— by Hannah Currie
Nettie Asberry was a shining public figure and musician in Tacoma history. She paved the way for many people of color and was never afraid to speak her mind. Her social activism permeated all facets of her life, including her music. This article addresses her life, her affects on her community and her connection to her art and her purpose. Nettie was not born and raised here in the Pacific Northwest, but something brought her here. She found her purpose in improving the lives of others and striving for equality, as well as teaching and growing the art of musical expression. She was connected to religion, civil rights, children, and her family. Though this short article can never do justice to the amount of change Nettie drove forward, her story is more than deserving of being told.
Nettie Asberry was born in Leavenworth, Kansas on July 15th, 1865. Her father was the plantation owner who owned her mother, and Nettie was the only free child of her six children. She started playing piano at age 8 and would later on compose her own music. Nettie was a gifted scholar, and graduated from University of Kansas and received her Ph.D from the Kansas Conservatory of Music, to be the first African American woman in the US to receive such a degree. She began teaching music in Kansas, and after marrying her first husband Albert Jones, the two set out to Seattle in 1890 where she continued her teachings by becoming the first organist and musical director in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
After Albert’s untimely death in 1893, Nettie moved back to Kansas. Shortly after, her family moved back to the Northwest, settling in Tacoma. There she met and married Henry Joseph Asberry in 1895. Henry was known as the “barber de luxe” of Tacoma, well known and well liked. He owned the Tacoma Hotel Barbershop and some of his clients included Mark Twain and Calvin Coolidge. Nettie then became the organist and choir director for the Allen AME Church. In 1902, she created the Mozart Musical Club, its main goal being to broaden youth’s knowledge of musical cultures and to study the careers of well known musicians. She was known for her giant upright piano in her home, and gained the title of best known music teacher in the city.
Nettie’s home, which held the massive piano still stands today on South 13th Street in Tacoma. She lived there for more than 50 years. She taught hundreds of students from all walks of life, partly because all her residencies were in the “melting pot” area of the town. She presented more than 45 students in recitals every single year. She was known to play the piano every day and in her later years donated musical instruments and other music materials to the Hilltop neighborhood library and music hall.
Nettie Asberry was the founder of what seems like a thousand clubs; she was a woman who strived to bring her community together in all ways. It all began when she was only 13 years old, when she became the secretary for a Susan B. Anthony club, Anthony being one of her shining examples of the activist she wanted to become. At the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, she earned a bronze medal for her handmade Battenburg lace opera Coat (see image at right). Not surprising at all, Nettie also was one of the Northwest founders of the NAACP, establishing branches all over Oregon and Washington. In 1917, she started multiple women’s clubs, which all became charter members of the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Organizations of Washington and Jurisdiction. She was also a member of the Progressive Mother’s Club of Tacoma and the Tacoma Inter-Racial Council. In 1918, she was appointed duties of committee member to appear before authorities to fight the racist actions of segregation at Fort Lewis. That same year, Dr. Asberry served as the auxiliary chairman of the A.M.E. Red Cross Auxiliary, further solidifying her commitment to making Tacoma a better place.
Asberry combined techniques of her teaching career with her activist lifestyle when she started teaching black history to the children in her neighborhood. She had a strong push in in getting black history to be taught in schools as well as being a topic of conversation in the newspapers. At left is a letter she wrote to the editor of Seattle’s Union Record urging him to include an editorial on black history. Aside from all her community contributions, she also brought a lot of influential people to the Pacific Northwest. The list includes but is not limited to: C.J. Walker, W.E.B. DuBois, Clarence C. White, Roland Hayes, James Weldon Johnson, William Pickens, and Mary B. Talbot. You can see in her letter to the editor of Seattle’s Union Record that she has a convincing personality. You can also easily sense her sincerity. She was a hopeful social participant, willing to do jobs necessary to activate change. She was confident in people’s abilities to be compassionate, she never gave up on society’s ability to become better.
In her quest to make the world a more just place, she came across a unique religion at the age of 79, the Bahai faith – an organization based on values of the brotherhood of man. After years of being tied to one religion, she changed her mindset and resigned from her original church – a rare thing to so late in life. She immediately become an active member, attending meetings and even serving as Secretary or Recording Secretary. She is quoted in an interview saying “The Bahai faith includes intelligent people of all colors in all walks of life.” Through this faith she pursued “harmony between the races” and implemented the principles of music – the beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion- using them in a broad sense to try and heal the world. At age 97, Nettie suffered a stroke and was bedridden. She was admitted to a nursing home, but that did not stop her from promoting her faith and her drive for equality. On her 100th birthday, she was celebrated with an article in the local newspaper where she used it as a platform to speak about her Bahai faith. To this day, the Tacoma Bahai community celebrates her.
At the amazing age of 103, Nettie Asberry passed away on November 17th, 1968. The following year, in honor of her musical accomplishments and community work, the mayor of Tacoma (A.L. Rasmussen) declared May 11th to be Nettie J. Asberry Day. In 2004, the Asberry Cultural Club, named in her honor, celebrated 50 years in her remembrance. The Tacoma African American Museum maintains an exhibit in her honor. The Tacoma Association of Colored Women’s Clubs completed a clubhouse, and named the music room the Dr. Nettie J. Asberry room, and two new plaques have been unveiled to celebrate her life located in Tacoma at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and South 5th Street. Her actions touched the lives of many, yet she always stayed humble. A quote from a 1961 Tacoma News Tribune article sums up her grace and dignity perfectly. On her 96th birthday, Nettie said, “Courage is the saving grace in this tense world racial situation. Courage of the white people who dare to show their fairness by helping us achieve positions of human dignity; and courage of those of other races who risk insults by quietly asserting their rights as human beings.”
Dr. Nettie Asberry was a remarkable figure that Tacoma was lucky to have. Without her, no one can truly say if our town would be the way it is today. Aside from making strides in racial equality and education, she also paved the way for following activists and leaders. She created newfound opportunities for children of all races and ethnicities through music, and emphasized the importance of understanding the culture and artistic elements that composed it. She was a talented pianist, composer, and teacher. She donated countless hours of her time and effort to diminish discriminatory measures and erect progressive ideals of equality, compassion and peace. Towards the end of her life, she realized the importance of faith in this mission of connecting people together. She always strived for harmony, in all corners of her life, career and journeys. This small account of her contributions barely scrapes the surface of what she truly did for not just Tacoma, but the world overall. Every award, statue, artwork, plaque, and building named after her could never do justice to what she did for society. Nettie J. Asberry is a shining public figure in Tacoma history and that is a title she more than deserves to hold.
Though Nettie has no biological children, her living descendants include her niece, grand-niece, three grandnephews, two great grand-nieces and four great grand-nephews. Her family keeps her name and triumphs alive by releasing educational writings on her life and who she was. Her grand-niece, Antoniette Broussard, is an avid historian committed to documenting her ancestral roots. She has stated, “I continue to look up to her. Her driving spirit has given me direction and inspiration for my life.” Broussard’s research into her great-aunt’s legacy made for great reading in the Fall 2005 issue of Columbia Magazine.
About the Author
Hannah Currie prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Spring Quarter 2019, she was a senior majoring in Communications.