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Saturday, November 30, 2019

Charlotte Dett: Influential Niagaran Mother, Entrepreneur, Local and National Leader and Socialite

by Michael B. Boston

Charlotte Johnson Dett was born on March 7, 1862, in Drummondville, Canada (now Niagara Falls, Canada).[1] On this date, the American Civil War was already nearly one year old and would last another three years. It is believed that Charlotte’s mother, Harriet Washington, had escaped to Canada by way of the Underground Railroad.[2] Either independently or with the assistance of the Underground Railroad, enslaved individuals steadily escaped to Canada during the nineteenth century, mainly crossing over through Detroit, Michigan, or Niagara Falls, New York. We will perhaps never know which city the most fugitive slaves passed through, but we do know that they crossed rivers to enter Canada by both routes, either the Detroit River through Detroit or the Niagara River through Niagara Falls.

In 1880, at the age of eighteen, Charlotte married Robert Tue Dett, who was a United States citizen. Robert, who was nineteen years older than Charlotte, had not fled to Canada but rather frequented it through his employment as a railroad Pullman porter, or “Red Cap,” a person who served railroad passengers.[3] His job allowed him to meet Charlotte. Ultimately, he moved from Maryland to settle in Drummondville, Canada.[4] He and his wife eventually established a rooming-house business there. Through their union, Charlotte and Robert had four children: Samuel, Arthur, Harriet, and R. Nathaniel. Of the four, only Samuel and R. Nathaniel would live to adulthood.

In 1889, Arthur and his friends played pranks on some of the merchants in his community, jokingly tampering with some of their property. One merchant who saw his fence being taken down by a group of children rushed into his house, got his shotgun and aimed and fired it at Arthur. Arthur was hit and would later die in the hospital. This, of course, devastated Charlotte, Robert, and the other children.[5] Harriet, the sole female sibling, lived only two years.[6] Thus, the Dett family experienced devastating tragedies early on.

In 1893 Charlotte and her family, including her mother, relocated to Niagara Falls, New York. The specific reason (or reasons) why the Dett family emigrated is not clear. Perhaps they felt that they could be more economically successful in the United States; maybe Robert longed to be back in America, or perhaps the deaths of two of their children impacted their decision. Even so, by 1900, Charlotte and Robert Dett had separated. The 1900 Census for Niagara Falls shows them residing at different locations.[7] Robert was recorded as being a hotelkeeper or proprietor, while Charlotte was listed as a boarding house operator. Robert had moved away from the tourist home that he and his former wife had shared and obtained his own rooming house, with the responsibilities of raising the surviving children falling upon Charlotte’s shoulders. She, her mother, and the children resided on [Second] Street in Ward One on the South-End of town where railroad tracks went past their back porch, while Robert stayed at 333 Main Street, not far from them.[8]

Driven by her philosophical outlook and value structure, from 1900 to close to her death, Charlotte Dett demonstrated effective leadership despite her distressing experiences. Written statements by Charlotte Dett that concretely spell out her philosophical ideas are simply unavailable. Most written sources discuss her famous son, R. Nathaniel Dett, including his thoughts and musical scores, and place her on the margins of topical discussions. Nonetheless, through her numerous activities, a practical portrayal of her ideas can be conveyed. Charlotte Dett tended to epitomize three leadership concepts, combined with a “politics of respectability."  First, she lived W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of the “Talented Tenth.”[9] She promoted educating people, particularly African Americans; however, she expected that the recipients would reach back and help others. This is demonstrated in numerous ways but particularly in the education that she and her husband provided for their sons R. Nathaniel and Samuel. Both of these men lived lives of advancing themselves but simultaneously giving back to society. Charlotte Dett also exemplified Booker T. Washington’s concept of “Captains of Industry.”[10] Washington taught that individuals should pull themselves up, then go back into communities and aggressively pull up others, operating as visible role models. Charlotte Dett’s life certainly reflected this, as many black Niagarans saw her as a ministering angel guiding them on the right path.[11] Finally, Charlotte Dett’s behavior exuded the nineteenth century Women’s Club Movement idea of “Lifting as We Climb.” This idea intersected with Du Bois and Washington’s ideas, whereby she strongly promoted her people to manifest middle-class values of respectability, which coincided with the dominant society’s value structure of respectability rather than critiquing it by deconstructing and reconstructing the governing structure’s value system.[12] In essence, Charlotte Dett was a gracious woman of high ideals with a commanding, forceful personality, characteristics that she perhaps inherited from her mother.[13] These leadership ideas and qualities are demonstrated in her roles as a mother, an entrepreneur, a local and national spokesperson, and as a socialite.

While in Canada, Charlotte and Robert Dett provided a nurturing environment for their children. Reflecting on his mother and father, R. Nathaniel commented:

Both my father and mother were educated, and both were musical. Father played the piano a little and the guitar very well, and he also sang baritone. For many years he was the first bass at the old Mount Olivet Baptist Church, Chicago. My mother played the piano, sang soprano, and as a regular part of the entertainment interest of the town, was fond of setting up concerts of local talent, which were patronized by both colored and white people.[14]

Although the Dett children lived in a household where they were loved by both parents and musically cultivated, their grandmother was a special treat. She was not only loving but noted for her eminent singing abilities. She sang spirituals to the children that they never forgot, particularly R. Nathaniel. Toward the end of her life, she became blind, and R. Nathaniel remembered her always facing the light when she sang.[15] Furthermore, the Dett family attended the British Methodist Episcopal Church on Peer Street in Drummondville, Ontario. This was a church that fugitive slaves had built and still operates today. Surely, at this institution, the Dett children had opportunities to sing some of their favorite spirituals.[16] In all probability, they witnessed more of the singing abilities of their grandmother. These activities contributed toward the Dett children growing up strong and secure.

