Ryan, John Henry (1865-1943) and Ella (1866-?)

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 6/13/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9823
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John Henry Ryan and his wife Ella Ryan were two of the earliest African American business owners in Tacoma, where they owned and were the editors of The Forum, a weekly newspaper.  Along with his business acumen, John Ryan became the first African American elected to the state senate. While serving in the Washington State Legislature, John Ryan argued against the "Anti-Interracial Marriage Law," among other economic and social bills he introduced during his 20-year career. He was elected under the Farm Labor, Democratic, and Republican Party platforms. Ella Ryan, a successful salon owner in Spokane before moving to Tacoma, went on to edit and manage The Forum after her husband became more involved in politics. John Ryan eventually changed his first name to Senator before his death in 1943. 

Family Backgrounds

John Henry Ryan was born in 1865, to George R. Ryan (1829-1911), the son of a Cherokee woman. "Under the laws of Kentucky," John H. Ryan wrote upon his father's death, "he was free born. Though of mixed blood he always affiliated with the American Negro" (Fuller). 

George Ryan went north in 1862 "with a large party of acquaintances, many of them slaves, who followed out a Federal army. On this trip he met a slip of a girl, an Octoroon, who later became his wife, who bore him twelve children" (Fuller). 

The "slip of a woman" John Ryan refers to was his mother, Mary Elizabeth Gatliffe, who was a mere 14 year old when she married George Ryan (33 at the time), and went on to bear 12  children. 

The pair settled in Chillicothe, Ohio, where George found work as a policeman. John Ryan recounts his father as a kind of vigilante leader of the free African Americans in the area, as seen from a passage from the obituary John wrote upon his father's death: 

"The nine men [in the party] secured work and then the fires of prejudice began to burn. The free Negroes in Chillicothe began to designate Ryan and his friends as contrabands and would often meet at the town pump to insult his wife by calling her vile names. This was soon stopped by a convenient axe handle accurately and intelligently wielded by the leader of the party. The action soon secured the respect of the alleged free Negroes for George Ryan and his little party" (Fuller). 

John Ryan was born in Cillicohe and proved to be as ambitious as his father.

Details of Ella's early life are scant, but census records show her birth year as 1866, and her birthplace as Ohio. She is said to have been raised in Missouri, although her parents are both listed as born in Indiana in census records.

From Spokane to Tacoma

In 1889, John Ryan and his wife, Ella, moved to Spokane, Washington, along with his siblings Charles, William, and Pearl Ryan.

The 11 years the Ryans spent in Spokane were fruitful for both of them: Ella owned and operated a successful beauty salon, and John became known in the community as a businessman and solicitor. A Spokane city directory listing also cites a John H. Ryan as a clerk with the county treasurer in 1897. 

The Ryans moved to Seattle briefly in 1900. What work he did in Seattle from 1900 to when he moved to Tacoma is rather unclear, but he was said to have and "engaged in the newspaper business" (Fuller). 

Building the Newspaper Business

In Tacoma, the Ryans began a short-lived venture when they began publishing a newspaper called The Weekly in 1903. It was the city's first black-owned newspaper. They quickly abandoned that paper and began publishing The Forum in July 1903. The weekly Forum was published by Graham-Hickman Co. as its publisher, and the couple published the paper out of their own home (206-7 Washington Buildings in Tacoma). 

 By 1900, the black population of Tacoma was 307. Although, in 1903, the African American community wasn't necessarily large enough to support a weekly solely dedicated to black issues and the African American community, the Forum did keep tabs on the social activities of its readers, in its infancy. 

In 1903, Mrs. H. P. Lawhorn's vacation near Issaquah was chronicled, along with a trip to Seattle with her daughter Daisy. "A delightful supper" was given to Mr. and Mrs. Cooper of Kankakee, Illinois, by Mrs. Lawhorn, whose husband presumably had interests in the lucrative Tacoma Mining and Investment Company (Fuller).

