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Willie Brown Seals: A Triple Threat Man – Minister, Musician, Photographer

Author: Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, PhD, Co-founder, Uncrowned Queens Institute

Willie Brown Seals, who preferred to be known by his initials, W.B., was born on November 22, 1910 in the rural community of Bayou Rapides, Louisiana. He was the eldest child and only son of an African American woman and an Italian father. The origin of the Seals name has some mystery attached to it, as neither Willie nor his sister Alice, was given their mother’s surname of Lair. According to Rev. “Seals” he made up the name. He claimed to have taken the name, from a favorite teacher, named Lucille Ceil. Initially, he omitted the “s” from the spelling but added it later because Seals sounded better then Seal.

Willie’s formal education ended after the sixth grade. In later years, he enjoyed telling the story of how he perfected his reading ability by reading the newspapers used to “wall paper” his family’s shanty home. At an early age, he demonstrated musical ability and was allowed to take piano lessons. The piano student quickly became an adept musician who mastered classical pieces as well as traditional gospel and spirituals. In his early twenties, he became the choral director, pianist and organist for several churches in the Alexandria area. He also earned extra money by giving music lessons to adult as well as children piano students.

At age 23, he answered a calling to the ministry. His formal ordination did not take place until 1954, yet the ministry marked a life-long avocation that lead the Rev. W.B. Seals to pastor several churches in the Alexandria area, and later in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York. At one point, he experienced a personal conflict between his musical calling and his spiritual calling. However, he decided to pursue the ministry as he felt he “had a greater conviction for the ministry.” He continued, however, to teach piano and to play for groups in his church, when requested.

In 1931, Rev. Seals married Nettie Mae Patterson. They had four children, Willie Patterson, John Douglas, Mildred Irene and James Charles. A decade later, the couple divorced and in what was an unusual ruling at the time; Rev. Seals was given custody of their four children. A second marriage took place in 1943. And a year later, Willie and the former Clara Ellis added a fifth child, Barbara Ann, to their family. By 1944, the Seals family had settled into routine life in Alexandria. In addition to teaching piano in his home, acting as choral director and pianist for several churches and pastoring his own church, Rev. Seals also maintained a full-time job at an auto-parts store.

In 1943, Irene Lair, Rev. Seals’ mother suffered a stroke. Her daughter Alice, now living in Buffalo, moved Irene to take care of her. Irene Lair’s death in September 1946 set into motion a chain of events resulting in major life changes for the Seals family. At the urging of his sister, Rev. Seals agreed to move to Buffalo so that sibling’s families could be together. The following year, the Seals family joined the historic exodus of Black emigrants from the South that has been described as the Second Great Migration. In the decade between 1940 and 1950, the black population of Buffalo swelled from 18,000 to 36,745. Like many of their compatriots, who were sheltered by family until they found jobs and could get established, the seven members of the Seals family moved in with Rev. Seals’ sister, her husband and teen-aged daughter.
The apartment that the family shared at 266 Walnut Street near Broadway was typical of Buffalo’s Black neighborhoods at that time; very old and crowded housing stock. The lower-front residence in a four apartment building, their cold- water flat consisted of four rooms: a living room, kitchen, and two small bedrooms. The lavatory comprised of only a commode and basin was located in the hall and shared with the back apartment. Rev. Seals found work at the Chevrolet Plant on River Road in Tonawanda and worked there for almost twenty-five years until his retirement in 1972. The family also grew as four sons; Gerald, Kenneth, Bruce and David were born between 1950 and 1962.

Rev. Seals became an active participant in Buffalo’s religious community. He was well known as a preacher, teacher and church musician. Soon after their arrival in Buffalo, the Seals family joined St. John Baptist Church and became active and involved members. Rev. and Mrs. Seals remained life-long members of St. John’s. He served as the Assistant and Associate pastor of the church as well as Bible study and Sunday school teachers. After his retirement, he served as a pastoral minister visiting and ministering to the sick and shut-in members of the congregation.

He started photography as a hobby in 1947. Once his interest was aroused, he spent a great deal of time perfecting his photographic techniques and skills. Early on he had a mentor, Cornelius Ryer. But he was largely self-taught. He learned to take the photos, process and develop the negatives and print the pictures as well. He was particularly skilled in lighting and photo composition. Before color photography was available, he hand painted the black and white pictures with oil paints. He spent countless hours at his desk with a paint palate, tubes of oils, q-tips and cotton swabs and painstakingly detailed eyes, hair, cheeks or jewelry with just the right color. In later years, he added special effects photography, such as double exposure and unique backgrounds, to his repertoire.

For nearly 50 years, he built a sideline “job” into a professional business that he named, Seals Ebony Studio. He was called on by myriad groups and individuals to document the history of several generations of African Americans in the Western New York area, from births to deaths, to marriages and other celebrations, to changes in the life of a community over time. After his death in 1995, thousands of carefully preserved, documented (names, dates, addresses) negatives and photographs were found in his filing cabinets. They represent a half-century of photographic records. These negatives and the resultant photographs are extraordinary in that they comprise an intact collection that portrays the rich history of an African American community as seen through the lens of an African American photographic artist.

Willie Brown Seals and many of his contemporaries strived to live lives that were productive, contributory and exemplary in their contributions to their families and communities. He died at the age of 84 in 1995.