By the time the Dett family moved from Canada to the United States, Samuel was fourteen years old, and R. Nathaniel was eleven.[17] As already mentioned, after the separation, the children stayed with Charlotte and her mother, and Charlotte became the dominant force raising her children. She ensured that their education continued. From the influence of his parents and grandmother, R. Nathaniel demonstrated early on a proclivity for music—“spiritual music.” At a young age in Canada, R. Nathaniel had a musical tutor by the name of Mrs. Marshall, who enhanced his piano playing skills and taught him how to read and play by musical notes.[18] Initially, he loved to play by ear after hearing Mrs. Marshall play something without reading notes. However, a letter of complaint sent home to Charlotte about R. Nathaniel’s work habits made her forcefully rectify his error.[19]

All and still, R. Nathaniel continued his studies with his mother overseeing. In 1901, he was tutored by Oliver Willis Halstead at the Halstead Conservatory in Lockport, New York, which was the county capital and a little over twenty miles from Niagara Falls.[20] “At his first serious recital, his piano selections included Beethoven’s Sonata in F Major and some of his own yet unpublished works.”[21] He studied at the conservatory until 1903, at which time Halstead impressed upon him to continue music as a career.[22] After this, he attended the Conservatory for Music at Oberlin College and graduated in 1908.[23] Oberlin College, since its founding in 1833, had a rich history of accepting women and African Americans as students, and in the nineteenth century, it also produced many abolitionists who were active Underground Railroad conductors.[24] Therefore, R. Nathaniel Dett pursued his college education in an environment well-known for its radical, high-minded history.[25]

After graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, R. Nathaniel Dett began his teaching career, although, in the future, he would continue his quest for higher education. He first taught at Lane College, then Lincoln Institute, before gaining his long-term post at Hampton Institute. At Hampton Institute, he taught there from 1913 to 1931, first as Director of Vocal Music and Choir Director, then ultimately as Director of the Music Department.[26] He matured and developed there as a teacher and artist and created some of his best works, such as “Listen to the Lamb”, “Don’t Be Weary Traveler”, and “I’ll Never Turn Back No More”, and gave numerous concerts, in which he highlighted standard and his original spiritual compositions, along with the vocal abilities of his choirs. In 1930, through the aid of George F. Peabody and other benefactors, he took his Hampton Institute choir, three chaperones, and his mother on a concert tour of six European countries: England, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria.[27] The tour, which lasted six weeks, strove to favorably enhance European views of Africans and their descendants because several of these nations possessed African colonies and held unfavorable views of black people. This tour represented the apex of Dett’s professional career at Hampton Institute, and R. Nathaniel Dett’s career success not only reflected hard work and creativity but also his mother’s creed that her children should always strive for excellence. R. Nathaniel Dett once wrote a friend stating that his mother was his main source of inspiration, motivating him to do more and better work.[28] Through his mother’s love and guidance, R. Nathaniel Dett made local and national history.

Like his brother, Samuel W. Dett also made history through the loving guidance of his mother.[29] He became the first African American postal worker in the city of Niagara Falls. He was hired in 1907 as a mail carrier, earning about $400 per year. “In a 1947 interview with the Niagara [Falls] Gazette, Samuel recalled applying for his post office job to gain job security. But there were no African American mail carriers, and Samuel needed the support of petitions circulated on Fall Street.”[30] Enough people signed Samuel’s petition to ensure that he could acquire the job. In 1912 Samuel was promoted from mail carrier to special clerk, earning $1,100 annually. His new job entailed working more with the public, particularly smoothing out complaints. The public respected his service and perceived him as a pleasant, accommodating worker. Also, Mildred C. Clark, a friend of the Dett family, remembered that “[Samuel] was an awfully nice guy, [a] very quiet, polite person who was appreciative of anything that anyone did for him.”[31] The 1930 United States Census figures indicate that Samuel was 45 years old and residing on Second Street.[32] He lived in the tourist house that his mother had owned. Samuel would work for the Niagara Falls postal service system until his retirement in 1949. Samuel did not just work at the post office. He actively involved himself in the Niagara Community Center and the YMCA, serving in leadership positions, giving back to his local community. Moreover, he actively served in several capacities at the Niagara Community Center, including membership on several committees, on the board of directors, and as center president. The YMCA placed him in their hall of fame. “During World War I, Samuel was appointed an American Red Cross special lieutenant to help African American servicemen passing through Niagara Falls.”[33] Upon retirement Samuel Dett’s only wish was that his position is filled by another African American.

To educate her children and fulfill her family’s basic needs, Charlotte Dett needed a stream of income, which could only be achieved by obtaining employment or creating employment. Charlotte chose to create employment. She had experience working at her family’s rooming house in Canada, which must have strengthened her resolve that she could definitely be successful. Thus, by 1900, Charlotte was the owner and manager of a rooming house with 17 rooms.[34] Each census enumeration from 1900 to 1930 shows her as the proprietor of her establishment.[35] After 1937, her son Samuel would obtain ownership.[36]

Charlotte’s rooming house was not too far from the actual cataracts of Niagara Falls. A visiting patron could literally walk from Charlotte’s business to the site of the falls. Like today, people considered Niagara Falls, on both the Canadian and American sides, a world-renowned attraction that should be visited at least once in a lifetime if individuals were able. Many people married in Niagara Falls and spent their honeymoons there. It thus was a good marketing strategy for the Dett family to open a rooming house in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and then for Charlotte to follow that up by opening one in Niagara Falls, New York. A tourist housing market existed for investors in general. Charlotte opened her rooming house for anyone willing to pay her rates. And her business also catered to the African American market. Discrimination and racism are not factors that people today generally associate with Niagara Falls, New York of the early to mid-1900s. These factors are mainly thought of as having existed in the American South. Yet and still, they existed blatantly in Niagara Falls, New York. African American patronage was not welcome at the white-owned and -operated hotels in town.[37]Some might argue that this discrimination and racism provided vendors, such as Charlotte Dett, a protected market.[38] However, this supposed advantage would end as soon as the white-owned and -operated hotels and rooming houses opened their establishments to the open market, truly offering their accommodations to the entire public and practicing equality, and invalidating this protected market idea.

