Educating Hester: A black pioneer family in Nelson

In the 1956 Nelson High School yearbook, there’s a brief but heartwarming memoir by Hester L. Waggener recalling her days as a student.

Hester Waggener (nee Pierre) is seen at age 16

Hester Waggener (nee Pierre) is seen at age 16

In the 1956 Nelson High School yearbook, there’s a brief but heartwarming memoir by Hester L. Waggener recalling her days as a student there more than 40 years earlier.

“The teachers were perfect. I can see now (smiles) Mr. Fraser, Mrs. Pearcy, Mr. Seaman, Miss Smith and many others who worked for our good,” she wrote. “It was about 1913, and I believe, with few exceptions, I had to look in the looking glass to see the difference between me and my fellow students.”

The mirror revealed what was otherwise unacknowledged: she was Nelson’s only black student.

By the time she was born in Victoria in 1895, Hester’s family already had deep roots in BC. Her paternal grandparents, the Pierres, immigrated from San Francisco in 1862, as part of a wave of black families who came at the invitation of colonial governor James Douglas to escape injustice.

In the United States, they could not get citizenship, but on Vancouver Island they could buy land and become full citizens after seven years.

Below: John T. Pierre, date unknown. He was a merchant tailor in Nelson for over 35 years.

Hester’s grandfather, Thomas Whiten Pierre, originally hailed from Washington, DC. He and wife Ann Elizabeth had eight children, including John Thomas and Samuel Deal, born in Victoria in 1865 and 1871 respectively.

Thomas was a merchant tailor with his own business on Yates St. He made his son John a partner and then sold him the business in 1889, although the two resumed their partnership three years later. The BC Archives has an interior photo of John’s shop when it was on Fort St.

In 1891, John commissioned architect John Gerhard Tiarks to design a two-story brick building on Douglas St. that became known as the Pierre Block.

John married Georgianna Barbara Sharp in 1889 and they had five children, of whom only Hester survived infancy. In 1899, John’s mother died and a few months later, cancer claimed his wife at age 33.

His brother Sam had moved to Nelson in 1897 and established the Nelson Cleaning and Dyeing Establishment, advertising in the Daily Miner “Ladies and Gents’ clothing cleaned, dyed, altered and repaired.”

In March 1900, perhaps hoping a change of scenery would distract him from his grief, John joined Sam’s business in Nelson. Their office was in an alley off Josephine St., behind the Clarke Hotel. John was also the local agent for something called the Tontine Saving Association, a dubious-sounding promotion to sell diamonds on an installment plan.

The 1901 census indicates Hester didn’t join her father immediately, although she was shown attending school in Nelson three years later.

Below: Sam Pierre, date unknown. He opened the Nelson Cleaning and Dyeing Establishment around 1897.

Sam Pierre left Nelson for Washington state around 1903, but John stayed and more family joined him. In 1904, when their father died, John’s sisters Corinthia and Louisa were apparently living in Nelson. That same year, John married May Gertrude Leger at the Methodist parsonage in Nelson. However, they divorced in little over two years.

The 1911 census shows John and Hester living at 608 Baker St. with Frederick and Comesta Sharp, John’s brother and sister-in-law from his first marriage, plus George Grooty, George Thurman, Romain Matthus and her daughter Gladys. With the exception of Thurman, who was white, they made up not quite the entire black population of Nelson. Frederick was a janitor, Romain a tailor, Grooty a waiter, and Thurman a salesman.

In 1909, Hester passed her high school entrance exams. Nelson had one of the highest success rates in the province that year: of 37 students, 34 passed, whereas in the rest of BC, only slightly more than half made the grade 514 of 980. Nelson’s Clifford Irving achieved the second highest mark in the province. Others from Nelson who took the exam at the same time as Hester included Dora and Georgia Patrick sisters of famous hockey players Lester and Frank.

In the memoir of her high school years, Hester added: “The teachers encouraged and chided me when I neglected my studies I failed in the first year, all those I had gone clear through school with went on. I lost interest and quit the next term.

“I played for the first high school gym glass. Received a beautiful pin from the class and a compliment for accurate time during exercises. Yes, was told that I had a wonderful touch for the piano. I had those girls stepping to my music.”

Below: Hester Waggener (nee Pierre), is seen at age 43, which would date the photo to about 1938.

Hester didn’t say who taught her to play, but at one point her father was advertising a piano for sale.

On the 1921 census, John and Hester are shown as still living together at the same address in Nelson, but within the next year she would marry Charles Waggener and move to Yakima, Wash.

John Pierre remained in Nelson until 1935, when he retired to Victoria. He died there in 1938 at age 71 and is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery. His obituary appeared in the Nelson Daily News, but despite operating a business for more than 35 years, he is not well remembered. He’s believed to be in a photo taken in 1932 of the Nelson and District Old Timers Association outside the Hume Hotel, but he’s unidentified in an accompanying list of names.

Hester and Charles had nine children, who all led successful careers. One became a veterinarian, another a teacher, and another an award-winning Hollywood costume designer.

“All of these [are] the outcome of Nelson High School’s influence on me,” Hester said. “Some of these faithful teachers were so tired trying to teach us something. To you present-day scholars, your advantages are more than we had. Don’t miss a thing. It is your future and that of others to follow you.”

Hester Louise Pierre Waggener died in Yakima in 1980, age 85. Two of her children died last year, but two others are still alive. Many other Pierre family descendants live in BC and Washington state.

Minnie Brown’s rise to fame

In 1902, a remarkable letter appeared in the Seattle Republican, a leading African American newspaper, providing insight into West Kootenay’s small black community generally and the Pierre brothers specifically.

“Miss Minnie Brown has returned [to Spokane] from a three weeks visit to Kaslo. While there she was a guest of Mr. and Mrs. A.W. Perkins, who, with the family of Mr. J.A. Sith, are the only colored residents of the little city, but they lack not for pleasure, for the Englishman is the black man’s friend.

“Mr. A.W. Perkins has lived in Kaslo nearly six years and he holds a position as a bartender in Kaslo’s leading hotel and receives an excellent salary. The white citizens of Kaslo are excellent people as a whole, many musicians and scholars being found amongst them. It was Miss Brown’s luck to have lived in this community a number of years ago and her return to it was a pleasure and she was made thoroughly welcome there.

“Messrs. John T. Pierre and S.D. Pierre are men of color, their home being in Victoria. These gentlemen have the leading tailoring establishment in Nelson. Their goods are imported direct from England by them. Their work is something fine and their trade is excellent. They are kept busy continually, sometimes having to hire a number of assistants.

“This shows what a colored man can do when he is given half a chance, and then when the chance is given and he attends to business as these gentlemen do, he thereby wins the confidence and respect of his white customers and retains it. The tailoring establishment of the Pierre Bros. is well known throughout British Columbia.”

Minnie Brown actually wrote the above and referred to herself in the third person.

It’s not known what took her to Kaslo she mostly grew up in Butte, Mont. and Spokane but according to an 1895 story in the Kaslo Prospector, a benefit concert was held there “to assist her in obtaining a musical education in Spokane. The best wishes of the ladies of Kaslo go with her in her efforts, and they hope her voice may, after a season of training, charm audiences elsewhere as it has here.”

By 1906, Brown joined the Williams and Walker company, a touring troupe, and a few years later landed a role in the Broadway production of Mr. Lode of Koal. She enjoyed a long career as a singer, impresario, and choir director. In the 1920s, she ran her own vocal studio in New York.