By Leslie Kelly
When Nina Hallett closes her eyes, she can almost picture Jane Ruley teaching reading and mathematics to a room of young learners in the old Sheridan Schoolhouse No. 22 in 1897.
Ruley, who is thought to have been the first African-American teacher in Kitsap County, was the daughter of a slave. She was a classmate of Booker T. Washington at the Hampton Institute in Virginia.
And from the history that Hallett has been able to uncover, she knows that Ruley was born in the East and later came west and married Paul E. Ruley, a Kitsap County pioneer who was born in Germany and served on the Sheridan School Board.
“The school was located on Mr. Ruley’s property and Jane was the first teacher in that school,” Hallett said.
Her story and others are part of an exhibit “Uneasy Road: From Slavery to Freedom” that opens at the museum on Feb. 1. The exhibit honors Black History Month and also commemorates the 150th signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
As a part of the opening, admission to the exhibit will be free from 5-8 p.m. Feb. 1, part of the First Friday Art Walk in downtown Bremerton.
The exhibit will document important dates in African-American history through 1863 and will cover racial laws from 1844 to 1959. While some of the focus will be on national history of that time period, there will be artifacts and photographs of local Kitsap County black history.
Besides Jane Ruley, another important African-American to be featured is Nathaniel Sargent.
“He was born into slavery on July 4, 1863, and after emancipation was adopted by a white family,” Hallett said. “They moved to Oregon but because laws in Oregon forbade ‘Negroes,’ he [went alone] to Kitsap County where he earned a living in the logging trade.”
Sargent was a teenager when he arrived in Kitsap County. According to U.S. Census documents of the day, a white woman named Sarah Smith adopted and cared for him beginning when he was 16. Sargent went on to be a handyman and builder in the Crosby area. He became very well liked in the local community and had quite a sense of humor, she said.
As the story goes, a young white girl once took his hand, turned it over, and told him. “Mr. Sargent, you better go home and take a bath.” The girl had never seen a black man before. But Sargent just smiled at the young girl, understanding that he was something new to her.
Later on, Sargent, who had been well-educated in Illinois, was named justice of the peace at Seabeck. He died in 1954.
In researching for the exhibit, Hallett found that Sargent was also an artist.
“He mostly did oil paintings,” she said. “And as I was putting this exhibit together, I found the name of a neighbor of his and was able to track down that man’s widow, Jean Hintz of Seabeck. She fortunately had a piece of foil art that Mr. Sargent had made. And she is loaning it to us for the exhibit.”
Another early black resident of the county was John Garrison.
“From the 1857 Census, we found that he was one of the earliest blacks in Kitsap County,” Hallett said. “He was said to have been born in 1822 in Isle St. Domingo, which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. But some say he was actually born in Jamaica in 1818. He worked in the sawmill and married a woman who was American Indian. She had the name of Piapach but took the name Jane. Together they had 10 children.”
Kitsap history documents say Jane lived to be 106 and was thought to be a niece of Chief Seattle.
Confirming details can sometimes be challenging. “Especially with this exhibit. There is very little written down about the early African-Americans in this county,” Hallett said.
She and others working on the exhibit have names of individuals, like Charles Brouinard, but not many details about him, other than he was born in Jamaica.
“We have some great photos,” she said. “But there are no identifications to go with them. We know there were black laborers working to build the streets in Bremerton, because we have photos. But we have nothing else. We can’t put names to faces. And there are some questions about the dates.”And then there’s Charles Austin.
“We know he began life as a slave in South Carolina,” she said. “He was an African-American pioneer. He’s pictured as a ‘bootblack,’ shining shoes in Bremerton. But we know little else, other than he worked in the Bon Ton barber shop and then had a corner stand of his own.”
Hallett, a museum volunteer since 1995, said the museum has had other exhibits to honor Black History Month, but they were more “current day” and easier to document. She is hoping that the exhibit will spark interest and more information will surface about early black settlers in the county.
“This one has been hard because we have precious little,” she said. “We have very few photos and artifacts and not much of the early black history in writing.”
Black History Month has its beginning in 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History named the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” The week was chosen because it marked the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In 1976, the federal government proclaimed the entire month of February as Black History Month. It has been celebrated annually since then.
The Kitsap History Museum is located at 280 Fourth St., Bremerton. Call (360) 479-6226 for more information. The exhibit runs through March 30.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 10,086 residents of Kitsap County claim African-American ancestry.
Other prominent Kitsap African-Americans:
— Al Colvin (1922-2008), Tuskegee Airman, Bremerton City Council member, founder of Bremerton NAACP Peoples Federal Credit Union.
— Jim Henry, Poulsbo City Council member, 2010-.
— Julia Jacob, (1874-1960), adopted daughter of Suquamish Chief Jacob Wa’hal’chu. She became fluent in Lushootseed and a master weaver. Her son, Lawrence Webster, was chairman of the Suquamish Tribe from 1979-1985 and co-founder of the Suquamish Museum.
— James Walker (1911-2000), second president of the Bremerton chapter of the NAACP, advocate for the Fair Employment Practices Act (approved by the Legislature in 1949), business manager for The Northwest Enterprise, a black newspaper based in Seattle.
— Lillian Walker (1913-2012), state NAACP secretary, 1940s; postmaster of Sinclair Park, Bremerton, 1944; charter member, YWCA of Kitsap County, 1948; member and chairwoman, Kitsap County Regional Library Board, 1972-79.