Evidently, Charlotte Dett’s seventeen-room, rooming house was successful. She owned and maintained it for over thirty years. Besides the patronage she received from individuals and families visiting Niagara Falls, she must have boarded individuals who migrated or immigrated to Niagara Falls to seek employment. Below is Table I, which conveys the recorded black population of Niagara Falls from 1880 to 1940, the range of years that Charlotte Dett lived in Western New York.[39]

Table I: Black Population of Niagara Falls, New York, 1880-1940[40]
Year                Population                 Percentage
1880                            150                              4.52
1890                            159                              2.89
1900                            344                              1.77
1910                            266                              0.87
1920                            509                              1.00
1930                            906                              1.20
1940                            975                              1.25

In analyzing Table I, there were black population increases from 1890 to 1900, 1910 to 1920, 1920 to 1930, and 1930 to 1940. The term “black” is used here to denote African Americans, along with African Canadians who may not have yet been citizens but had recently settled in the area for employment purposes. From 1890 to 1900, the range of years that the Dett family immigrated to Niagara Falls, an influx of blacks settled in the area to work on the Tunnel Project, the building of an underground tunnel from the Edward Dean Power Plant to an area just below the cataracts of Niagara Falls to divert water from the upper Niagara River in order to generate electricity at the Edward Dean Power Plant.[41] From 1910 to 1920, Niagara Falls, like Buffalo and other northern cities, experienced the effects of the First Great Migration, which was the mass exodus of African Americans from the South to the North in search of jobs created by the demands of World War One.[42] Roughly 500,000 African Americans left the South and settled in the North.[43] From 1920 to 1930, Niagara Falls received the largest influx of blacks to occur within the period of 1880 to 1940. This happened because the First Great Migration (1914 – 1919) effects were still impacting the city of Niagara Falls. Finally, from 1930 to 1940, Niagara Falls’ black population continued to increase, largely due to individuals seeking employment in the region. Moreover, the impact of the Great Depression did not immediately affect Niagara Falls due to the positive impact the electrical industry had on the local economy.[44] This steady influx of blacks assuredly sought out temporary housing at establishments managed by vendors, such as Charlotte Dett. She was well known and respected in Niagara Falls and must have consistently received referrals; how else could her business have stayed afloat for well over thirty years?

The 1920 United States Census enumerators for the City of Niagara Falls recorded three roomers residing at Charlotte Dett’s rooming house.[45] This undoubtedly enhanced her stream of income. When migrants obtained employment in a new locale, they often found temporary housing accommodations that would assist them in smoothly making their transition from the South to the North or perhaps from a rural locale to an urban one.[46] This often involved being roomers in a house or apartment until jobs had been maintained for a specified period and the migrants had become comfortable with the new city and its surroundings, as well as their new responsibilities and duties. In further examining the 1920 United States Census for the City of Niagara Falls, it is difficult to discern which individuals had participated in the First Great Migration. Nonetheless, inferences can be made. Of the blacks enumerated as employed, 55 were recorded as roomers. Of the 55 employed roomers, 47 were males, and eight were females. They resided predominantly in Wards One and Seven, which were adjacent to each other. Ward One contained Charlotte Dett’s seventeen-room rooming house. The age groups of the roomers are depicted below in Table II:

Table II: 1920 Niagara Falls Roomers
Age Groupings                                  Males                                      Females
18 to 35
36 to 40
41 to 45
46 to 50
51 to 55
56 to 60
61 and over
Unknown age
Adapted from the 1920 United States Census[47]

Unsurprisingly, most roomers were young, between the ages 18 and 35, comprising 58.2% of recorded roomers. The young were often willing to venture out and drastically alter the lifestyle that they and their parents were accustomed to. There were eight female roomers, who were predominately in the 18 to 35 age range. What this meant is not clear; perhaps the roomers rented their places of abode for shorter periods because the norms of the era dictated that women dwell in some sort of family arrangement. The data in Table II do not conclusively show those migrants who were residing in temporary dwellings, but undoubtedly some were present in Charlotte Dett’s rooming house.

In addition to roomers, several prominent guests stayed at Charlotte Dett’s establishment. Predictably, whenever, R. Nathaniel visited Niagara Falls, he stayed at his mother’s rooming house. On a visit in September of 1928, “a splendid new concert grand piano [had] recently been installed in the home and [R. Nathaniel] played a number of his own compositions to the great enjoyment and delight of his hearers. Light refreshments were served.”[48] Of course, Samuel was present as well. On January 15, 1932, Roland Hayes, a famous tenor singer, stayed at Charlotte’s rooming house.[49] He came to Niagara Falls with R. Nathaniel. Robert Moton, the president of Tuskegee Institute, visited Niagara Falls and stayed at her rooming house. He had become chief executive of Tuskegee Institute after Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915. Several other high-profile individuals visited Niagara Falls and possibly stayed at Charlotte’s rooming house because they participated in community events that she sponsored or cosponsored. These people include Mary McLeod Bethune (President of Bethune-Cookman College and future cabinet member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential administration), Dr. William Pickens (Field Secretary for the N.A.A.C.P.), and Madame C. J. Walker (hair culturist and the first American woman of any ethnicity to be a self-made millionaire).[50]

The fame achieved by her famous son contributed to Charlotte Dett meeting such distinguished individuals. However, the leadership skills Charlotte demonstrated both within her local community and nationally are really what maintained and advanced her achievement and respectability. The available literature also portrays Charlotte Dett as an individual who possessed a warm and affable personality who distinctively knew how to create and implement plans timely while simultaneously cultivating an environment that encouraged people to continuously work together and work with her.

