Mumford, Esther Hall (b. 1941)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 9/29/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8781

Esther Hall Mumford is a Seattle researcher, a writer, a publisher and an authority on the history of African Americans in the Pacific Northwest.  Her first book, Seattle's Black Victorians 1852-1901, published in 1980, established her as a serious historian and provider of little  known facts about African Americans who settled in the city before the turn of the twentieth century. In practically any publication which includes information about African Americans in the Pacific Northwest, the reader will find Mumford's  name in the bibliography. She is a story-teller with an addiction to history and a firm believer in young black people knowing their heritage as well as the general public being aware of the history of black people in the area. 
 
Louisiana Roots
 
Esther Hall Mumford was born in the north central Louisiana town of Ruston on January 20, 1941,  to Nona and Shellie Hall.  Her great grandparents were from South Carolina, her great grandmother being the daughter of a slave owner.  In 1886,  they moved to Louisiana and purchased 240 acres of land, which required tons of cotton to pay for and which is still in the family. Eight other freed families settled there and they worked cooperatively together. Her father was a lover of the land and fancied himself a gentleman farmer but was more successful at raising the cattle that he sold to buy property in Ruston.  An industrious man, he also distributed Coca-Cola, worked on a construction crew, in a paper mill and bought and sold land.  Her mother was a housewife and sometimes clerked at her brother's grocery store.
 
Esther Mumford grew up listening to stories from her grandmother about the Civil War.  There was also the story of the man who was lynched and dragged through the streets on the day she was born.  The mother and sister of the man came to visit often and as they told the story, Esther observed how they were visibly shaken.  These stories remained with her and  affected her deeply.  She attended the segregated schools in Ruston where only one microscope was available for all of the black students. She was amazed years later when she saw the integrated  high school on the formerly white campus and compared it with the segregated black school from which she had graduated.  She left Ruston in 1960, to attend Southern University  in Baton Rouge for one year.
 
Arriving in Seattle
 
During the early 1940s her father's sister was among the many African Americans who came to Seattle seeking work during the World War II years.  Esther Mumford was encouraged to come to Seattle and enroll at the University of Washington in 1961.  With her new library card she was able to read books at The Seattle Public Library without fear, a privilege she was denied in Louisiana. 

"I read and read everything I could -- about Africa's golden age, about slave rebellions in Louisiana and other places, slave autobiographies ... . I felt very angry and wanted to move away from this country" (Henry). 

On campus she met a young Nigerian enrolled in the School of Fisheries.  They became friends, active in civil rights, and later became engaged.  She was to follow him to Nigeria after she graduated in 1964. Neither her family nor his family approved of the marriage.  Fate stepped in when she was unable to secure a visa.
 
Civil Rights Activities
 
The civil rights movement in the 1960s became an important period in her life.  She was a member of CRAG (Civil Rights Action Group) on campus and remembers going with a white person to test housing in the university area where black students had been refused rooms. She became an active member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) working closely with Walter Hundley (1929-2002), Bettylou Valentine, and Joan and Ed Singler.  Her involvement included making signs, picketing, and engaging in non-violent action. 

When CORE was stopped from picking in front of  Picture Floor Plan Realty, she and two Ph.D. candidates continued the picketing.  She door-belled for open housing and sponsored speakers on campus to make people more aware of  problems for black people.  When she graduated with a B.A. in Political Science in 1964, and after negotiations by CORE, she was hired by Carnation Milk Company to work on their order desk, becoming their first and only black employee.
 
Enter Donald Mumford
 
In 1966, while in Phoenix visiting her older sister, she was introduced to Donald Mumford, a recruiter for the navy.  They married in 1967, and lived in various places around the world including Whidbey Island, Thailand, Okinawa, and Bremerton after he finished officers' candidate school.  He retired as a naval officer and  worked for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services until 2005. They have two children, Donald and Zola. 

Esther Mumford gives tribute to her husband in the acknowledgments of one of her publications: "My husband, Donald Emerson Mumford, has long been my most valuable ally in my endeavors.  Not only has he served in the traditional role of bringing home the bacon, but he has rarely complained when it was late or unprepared, while I read, researched and rummaged around for unexplored places to include in the book. Time and again he accompanied me around the county to make photographs of many of the places recorded in this book. His love and patience makes my work possible" (Mumford, Calabash).
 
Oral Historiy Interviewer 
 
In the spring of 1975, she began work as an oral history interviewer for the Oral-Aural History Program of Washington State, which was sponsored by the Washington State Division of Archives and Records Management.  The program was to highlight the lives of ordinary people in the state as part of the nation's Bicentennial celebration.  The black project was centered mostly in urban areas and  through interviews seeking descriptions of life in Seattle before 1940.  These interviews changed her life. 