As the Ryans became most established in the community -- and as John's political interests grew -- The Forum began to tackle a wider variety of communities and their concerns and issues. The Ryans were keen to take on causes that would better the Tacoma region. The masthead of The Forum made their interests known; it read, "Devoted to the upbuilding of the State, Tacoma, and Pierce County in Particular" (Fuller). 

The Forum also wasn't opposed to "upbuilding" its owner and publisher; in one editorial, a visiting Methodist bishop was quoted showering praise on the media in town: 

"I am glad, however, to notice that the Tacoma newspapers are awake to the needs of the city ... you certainly have enterprising newspapers and it does me good to see how they take hold of things. They know what will make a city great. They appreciate the advantages of an institution such as this university will be, and have aided it with their hearty support" (The Forum, October 3, 1903). 

Events Current and Historic

But it was not simply current events that caught the attention of The Forum; the Ryans seemed keenly aware that the young city of Tacoma needed its history preserved. In one editorial, The Forum advocated for a collection of historical and current newspapers in the region. 

"There had been made several attempts by educational and historical institutions and private individuals to assemble in one place a collection of Washington State newspapers as a basis for historical research," The Forum wrote (The Forum, October 30, 1903). The article went on to quote a former Librarian of Congress who said "such collections are not only of great value to the student of today, but also to the future historian," a prescient view of the need for historical media record (The Forum, October 30, 1903). 

In December 1903, The Forum grew further when it merged with The Tacoma Sun, another weekly that had been publishing in the area for a dozen years. The new partnership boasted a paper "increased to twelve pages, plus a handsome cover design" which would "ensure the best weekly publication in the state" (The Forum, December 4, 1903). 

While John became more involved in politics, Ella assumed full control of The Forum, as publisher and editor, in 1906, although John H. Ryan was still listed on the masthead as editor (with Ella as owner).

Ella Ryan's Forceful Voice

Ella Ryan, according to historian and author Quintard Taylor, Jr., "wrote some of the most articulate and forceful editorials attacking discrimination against Blacks in the city and Nation" (Fuller). 

One such opinion was published by Ella Ryan in May, 1908, when she wrote in The Forum her support to abolish the chain gang: 

"It is proposed to abolish the chain gang. Thus does civilization, as Ambrose Bierce would remark, advance another half inch. The chain gang is a relic of barbarism, a disgrace to civilization, one of those un-American things that exist only in the land of freedom. It is only possible in a country where men fought to perpetuate slavery, an institution that was peacefully abolished in every civilized country but this. No man who has ever served on a chain gang could ever be the same again. Like the brand of Cain, the stigma would follow him to the grave. No town nor hamlet, however remote, could shield him from some of those who knew and remembered his disgrace. If we must punish men for infraction of laws or the atrocious crime of being poor, for what is what vagrancy charges amount to, let us do it with decency and in order. Let us not parade the fall of the individual through public thoroughfares, a mock and a sport to gaping throngs. The rock pile will at least give privacy to those who fall, and work out the pentinance [sic] and atonement for broken laws" (Fuller).

In the Political Fray

Not only did the editorial board of The Forum express strong views with regard to large, socially relevant issues; the weekly participated forcefully in local politics and issues as well. Here is an an editorial ravaging the mayor for his for-profit attitude of city services:  

"This bickering should be CUT OUT. Tacoma is going to march on to its certain destiny. The mayor may keep step if he so desires; if he don't he'll step out" (The Forum, April 14, 1917).

Apparently, this tough talk didn't go unnoticed by the critics of The Forum. In 1917 the paper published an editorial in 1917 that sharply addressed its critics:  

"Occasionally The Forum meets a well-meaning person or group of such who exclaim, 'say, do you know your paper is getting in bad and losing friends in roasting Mr. So-and-so?' We have heard that cry voiced in one way or another for the past ten years or more, yet The Forum, by some hook or crook, continues to publish and in many cases long after many of these self-constituted advisers have been cast in the political discard" (The Forum, July 21, 1917). 

"Again," the paper goes on to say, "the office holder generally has a retinue of appointees who assume they are vice regents of Jesus Christ, for the reason that they have been rescued from the breadline ... . We would rather chronicle the accomplishments of a public official than his shortcomings" ( The Forum, Jul. 21, 1917).