Her personality was similar to James Weldon Johnson’s.[51] Johnson joined the NAACP’s national office in 1916 and was eventually made Field Secretary of the NAACP. The Field Secretary’s job was to travel throughout the nation and revive inactive local NAACP branches and help create new ones. When he joined the NAACP, it had a total of 9,000 registered members. Within a short period, Johnson helped increased its membership to 90,000 individuals. Johnson was effective in accomplishing this because he was a leader who was results-oriented and possessed a very warm, amicable, and gregarious personality that drew people to him as though he were a magnet. This description fits Charlotte Dett well.

Numerous examples can be offered to demonstrate Charlotte Dett’s local and national leadership activities and how they matched her philosophical outlook. However, for the scope of this paper, a few will suffice. After immigrating to the United States from Canada, Charlotte probably construed quickly which major political party best represented the interest of African Americans, and to her, that was the Republican Party. In the early 1900s, African Americans still pledged their loyalty to the Republican Party because they continued to view it as the party that, with Republican Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, had granted them their freedom from slavery. Charlotte was not a passive Republican. She promoted that women should have the right to vote long before passage of the 19th Amendment.[52] Once women could vote, she wanted black and white Niagarans to support the Republican Party nationally and locally. In 1924, when Calvin Coolidge ran for the Presidency of the United States, Charlotte formed a Coolidge and Dawes Club in Niagara Falls to encourage Niagarans to vote the Republican ticket.[53] In 1928 she ran for a Republican committee position in Niagara Falls’ First Ward, a position she would maintain for five years.[54] She also helped to organize a local political rally that featured Mrs. Addie W. Hinton, a Republican Party backer who had traveled from New York City.[55] Charlotte presided at this event.[56] At another political rally featuring a local assemblyman campaigning for office, “[Charlotte Dett] promised the support of the colored race in Niagara Falls to the Republican party in the election…. She said she was positive 1,500 votes of Colored people would be in the Republican column.”[57]

Besides party election politics, Charlotte Dett regularly gave input in other civic affairs that impacted the entire Niagaran community. For example, she participated in a “Peace Heroes Memorial Service.”[58] This service was to honor all those who had brought peace and progress to the city of Niagara Falls or had built community. This program was held on the steps of City Hall with the Reverend Arthur H. Schmoyer as the principal speaker.[59] Charlotte served on the executive board of the Women’s Republican Club and was a member of the Golden Rod Sewing Club.[60] In other affairs such as memorializing citizens, smoothing out conflicts between individuals or groups, participating in leisure pursuits, or discussing city planning, Charlotte Dett generally could be counted on to contribute.

One of Charlotte Dett’s most concrete and long-lasting contributions to the general Niagaran community and the African American community, in particular, was helping to establish the Niagara Community Center. In 1928 several African Americans in Niagara Falls, New York, began to openly discuss the need for a city-funded community center that would mainly, though not exclusively, serve the recreational needs of the African American community. Concerned citizens approached the Community Chest, a division of city government, and announced their request. Charlotte Dett, who held sway among city officials, spoke in favor of a community center for colored folks.[61] Members of the Community Chest supported the idea that a study should be conducted to determine if a separate community center for the African American community was indeed warranted.[62] The Community Chest brought in John W. Pollard from New York City to conduct the study. Pollard had done graduate studies in sociology at the University of Chicago, which was highly ranked for its pioneering research methods. His survey results verified that a separate community center was needed. Hence, by March 29, 1929, a little over a year after the completion of Pollard’s study, the Center was not only officially organized but in operation.[63]

For Charlotte Dett, the Niagara Community Center functioned as an institutional setting where she could effectively implement her philosophies of promoting education, serving as a role model, and lifting up others as she advanced in stature and influence. In 1932 the Phillis Wheatley Club of Niagara Falls entertained a group of junior girls from Buffalo at the Niagara Community Center, who enjoyed music and games.[64] Charlotte Dett was president (and founder) of the local Niagara Falls branch at the time, a post she had held for twenty-one years.[65] The Phillis Wheatley Club was founded in 1895 as an offshoot of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). It strove to accomplish many objectives, such as providing a proper Victorian image for African American women to model, lodging for women, particularly those who were recent migrants, homes for the elderly, educational and recreational programs for youths, a forum for discussing political issues, etc...[66] In 1899, Susan Evans, Mary Talbert, and others in the neighboring city of Buffalo had established a branch.[67] This may have encouraged Charlotte Dett to follow suit in Niagara Falls because she and Mrs. Talbert were close friends and colleagues over a lengthy period.[68] Whatever the case, Charlotte Dett, as president of the Niagara Falls Phillis Wheatley Club, fulfilled her organization’s mandate: she provided a Victorian image of proper decorum for Niagaran women and promoted and instilled ideas of self-help. “It was reported that the Buffalo group would next entertain the Falls group in Buffalo.”[69] At another center event, Charlotte Dett helped to coordinate a music and literature program, placing herself on the program agenda to offer a reading.[70] In 1934, “[Charlotte Dett] announce[d] that as chairman of the committee on civil celebration [at the Niagara Community Center] she [was] preparing a program in observance of Negro History Week which [would] be presented at the Center…. Both Buffalo and local talent [would] appear on the program.”[71] Charlotte Dett unceasingly orchestrated and implemented uplifting activities and programs at the Niagara Community Center.

