Few outside a small circle of South Sound historians know that the first woman in charge of a business in the pioneer town of Olympia was an African American.
Rebecca Howard was her name, and if the Olympia Heritage Commission and the Olympia Downtown Association have their way, 2011 will be the year Howard emerges from the shadows of the city’s early history.
Howard was the owner, cook and manager of the Pacific House, a popular restaurant and hotel at Main Street and Third Avenue, an area that today is a parking lot at Capitol Way and State Avenue.
Born in Philadelphia in 1827, Rebecca Groundage married police officer Alexander Howard in 1843 and moved to Olympia in 1859.
This was just 13 years after the first white settler’s cabin was built in Olympia, by Levi Lathrop Smith on a sandy spit that jutted into Budd Inlet a few hundred yards north of the restaurant-hotel site.
In its heyday in the 1860s and 1870s, the Pacific House was renowned as an oasis for early Puget Sound travelers hungry for good food, warm hospitality and lively conversation.
Howard played host to President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife, Lucy, during their 1880 visit to Olympia; Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; and a parade of legislators and other visitors to the capital city.
“The location of the Pacific House was at the heart of the community,” noted South Sound historian and educator Lynn Erickson, who wrote a brief biography of Howard in her illustrated collection of Olympia history titled “Sylvester’s Window.”
Howard, known as Aunt Becky to her friends, was described as handsome, robust and generous. But she was also sharp-tongued, with a no-nonsense approach to discipline. Nor did she back down from dangerous confrontations, Erickson noted in her account of a gunbattle outside Howard’s restaurant in 1862. The fracas, which involved a man identified as Mr. Griswold, boiled over inside her establishment.
“She promptly embraced Mr. Griswold and raised him from the floor a good two feet, holding him thus suspended until he lost both breath and belligerency,” according to the account.
Erickson’s one-page biography also quotes an 1874 newspaper advertising the reopening of the Pacific House. It points to Howard’s considerable reputation.
“Mrs. R. Howard has also resumed charge of the House which is sufficient guarantee to those familiar with her ability to superintend a cuisine, that complete satisfaction will be given to those who patronize the establishment.”
I wonder if the Pacific House sustained damage after the 1870 earthquake that struck Olympia.
Another unanswered question comes to mind: Did Howard buy any of her produce from fellow black pioneer George Bush of Tumwater, who, along with his sons, gained quite a reputation as a commercial farmer?
I posed the Bush-Howard question to Quintard Taylor, a University of Washington professor of black history who has compiled an extensive history of African American settlers in the West.
“It stands to reason that they would have known each other,” Taylor offered, not knowing for sure.
Our conversation was short; February is Black History Month, and Taylor is much in demand.
Taylor noted that the opportunity Howard had to own a business in the early days of Olympia didn’t exist in many parts of the country.
“And it’s a reminder that African American history is all around us – not just in the South,” Taylor said.
The downtown association and heritage commission hope to keep that message alive with a project this year to include a mural of Aunt Becky and the Pacific Hotel on the south-facing wall of the building next to the former hotel-restaurant site.
The building soon to be adorned with the mural houses a popular, modern-day eatery: the Bread Peddler. Building owner Gray Graham is more than happy to host the mural.
“I love the idea of recognizing early Olympia entrepreneurs,” the 60-year-old nutritionist said.
One thing missing from a truly authentic mural is a photo of Howard, who died in 1881.
If anyone has a picture of Rebecca Howard, don’t hesitate to call Kenny at 360-753-8031.