Against Temperance

The Ryans reserved some of their most biting -- and frankly, entertaining -- commentary on the social mores of their community: 

"A set of intolerant women gathered together this week under the guise of the W.C.T.U. [Women's Christian Temperance Union] proceeded to lambaste everybody who failed to measure up to their peculiar and distorted views," an editorial began. "Particularly did they direct their venom and fires of wrath at the Tacoma druggists for conducting their business like business men" (The Forum, September 22, 1917).

The editorial goes on to paint a particularly vivid picture of The Forum's view on Temperance women and their campaign against alcohol. 

"When age lays its palsied hand on woman, when they have lost all personal charm, when they are no longer able to win the smiles of the stronger sex, there are two roads for them to follow. One leads to a cozy rocking chair in the corner where a ball of yarn and knitting needles await them, and the other leads to the rostrum as moral reformers. It is here where the sharp-tongued shrews find a fertile field for their waning activity" (The Forum, September 22, 1917).

While Ella Ryan was largely running the day-to-day operations of the newspaper and responsible for its content, John Ryan finally tackled his political ambitions.  


John Ryan's interest in politics was evident from The Forum's topics, and was also shown in a record kept of the various legislative manuals he published while still in the private sector. 

The 1907 Ryan's Legislative Manual is a detailed account of the 10th session of the Washington state legislature, and John Ryan's preface to the materials -- which included photographs and biographical sketches of the members of the session, as well as a condensed history of Washington state government -- certainly conveyed how important he deemed his task (as well as himself, perhaps), as he alluded to Clarence Barton, who had formerly compiled detailed manuals: 

"Not since the days of the lamented Barton had an attempt been made to cover the field with a manual of value until four years ago, when the undersigned issued his first book, followed by one in 1904. As a result of the publisher's experience this manual is more complete and valuable than any previous effort ..." (Ryan). 

Not everyone, it seemed, was as impressed with Ryan's thoroughness. In a January 1907 edition of the Morning Olympian, an article recounts that a senator introduced a resolution "that gave evident relief to some of the senators that had already been solicited" for pictures, write-ups, and information for the manual (Morning Olympian).  The article stated that members of the legislature had been "harassed" on "various pretexts," and the senate should "discourage issuance of any such handbook" (Morning Olympian). 

And further: "H.R. Cayton, editor of the Seattle Republican, and J.H. Ryan, editor of the Tacoma Forum, both colored men, are on the ground to get out a manual" (Morning Olympian).

Washington State Legislature 

In 1920, Ryan was first elected to the State Legislature when he ran as a Farm Labor candidate. Ryan was the only African American legislator at the time, and his district (the 28th) was overwhelmingly white.  

Although not much of his early career in the legislature is known, he did band together with the NAACP to argue against the passage of an Anti-Interracial Marriage Bill in 1921.  

Between 1920 and 1940, Ryan was elected to the legislature by three different parties: Farm Labor, Democrat, and Republican, serving nearly 20 years in both the upper and lower houses of the legislature.  

A canvassing of Ryan's political career shows his broad interest in both economic and social interests; he took a particular notice in the Bone Power amendment, which authorized the state to buy and sell power and to build transmission lines. It also "authorizes issuances of bonds up to 5 per cent of the assessed value of all the property in the state," according to the Seattle Daily Times (Seattle Daily Times, February 26, 1935). Ryan believed that the approval of the amendment was critical to the funding of the high dam at Grand Coulee.  

In 1933, Ryan introduced a bill that would require parental consent before the state board of health gave vaccinations to a minor. That year, he also helped pass a bill that legalized ten-round boxing matches, giving a "setback" to reformer legislators who twenty years before had put several "moral" laws on the books (Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 26, 1933).  

Clearly possessing a knack for language, Ryan didn't hesitate to express himself clearly. In 1935, a bill was proposed to fingerprint "vagrants," setting up a "bureau of criminal identification" (Seattle Daily Times, 2/35). John Ryan made his displeasure with the bill known:  

"The bill forms a police state, and it won't prevent crime," Ryan is quoted as saying. "It's vicious and be about as effective as pouring rosewater on a sewer" (Seattle Daily Times, Feb. 26, 1935).  