Charlotte Dett’s leadership expanded beyond the city of Niagara Falls, which allowed her to recruit national leaders to present inspirational messages to the Niagara Falls community that reinforced her philosophical outlook. Charlotte’s friendship with Mary B. Talbert aided in broadening her horizons. Talbert, who graduated from Oberlin College, relocated to Buffalo, New York from Little Rock, Arkansas, due to her marriage to William T. Talbert, a municipal government bookkeeper, and realtor. Soon after moving, Talbert immersed herself into her new community and demonstrated leadership abilities. She became an NAACP member and rose in its ranks, and like Charlotte Dett, progressively joined and participated in the African American Women’s Club Movement. Both Talbert and Dett joined the Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Alice Wiley Seay formed this organization in 1908 in Brooklyn, New York. It touted itself as an umbrella organization that incorporated New York State African American women’s groups, with two critical aims: to sponsor and promote uplift activities for girls and young women and to care for the aged Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor.

In 1913 Charlotte Dett and Mary Talbert attended an Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs gathering in New York City. Mary McLeod Bethune gave a talk at St. Mark’s A. M. E. Church on “the uplift of girls in the South.”[72] Four days later, in Buffalo, New York, Talbert was elected president and Dett vice president of the Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. In promoting respectability politics, “the Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs placed itself on record as being in favor of women’s suffrage… opposed to the use of tobacco, smoking, etc. by [African American] women and [opposed to] the use of chewing gum in public places, especially [by] girls.”[73] Two years later, representing the Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in Auburn, New York, Talbert, Dett, and others participated in a ceremony in which a monument to Harriet Tubman, who had died in 1913, was unveiled.[74] At an Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Club meeting in Troy, New York, Dett addressed girls and women on “their part in the drama of womanhood.”[75] In 1920, she traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama, to participate in a Women’s National Association meeting held there.[76] Seven hundred women from all over the nation attended this event.[77] Margaret Murray Washington, an active women’s club leader and widow of Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, hosted this momentous gathering, while Charlotte Dett was made a parliamentarian. At a 1922 meeting in Richmond, Virginia, Mary Talbert and Charlotte Dett both spoke passionately on the need of African Americans to raise funds to preserve the Washington, D. C. home of Frederick Douglass.[78]

Charlotte Dett’s exposure, contacts, and networking allowed her to attract national leaders to Niagara Falls to offer Niagarans uplifting messages. In 1930, Mary MacLeod Bethune visited the Cataract City and spoke before an appreciative audience at Howard Hall in the local YWCA.[79] She extolled self-help as the most vital strategy for African American progression, a subject often echoed by Charlotte Dett. Charlotte enthusiastically introduced her, and Mrs. Bethune gave Mrs. Dett credit for her son, R. Nathaniel Dett.[80] Dr. William Pickens, a new field secretary of the NAACP, also spoke in Niagara Falls.[81] He lectured on how African-American advancements for society as a whole served to improve race relations, citing musical legend R. Nathaniel Dett as evidence for several of his statements. The guest speakers, along with the advantages Charlotte Dett had obtained from her affiliation with the Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Club, motivated her to form a Junior League Auxiliary of the Women’s Federation for girls and younger women.[82] Officers were elected as follows: Geraldine Eckford, president; Priscilla Bolden, vice president; Inez Ellis, secretary; Florence Lykes, recording secretary; Odell Davis, pianist and Mrs. Charlotte Dett; treasurer.[83] This group scheduled regular meetings to be held on the first and third Monday of each month.[84] Clearly, Charlotte Dett strove to extend the benefits of the Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs to the Niagaran community.

Charlotte Dett’s actions indicate that she worked hard and steadily on issues of self-help, voting and political participation, racial unity, equality and fairness, and the upward progression of African American women. As a leader, these issues consumed a great deal of her time and energy. Yet she still took time out to enjoy life and people. R. Nathaniel Dett commented that his mother enjoyed entertaining and had a talent for social dynamics and the ability to make people feel relaxed and comfortable. Perhaps she obtained these traits from her mother. In reflecting on his grandmother, R. Nathaniel certainly characterized her personality as similar to his mother’s.[85] Hence, Charlotte Dett was a socialite throughout her life, who constantly interacted with people in numerous settings, enjoying their company and the “brighter side of life.”

From the earliest of times, “[a] Mrs. John Thomas, Mrs. William Page, wife of Magistrate Page of Atlantic City, and Mr. and Mrs. Richard Brown [also] of Atlantic City visited Niagara Falls and Canada. While in Niagara [Falls, New York] they stopped at the beautiful home of Mrs. Charlotte Dett.”[86] In 1930 a reception was given by the Eureka Circle No. 289, Companions of Forest branch of the Ancient Order of Foresters at the Masonic Temple at 168 Clinton Street in honor of Charlotte Dett, past Chief Companion of Eureka Circle who had just returned from visiting several countries in Europe with her son, R. Nathaniel Dett and the Hampton Institute Choir.[87] Mrs. Dett gave a short talk about her visit to Europe at the reception.[88] In 1932 she delightfully entertained at a silver tea at her home on Second Street, celebrating her long leadership over the Niagara Falls branch of the Phillis Wheatley Club.[89] In 1933 the Colored Women’s Federation gave a tea party in Mary Talbert’s honor in Buffalo.[90] (Talbert had died in 1923.) Charlotte Dett helped coordinate this event. In 1933, Charlotte and others worked at the Niagara Community Center, preparing an apple dumpling supper for Center patrons.[91]On another occasion, a group of Republican women met at Mrs. Dett’s home where she entertained them.[92] “[Speakers] who urged that the voters support the straight Republican ticket … were Mrs. Lula L. Hustleby, candidate for supervisor in the Eleventh Ward; Mrs. Dolly Flay and Marvin I. King ….[93] Some months after her trip to Europe with her son and the Hampton Institute Choir, they visited her at her home in Niagara Falls and were royally entertained.[94]

