The Story of Louisa Mitchell

Shriver-Johnson Building, Sioux Falls, November 2014, photograph by author.

Shriver-Johnson Building, Sioux Falls, November 2014, photograph by author.

Every so often, historical research brings you to a subject that is just exciting.  Eyes wide open, heart racing, down the rabbit hole–the whole line of clichés. Yesterday, I was researching the owners of homes in the Cathedral Historic District of Sioux Falls, the elites who could afford to build and buy large houses on the hill.  When I came to Mr. Alva Ray Shriver, who was co-founder and president of the Shriver-Johnson Co. who built a 5-story, 89,900 sq. ft. department store in downtown Sioux Falls, I found his name mentioned in a letter to the editor, not about him, but about Mrs. Harvey Mitchell.  But who is Mrs. Harvey Mitchell?

In The Crisis magazine in November 1935, W.F. Reden wrote to the editor (link to the magazine in Google Books) about Mr. Shriver’s willingness to employ the enterprising Mrs. Mitchell, a black woman, as the manager of the beauty parlor in his store.  There she employed twelve black and four white operators, ran a beauty school for majority white students, ran a doll hospital (odd?), and had students open branches of her beauty parlor in stores in Yankton SD, Fargo ND, and Sioux City IA [also Sara L. Bernson and Robert J. Eggers, “Black People in South Dakota History,” South Dakota History 7 (Summer 1977), 255].  There is plenty of context that has been established for the ability of black women to make early inroads to economic success and the middle-class through the beauty industry, but where there wasn’t a large black consumer base, they were also largely relegated to service industries for white consumers.  For instance, I remember a great discussion to that point from grad school on Kathy Lee Peiss’ 2011 book, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture.

A quick look into the census records for Sioux Falls gives her name, Louisa.  Her husband Harvey was a barber at Wright’s Barber Shop then at Shriver Johnson, and they regularly took in lodgers at their home at 1216 (or 1218) S. Dakota Avenue (appears on Google Maps to have been replaced with an apartment building now…) [Betti Carol VanEpps-Taylor, Forgotten Lives: African Americans in South Dakota (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2008), 66].  Several of their lodgers were cashiers or hair dressers at the beauty parlor, from Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi, but there was also a French book printer, a teacher/lawyer from Illinois named William Reden (likely the author of the aforementioned letter to the editor…), and teacher Mary Reden. In 1910 and 1920, Harvey, Louisa, and their lodgers are listed as “Mu” for mulatto and in 1930 and 1940, they and their lodgers are listed as “Neg.”

It was hard at the time for black people to find welcoming and affordable lodging in Sioux Falls.  The Mitchells set up an operation called the Booker T. Washington Service Center in 1930 to meet that need [Bernson and Eggers, 255; VanEpps-Taylor, 138].  When their first building in the 400-block of Phillips Avenue burned in 1932, they set up a new location that was in operation until the 1950s [VanEpps-Taylor, 138].  They have been noted as being a prime force (along with other local black leaders) for integrating new black residents (especially young people) into the community, controlling non-conformist behavior, and smoothing race relations in Sioux Falls [VanEpps-Taylor, 68, 167]

Louisa M. Reden was born in August 1878 in Rock Island County, Illinois and attended school in Prophetstown [1880 census; VanEpps-Taylor, 137; South Dakota Gravestones website].  I later found the Illinois marriage record for her and Harvey Mitchell in 1896 in Whiteside, Illinois, which gave me her maiden name and confirmed that William F. Reden was her brother [Illinois State Marriage Records. Online index. Illinois State Public Record Offices via Ancestry.com].  In the 1880 census record for Black Hawk Township, it lists her with her parents, William and Matilda.  They were farmers, and William is listed as born in Canada in 1832 with parents from Virginia [hmm…].  Matilda was born in Missouri in about 1848, before the abolition of slavery [“Matilda Reden,” Find-a-Grave.com; 1910/1920 census for Louisa].  Both had died by 1893 [“Matilda Reden,” Find-a-Grave.com].  Louisa’s brother William was a lawyer who had graduated from the University of Iowa School of Law in 1908 and opened an office in Sioux Falls.  Although fair-skinned, he was the first black man admitted to the bar in South Dakota and was a regional director of the black National Bar Association in the 1930s [J. Clay Smith Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 466].

In the 1900 census, Harvey and Louisa had moved to Vernon Springs, Iowa.  In 1906, they came to Sioux Falls and she opened a beauty shop in her home [Bernson and Eggers, 252].  When a white customer recommended her to Shriver, she opened the parlor in the Shriver-Johnson department store and the California School of Beauty Culture [Reden’s letter; Bernson and Eggers, 255–also a photo of Louisa!].  Prominent employees and students included the Moxley family, Georgia Grigsby Lee, and LaBerta Bentley [VanEpps-Taylor, 137-138]. South Dakota Magazine did do an article a while back about another of her students, Hazel Mahone: http://southdakotamagazine.com/hazel-mahone.

In 1910-1911, Louisa is listed in the city directory as a hairdresser for Koenig Bros. Co. (who were bought out by Shriver-Johnson Co. in 1914).  She is listed in the directories as a hairdresser in 1912-1914, a hairdresser for Shriver-Johnson in 1917-1918 and department manager in 1922-1923, 1927-1929, 1933-1937.  In 1938, the directory has her employment at Mitchell’s Beauty Shoppe, located at 123 S. Main [VanEpps-Taylor, 137].  After her death, James Moxley ran the shop until his death in 1956, then Georgia Lee ran it into the 1970s [VanEpps-Taylor, 139].

Louisa Mitchell and her brother William Reden are both listed as early influential leaders in the South Dakota chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. that organized in 1920, and Louisa was president of the Sioux Falls branch for a time [Bernson and Eggers, 257; Letter from the N.A.A.C.P. Sioux Falls Branch to W. E. B. Du Bois, May 2, 1930, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, MS 312].  She was also a member of the National Organization of Negro Business Women [VanEpps-Taylor, 138].  In 1930, she was one of the organizers of “Get-to-Gether Picnics” that were held in July in Sioux Falls, Yankton, Huron, and Mitchell.  Until 1965, the annual picnics offered old-home southern soul food staples, singing, games, and speakers invited from across the country [Bernson and Eggers, 257-258; Daily Plainsman (Huron SD), July 5, 1932; VanEpps-Taylor, 171].  She and Harvey were also leading members of Saint John’s Baptist Church (est. 1917), where she helped the pastor organize “colored leagues” for sports like basketball, baseball, and track from her position as director of the Y.M.C.A. [Bernson and Eggers, 260; VanEpps-Taylor, 138, 167].

She died in 1941 and was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls [South Dakota Gravestones website].  She died right before the black community in Sioux Falls had a significant boost in population with the opening of the Army Air Force Radio Technical Training School during WWII–the first time Sioux Falls contended with issues of race and segregation for the USO clubs and public swimming pools.

That’s all I can find for now…

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