Ryan began publishing Ryan's Weekly, which covered political activity, before his first political run and continued its publication for more than 30 years.

Senator Ryan

And no one can doubt Ryan's dedication to public service: In 1938, John H. Ryan had his name legally changed to Senator J. H. Ryan.  Although one obituary for Senator J. H. Ryan points out that the name change came after an unsuccessful Democratic nomination for county commissioner, reports as to the reason for the change vary.  

The Seattle Daily Times noted in a 1938 article that "he had been so long called 'senator' that those who know him have forgotten if they ever addressed him familiarly as John Henry or whatever may be inferred from his initials" (Seattle Daily Times, July 28, 1938).

Going on to call a name change "quite the political fashion in these parts," the article points out that "a Seattle candidate for constable, Mr. Sweeney, is trying to have 'Tell-it-to' inserted just before his surname" (Seattle Daily Times, July 28, 1938). 

John Ryan died on January 20, 1943, in a private nursing home. No record is made of Ella Ryan's death, but John Ryan had been living at Croft Hotel for the six months before his death. He was taken to the nursing home shortly before Christmas, according to an obituary in the Tacoma News Tribune.

Sources: "A Great Newspaper Collection" The Forum, Vol. 1, No. 18, October 30, 1903; "High Dignataries of Methodist Church, Dr. John Hamilton" The Forum, Vol. 1, No. 14, October 2, 1903; "Watch Us Grow" The Forum, Vol. 1 No. 23, December 4, 1903; "Real Public Service vs. the Other Kind" The Forum, Vol. 24, No. 41, April 14, 1917; "An Intimate Talk" The Forum, Vol. 25 No. 4, July 21, 1917; "Intolerance Rampant" The Forum, Vol. 25, No. 13, September 22, 1917; Spokane City Directory (R.L. Polk and Company, 1903); Blackpast.org, "Ryan, John and Ella," http://blackpast.org/?q=aaw/ryan-ella-john/ (accessed May 2, 2011); "Senator Ryan Dies at Tacoma," The Seattle Daily Times, January 20, 1943, p. 7; "Senator J. H. Ryan," Seattle Daily Times, February 3, 1941, p. 15; "Vetoed Banking Provision Bobs Up in New Bill," The Seattle Daily Times, February 27, 1933, p. 7; "Senate Approves Fingerprinting," The Seattle Daily Times, February 26, 1935, p. 7; "Legislators Demand Own Measures Be Passed," The Seattle Daily Times, December 13, 1933, p. 1; "To End Work on Feb. 25 Senate Adopts Resolutions for a Forty Day Session," Morning Olympian, January 16, 1907, p. 1; J. W. Gilbert, "Council and County Board Put Olympia Legislators Right," The Seattle Daily Times, January 26, 1933, p. 4; "Bills Passed By House," The Seattle Daily Times, March 9, 1933, p. 9; "Brief Sketches Introduce Members of Legislature," page 39, The Seattle Daily Times, February 10, 1933. p. 39; James A. Wood, "Speaking for the Times,"  The Seattle Daily Times, July 28, 1938, p. 6; Stefanie Johnson, "Blocking Racial Intermarriage Laws in 1935 and 1937: Seattle's First Civil Rights Coalition," Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, May 4, 2011 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/antimiscegenation.htm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "NAACP, Seattle Branch," (by Mary T. Henry), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 3, 2011); Ryan, J. H.  Ryan's Legislative Manual (J. H. Ryan, publisher, 1907); Gary Reese Fuller, Who We Are: An Informal History of Black Tacoma Before World War I (Tacoma: Tacoma Public Library, 1992); "Ryan, Ella," Fourteenth Census of the United States--1920--Population" Washington, Pierce County, Tacoma," Series: T625  Roll: 1937  Page: 110, Bureau of the Census, available online on ProQuest.

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