By 1932, Charlotte Dett began experiencing bouts of illness,[95] and by 1935, she began to experience long periods of malady that signaled the breakdown of her health and required that she be bedridden for lengthy periods.[96] R. Nathaniel Dett had returned to Niagara Falls from Washington, D. C. so that he and Samuel could be at their mother’s bedside and comfort her.[97] By 1936 and 1937, Mrs. Dett had grown elderly and did not get around much, which was contrary to her extroverted personality. Reports from 1937 indicated that she had grown quite ill, although she still welcomed friends to see her.[98]

On April 8, 1937, Charlotte Dett passed away following two years of illness. She was 75 years old. Funeral services were held at the First Presbyterian Church of Niagara Falls. “Tributes to her memory came from many sources as persons in all walks of life spoke of her outstanding character and ability while they reviewed her many accomplishments attained under handicaps which made them truly remarkable.”[99] Besides having raised two upstanding children, individuals stated that Mrs. Dett was cultured and possessed natural leadership qualities, always taking the keenest interest in her people and also attaining a high place in fraternal, civic, political, welfare, and social circles.[100] An editorial further remarked:

For years she was an active leader in many societies and fraternal organizations. For five years, she was the Republican committeewoman for the second district of the first ward. She was a past chairman of the ways and means committee of the National Federation of Women’s clubs; past vice president of the Empire State Federation of Women’s clubs; president of the Phyllis Wheatley club; member of the Unity Club and member of the Golden Rod Sewing club. She was also the organizer of the former Coolidge and Dawes club here.

In fraternal circles she was a member and past officer of the Order of Eastern Star, member of Bison City Court of Calanthe, No. 28, Knights of Pythias; member of Eureka Circle, No. 289, Companions of the Foresters, and member and past officer of Queen Esther Household of Ruth, I. O. O. F.[101]

Both her sons were, of course, deeply saddened. R. Nathaniel Dett wrote a friend expressing his grief while underlining his mother’s great influence on his life.[102] He also expressed that he would miss her unspeakably; however, he was glad his mother did not have to suffer anymore because, during her last days, she had been in great pain.[103] Years after his mother’s death, and even after the death of his brother in 1943, Samuel, almost yearly on Memorial Day, paid for “a consistent statement” to be published about his mother in the “memorial section” of the Niagara Falls Gazette. It commonly read as follows:
In loving memory of my dear mother Charlotte Dett, who passed away 22 years ago today, April 8, 1937.  As I gaze on your picture that hangs on the wall, your smiles and your welcome, I often recall; I miss you and mourn you in silence unseen, and dwell on the memories of days that have been: Dear is the grave where mother is laid.  Sweet is the memory that never will fade; flowers may wither, leaves fade and die.  If some do forget you, never will I.  Sadly, missed by, Son, Sam.[104]

Charlotte Dett was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario, next to her son Arthur.[105] Samuel continued to work at the post office and live in the tourist house that had once belonged to his mother. In 1943, at a Negro History Week program, John W. Pollard declared that “Charlotte Dett had helped the Negro to advance,” and Niagara Community Center patrons, in honoring her, named a club after her—the Charlotte W. Dett Club.[106]

Charlotte Dett lived her life following principles advocated by many. She pulled herself up, married at a young age, played a significant role in raising and shaping her children, and achieved success early as an entrepreneur. However, she looked around and observed the status of her racial group and desired to help them advance, with an intense focus on the elevation of girls and women. Her philosophical outlook incorporated Du Bois’s Talented Tenth concept and Booker T. Washington’s Captains of Industry vision, along with the Colored Women’s Club notion of Lifting as We Climb. Charlotte Dett’s leadership extended throughout the United States, but most specifically in African American communities throughout New York State, particularly in Niagara Falls, crossing racial and ethnic lines. Charlotte Dett continuously worked hard at offering her leadership talents to uplift people; at the same time, she lived to enjoy people and life generally. Her motto seems to be have been, “enjoy the world and its many treasures but attempt to leave it a better place than you inherited.”

About the author: Michael Boston is an African and African American Studies faculty at The College at Brockport.


