman, later moving back east with his wife Lillie and their children. The Pacific House fell into disrepair and was demolished in September 1902. This was a considerable loss to Olympia’s heritage. Serving for a time as the pole yard for the Olympia Telephone Company, the site is now a parking lot next to the Bread Peddler.

Rebecca Howard is a remarkable person in the history of Olympia who deserves to be remembered. In the 19th century era of racism and sexism, she was able to create a prosperous business and achieve considerable popularity. B.F. Kendall in his Overland Press newspaper on November 10, 1862 made the following observation about Rebecca Howard: “She is the capital feature of the Capital—a permanent and indispensable [part] of Olympian society—a walking index of kitchen comforts and the art of cuisine…and were we to meet an Olympian in Greece or Turkey at dinner, the third most natural question we should expect to be asked would be: ‘Does Becky still survive?’”

Further Reading

Jennifer Crooks. “Rebecca Howard: A Determined 19th Century Businesswoman” in Drew Crooks, ed. Olympia, Washington: A People’s History (Olympia, WA: City of Olympia), 2009.

Ladd Allison. “The Respectable Aunt Becky.” July 1977. http://digitum.washingtonhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/digipubs/id/4714

Gordon Newell. Rouges, Buffoons & Statesmen. Seattle, WA: Hangman Press, 1975.

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