"I, like the vast majority of Washingtonions, had little awareness of the history of black people in this area.  I chide myself for the lack of consciousness about such a valuable resource" (Mumford, Seven Stars and Orion).  The project ended in 1976, but she continued on her own, searching old newspapers, census records, property transactions, bills of sale, chattel mortgage records, church registers, and family scrapbooks to trace the black presence back to 1852.  Thrilled about the treasures she had discovered, she wrote the groundbreaking book, Seattle's Black Victorians, 1852-1901.
 
Ananse Press Is Born
 
Mumford did not seek a white press to publish her book. Instead, she decided that "we can do this" on our own.  She enrolled in a class taught by Charles (Chuck) Herring Jr. at the Experimental College on self publishing. He was very accessible and walked the students through the process of self-publishing.  She did the layout for the book, worked with Snohomish publishing in printing the book and found many helpful people throughout the process.  With financial support from her father and with her husband's photography expertise, which he had acquired in the navy, the book Seattle's Black Victorians, 1852-1901 was published and distributed in 1980 by Ananse Press.  The Mumfords named the press after an African tale of a spider bringing knowledge down from heaven.
 
Books published by Ananse Press are Mumford's other three books: Seven Stars and Orion: Reflections of the Past (1986); Calabash: A Guide to the History, Culture and Art of African Americans in Seattle and King County, Washington (1993); and The Man Who Founded a Town (a children's book about George Washington, the founder of Centralia), n.d.. Other Ananse books are Older Than My Mother by Augusta Hicks Gale (1996); and The Story of Coffee by Sultan Mohamed (2004).
 
Mumford continues her research on the presence of African Americans in the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Washington's first world's fair, which took place in Seattle in 1909.
 
Black Heritage Society of Washington State
 
With a mutual desire to preserve the history and art of black people in Washington, a group met at the home of Esther and Donald Mumford in 1977.  The other founding members of this committee which became the Black Heritage Society of Washington State were Doris Steward Frye, Jacqueline Alexander Lawson, Thelma and Benjamin McAdoo (1920-1981), and Letcher and Arline Steward Yarbrough.  Esther Mumford has been the curator of numbers of exhibits for the society, which have been shown in venues throughout the state.

The first one, a year before the society was formed, was "Voices: The Black Experience in Seattle," presented at the Langston Hughes Cultural Center in February, 1976.  Later for the society it was shown at the Museum of History and Industry in May 1980.  Other exhibits include "Paying Their Own Passage" (depicting voluntary migration of persons of African descent), "Neglected Heirlooms" (blacks and Washington's building treasury), "Seattle's Black Women Writers (1900-1980)," "100 Years in East Madison," and "Black Sailors, 1854-1990."
 
Mumford has contributed to the community in many other ways, serving as lay reader and chalice bearer for St. Clements Episcopal Church and as a member of the Washington State Women's History Consortium.  She has been a member of Seattle's Landmark Board, the Episcopal Women's History Project, Board of the Pacific Northwest Historians' Guild, Northwest African American Museum Program Committee, and the Wing Luke Immersion Committee.
 
She has given countless presentations in public schools and is in great demand as a lecturer.  She was a statewide speaker in the Inquiring Minds series made possible by Humanities Washington through the Office of the Secretary of State.
 
Accolades

Esther Hall Mumford's contribution to the literature on African American history in the Pacific Northwest has inspired a number of awards which include the following:

  • Aspasia Phoutrides Pulakis Award for outstanding contributions to ethnic heritage presented by the Ethnic Heritage Council
  • Association of King County Heritage Organizations Award
  • Peace and Friendship Award from State Capital Museum
    Governor's Heritage Award
  • First African Methodist Episcopal Church Talented Tenth Award
    Black Heritage Society Award
  • Lifetime membership from the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild

Sources:

Mary T. Henry interview with Esther Mumford, August 22, 2008; Jerry Large, "Past is Living Legacy for Black Author," The Seattle Times , October 28, 1994; Esther Hall Mumford,  Seattle's Black Victorians 1852-1901 (Seattle: Ananse Press, 1980); Esther Hall Mumford, Calabash (Seattle: Ananse Press, 1993); Esther Hall Mumford, Seven Stars and Orion (Seattle: Ananse Press, 1986); "Esther Hall Mumford," Washington Women's History Consortium website accessed September 2008 (http://washingtonwomenshistory.org/about/board/mumford.aspx); "Governor's Heritage Award -- Esther Hall Mumford," Washington State Arts Commission website accessed September 2008 (http://www.arts.wa.gov/folk-arts/gaha/mumford.shtml).


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