[1] “Remarkable Career Ends with Death of Mrs. Charlotte Dett,” Niagara Falls Gazette, April 8, 1937, 1.
[2] Arlene E. Gray, Nate, My Son, The Story of R. Nathaniel Dett, Mus.D., Local History Department, Niagara Falls, New York Public Library, 11.
[3]U. S. Census for 1900: Town of Niagara, Niagara Falls City & La Salle Village (Niagara Falls, N.Y.: Niagara Falls Public Library), microfilm, reel 23; “Son to Fight Will of Negro Who Left Sum to White Woman,” Lockport Union-Sun and Journal, May 6, 1921, 3.
[4] Jeffrey Carroll Stone III, A Legacy of Hope in the Concert Spirituals of Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) and William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), (Ph.D.diss., North Dakota State University, 2017), 55.
[5] Arlene E. Gray, Nate, My Son, The Story of R. Nathaniel Dett, Mus.D., 11.
[6] Vivian Flagg McBrier, R. Nathaniel Dett: His Life and Works (1882-1943), (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1977), 2.
[7]U. S. Census for 1900: Town of Niagara, Niagara Falls City & La Salle Village (Niagara Falls, N.Y.: Niagara Falls Public Library), microfilm, reel 23.
[8] Vivian Flagg McBrier, R. Nathaniel Dett: His Life and Works (1882-1943), 11.
[9]Dan S. Green, “W. E. B. Du Bois’ Talented Tenth: A Strategy for Racial Advancement,” Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Summer, 1977), 358-366.
[10] See Chapter 3 of The Business Strategy of Booker T. Washington (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010) by Michael Boston.
[11] “Mrs. Charlotte Dett,” The New York Age, May 1, 1937, 6.
[12] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (London, England: Harvard University Press, 1993), 185-229.
[13] Anne Key Simpson, Follow Me: The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993), 3.
[14] Robert Nathaniel Dett, “From Bell Stand to Throne Room,” Etude 52, no. 2 (Feb. 1934): 79.
[15]Ibid, 90.
[16] Wilma Morrison, personal interview, June 30, 2002. (Interview in possession of author.)
[17]U. S. Census for 1900: Town of Niagara, Niagara Falls City & La Salle Village, microfilm, reel 23; “Nathaniel Dett remembered as musical giant,” Niagara Falls Gazette, February 1, 1987, 1A & 5A.
[18] Jeffrey Carroll Stone III, A Legacy of Hope in the Concert Spirituals of Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) and William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), 68.
[19] Anne Key Simpson, Follow Me: The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett, 8.
[20] Nathaniel Dett remembered as musical giant,” 5A.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Jeffrey Carroll Stone III, A Legacy of Hope in the Concert Spirituals of Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) and William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), 70.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan (New York: Amistad Publishers, 2005), 131; Robert Bruce Slater, “The American Colleges That led the Abolition Movement,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 9, (Autumn, 1995), 97.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Anne Key Simpson, Follow Me The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett, 34.
[27]Ibid, 151-197.
[28] Anne Key Simpson, Follow Me The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett, 233.
[29] “Sam Dett put efficient stamp on post office,” Niagara Falls Gazette, February 13, 1987, 1A:2.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32]U.S. Census for 1930, Reels #44, 45, & 46. Niagara Falls Public Library, Niagara Falls, New York.
[33] “Sam Dett put efficient stamp on post office,” 1A:2.
[34]U. S. Census for 1900: Town of Niagara, Niagara Falls City & La Salle Village, microfilm, reel 23.
[35] Ibid;U. S. Census for 1910: Town of Niagara, City of Niagara Falls, Village of LaSalle (Niagara Falls, N.Y.: Niagara Falls Public Library), microfilm, reels 28 & 29; 1920 U.S. Census for City of Niagara Falls, Town of Niagara Falls, & Village of LaSalle, Reel # 33, 34, and 35.  Niagara Falls Public Library, Niagara Falls, New York, Sheets 1-32; [35]U.S. Census for 1930 the City of Niagara Falls, Reels # 44, 45, & 46. Niagara Falls Public Library, Niagara Falls, New York.
[36] “Dett Estate Probated,” Niagara Falls Gazette, September 3, 1937, 2.
[37] Interview with Mr. Theodore Williamson, August 8, 2009 (Interview in possession of author.); Interviews with Mrs. Norwood Hershey Samuel, August 2, 2008 and July 10, 2010.  (Interviews in possession of author.)
[38] Allan Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890 to 1920, 53-54; Joe William Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-45, 29-31; August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, From Plantation to Ghetto, 252; Kenneth L. Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930, 113-115 & 140-143; Robert L. Boyd, “Black Enterprise in the Retail Trade During the Early Twentieth Century,” Sociological Focus, Vol. 34, No. 3 (August 2001), p. 242.
[39] Michael B. Boston, “Blacks in Niagara Falls, New York: 1865 to 1965,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 28 (July 2004), 9.
[40] Ibid.
[41] H. William Feder, The Evolution of an Ethnic Neighborhood that Became United in Diversity: The East Side, Niagara Falls, New York 1880-1930 (Ph.D.diss., University of Buffalo, 1999), 135.
[42] James R. Grossman, “Blowing the Trumpet: The Chicago Defender and Black Migration during World War I,” Illinois Historical Journal, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Summer 1985), 82.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Mizer, Hamilton B., A City is Born, Niagara Falls A City Matures, 1892, A Topical History of the City’s Formative Years 1932 (Niagara Falls, New York: Human-Wahl Printing Inc., 1981), 113.
[45]1920 U.S. Census for City of Niagara Falls, Town of Niagara Falls, & Village of LaSalle, Reel # 33, 34, & 35.  Niagara Falls Public Library, Niagara Falls, New York, Sheets 1-32.
[46] Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, “New Lives in the West,” in Major Problems in African American History Volume II: From Freedom to “Freedom Now,” 1865-1990s (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 240.
[47]1920 U.S. Census for City of Niagara Falls, Town of Niagara Falls, & Village of LaSalle, Reel # 33, 34, & 35.  Niagara Falls Public Library, Niagara Falls, New York, Sheets 1-32.
[48] “Dr. Dett Is Guest Of Mother At His Old House,” The New York Age, September 22, 1928, 7. 
[49] “Dr. Nathaniel Dett, Here
[50] “Says Opportunity, Not Pity, Is What Negroes Want Now,” Niagara Falls Gazette, December 15, 1930, 15; “Says Music Great Aid to Negroes in Gaining White Folks’ Respect: Dr. Pickens Pays Tribute to Dr. Dett and Other Colored Musicians in Last of Series at Falls, Cites Negro Progress,” Niagara Falls Gazette, November 10, 1931, 13; “Female Smokers Are Criticized, Empire State Federation Also Protest Against the Chewing of Gum, Women Want to Vote,” The New York Age, July 10, 1913, 1.
[51]Eugene Levey, “James Weldon Johnson and the Development of the NAACP,” in Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Champaign, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 1982), eds. John Hope Franklin & August Meier, 85-104.
[52] “Female Smokers Are Criticized, Empire State Federation Also Protest Against the Chewing of Gum, Women Want to Vote, 1.
[53] “Speaks to Fall Colored Voters,” Niagara Falls Gazette, October 18, 1928, 30.
[54] “Contest Marks Falls Primary; Three Men Tie,” Buffalo Evening News, April 4, 1928, 1; “Mrs. Charlotte Dett Dies at Age of 75: Was the Mother of Dr. R. Nathaniel Dett Noted Musician,” The New York Age, April 24, 1937, 4.
[55]Ibid; “Ready for Colored Women Big Rally,” Niagara Falls Gazette, October 20, 1928, 26.
[56] “Ready for Colored Women Big Rally, 26.
[57] “Assemblyman Hewitt Addresses Falls Women Republican,” Niagara Falls Gazette, June 22, 1929, 1.
[58] “Peace Heroes Memorial Service to Be Held at City Hall June 5,” Niagara Falls Gazette, May 28, 1932l 9.  
[59] Ibid.
[60] “Mrs. Charlotte Dett Dies at Age of 75: Was the Mother of Dr. R. Nathaniel Dett Noted Musician,” 4.
[61] “Form Organization for Advancement of Colored Community,” Niagara Falls Gazette, October 10, 1928, 14.
[62] “The Niagara Community Center Association 1927-1977,” (Buffalo, N.Y.: Butler Library, Buffalo State College, 1978), 6.
[63] Ibid.
[64] “Community Center News,” Niagara Falls Gazette, November 26, 1932, 9.
[65] “Entertainments,” Niagara Falls Gazette, June 14, 1932, 10.
[66] Shirley J. Carlson, “Black Ideals of Womanhood in Late Victorian Era,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Spring, 1992), 64-65; Gerda Lerner, “Early Community Work of Black Club Women,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 59, No. 2 (April 1974), 158-167.
[67] Lillian Serece Williams, Strangers in the Land of Paradise: the Creation of an African American Community, Buffalo, New York 1900-1940(Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 20.
[68] Charlotte Dett was about four years older than Mary Talbert, who was born in 1866, while Dett was born in 1862.
[69] “Community Center News,” 9.
[70] “Community Center News,” Niagara Falls Gazette, April 20, 1933, 20.
[71] John W. Pollard, “Community Center News,” Niagara Falls Gazette, February 9, 1934, 2.
[72] “Club Women Meet,” The New York Age, July 4, 1913, 1.
[73] “Female Smokers Are Criticized, Empire State Federation Also Protest Against the Chewing of Gum, Women Want to Vote, 1.
[74] “Monument Unveiled to Harriet Tubman,” The New York Age, July 15, 1915, 1.
[75] “Talks to Women: Secretary of Association for Advancement of Colored People to Address Empire State Federation Convention—Address on Topic of Interest to Women Feature Second Day’s Session,” The Troy News, July 14, 1921, 5.
[76] “Women’s National Assoc’n Holds Meeting At Tuskegee: 13th Biennial Session and 25th Anniversary of Body Attended by 700 Women From All Sections of the Country,” The New York Age, July 24, 1920, 1.
[77] Ibid.
[78] “National Colored Women’s Club in Biennial Meeting: Thirteenth Session Held in Richmond—Dedication of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Home, Cedar Hill, Anacostia, Follow,” The New York Age, August 19, 1922, 2.
[79] “Says Opportunity, Not Pity, Is What Negroes Want,” Niagara Falls Gazette, December 15, 1930, 15.
[80] Ibid.
[81]“Says Music Great Aid to Negroes in Gaining White Folks Respect: Dr. Pickens Pays Tribute to Dr. Dett and Other Colored Musicians in Last Series at Fall, Cites Negro Progress,” Niagara Falls Gazette, November 10, 1931, 13.
[82] “Niagara Falls, N. Y.,” The Pittsburgh Courier, October 29, 1932, 3.
[83] Ibid.
[84] Ibid.
[85] Jeffrey Carroll Stone III, A Legacy of Hope in the Concert Spirituals of Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) and William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), 56.
[86] “Buffalo, N. Y., Regular Correspondence of The Age,” The New York Age, October 19, 1913, 3.
[87] “Eureka Circle Forest Companions Has Reception,” Buffalo Courier-Express, July 22, 1930, 12.
[88] Ibid.
[89] “Entertainments,” 10.
[90] “Colored Women’s Federation Is Meeting Here Today,” Buffalo Courier-Express, May 6, 1933, 8.
[91] “Community Center News,” Niagara Falls Gazette, February 10, 1933, 7.
[92]“Parade Here Tonight Will Bring Republican Campaign to a Close,” Niagara Falls Gazette, November 2, 1931, 20. 
[93] Ibid.
[94] “Hope of Aged Woman’s lifetime Is Realized When Hampton Choir Comes To Visit Leader’s Mother,” Niagara Falls Gazette, March 12, 1931, 1.
[95] “Niagara Falls,” Chicago Defender, December 17, 1932, 19.
[96] “Rochester, N.Y.,” Chicago Defender, May 18, 1935, 18.
[97] Ibid.
[98] Alice C. Hayes, “Niagara Falls,” Chicago Defender, March 27, 1937, 10; Alice C. Hayes, “Niagara Falls,” Chicago Defender, April 10, 1937, 18.
[99] “Mourn Death of Mother of Dr. R. N. Dett,” Chicago Defender, April 24, 1937, 4.
[100] Ibid.
[101] Ibid.
[102] Anne Key Simpson, Follow Me The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett, 233.
[103] Ibid.
[104] “In Memoriam Dett,” Niagara Falls Gazette, April 8, 1959, 37 
[105] Arlene E. Gray, Nate, My Son, The Story of R. Nathaniel Dett, Mus. D, p. 13.
[106] “Negro History Week Program Cites Valor of Colored Folk in All Wars; Local Residents Honored.” Niagara Falls Gazette, February 15, 1943, 16; “Community Center News,” Niagara Falls Gazette, February 14, 1940, 2.