Willie Brown Seals: A Triple Threat Man_ Minister, Musician, Photographer

Submitted by Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, PhD, Co-founder, Uncrowned Queens Institute

Willie Brown Seals, who preferred to be known by his initials, W.B., was born on November 22, 1910 in the rural community of Bayou Rapides, Louisiana. He was the eldest child and only son of an African American woman and an Italian father. The origin of the Seals name has some mystery attached to it, as neither Willie nor his sister Alice, was given their mother’s surname of Lair. According to Rev. “Seals” he made up the name. He claimed to have taken the name, from a favorite teacher, named Lucille Ceil. Initially, he omitted the “s” from the spelling but added it later because Seals sounded better then Seal.

Willie’s formal education ended after the sixth grade. In later years, he enjoyed telling the story of how he perfected his reading ability by reading the newspapers used to “wall paper” his family’s shanty home. At an early age, he demonstrated musical ability and was allowed to take piano lessons. The piano student quickly became an adept musician who mastered classical pieces as well as traditional gospel and spirituals. In his early twenties, he became the choral director, pianist and organist for several churches in the Alexandria area. He also earned extra money by giving music lessons to adult as well as children piano students.

At age 23, he answered a calling to the ministry. His formal ordination did not take place until 1954, yet the ministry marked a life-long avocation that lead the Rev. W.B. Seals to pastor several churches in the Alexandria area, and later in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York. At one point, he experienced a personal conflict between his musical calling and his spiritual calling. However, he decided to pursue the ministry as he felt he “had a greater conviction for the ministry.” He continued, however, to teach piano and to play for groups in his church, when requested.

Rev-Willie-B-Seals_1950-1In 1931, Rev. Seals married Nettie Mae Patterson. They had four children, Willie Patterson, John Douglas, Mildred Irene and James Charles. A decade later, the couple divorced and in what was an unusual ruling at the time; Rev. Seals was given custody of their four children. A second marriage took place in 1943. And a year later, Willie and the former Clara Ellis added a fifth child, Barbara Ann, to their family. By 1944, the Seals family had settled into routine life in Alexandria. In addition to teaching piano in his home, acting as choral director and pianist for several churches and pastoring his own church, Rev. Seals also maintained a full-time job at an auto-parts store.

In 1943, Irene Lair, Rev. Seals’ mother suffered a stroke. Her daughter Alice, now living in Buffalo, moved Irene to take care of her. Irene Lair’s death in September 1946 set into motion a chain of events resulting in major life changes for the Seals family. At the urging of his sister, Rev. Seals agreed to move to Buffalo so that sibling’s families could be together. The following year, the Seals family joined the historic exodus of Black emigrants from the South that has been described as the Second Great Migration. In the decade between 1940 and 1950, the black population of Buffalo swelled from 18,000 to 36,745. Like many of their compatriots, who were sheltered by family until they found jobs and could get established, the seven members of the Seals family moved in with Rev. Seals’ sister, her husband and teen-aged daughter.

The apartment that the family shared at 266 Walnut Street near Broadway was typical of Buffalo’s Black neighborhoods at that time; very old and crowded housing stock. The lower-front residence in a four apartment building, their cold- water flat consisted of four rooms: a living room, kitchen, and two small bedrooms. The lavatory comprised of only a commode and basin was located in the hall and shared with the back apartment. Rev. Seals found work at the Chevrolet Plant on River Road in Tonawanda and worked there for almost twenty-five years until his retirement in 1972. The family also grew as four sons; Gerald, Kenneth, Bruce and David were born between 1950 and 1962.

Rev. Seals became an active participant in Buffalo’s religious community. He was well known as a preacher, teacher and church musician. Soon after their arrival in Buffalo, the Seals family joined St. John Baptist Church and became active and involved members. Rev. and Mrs. Seals remained life-long members of St. John’s. He served as the Assistant and Associate pastor of the church as well as Bible study and Sunday school teachers. After his retirement, he served as a pastoral minister visiting and ministering to the sick and shut-in members of the congregation.

He started photography as a hobby in 1947. Once his interest was aroused, he spent a great deal of time perfecting his photographic techniques and skills. Early on he had a mentor, Cornelius Ryer. But he was largely self-taught. He learned to take the photos, process and develop the negatives and print the pictures as well. He was particularly skilled in lighting and photo composition. Before color photography was available, he hand painted the black and white pictures with oil paints. He spent countless hours at his desk with a paint palate, tubes of oils, q-tips and cotton swabs and painstakingly detailed eyes, hair, cheeks or jewelry with just the right color. In later years, he added special effects photography, such as double exposure and unique backgrounds, to his repertoire.

For nearly 50 years, he built a sideline “job” into a professional business that he named, Seals Ebony Studio. He was called on by myriad groups and individuals to document the history of several generations of African Americans in the Western New York area, from births to deaths, to marriages and other celebrations, to changes in the life of a community over time. After his death in 1995, thousands of carefully preserved, documented (names, dates, addresses) negatives and photographs were found in his filing cabinets. They represent a half-century of photographic records. These negatives and the resultant photographs are extraordinary in that they comprise an intact collection that portrays the rich history of an African American community as seen through the lens of an African American photographic artist.

Willie Brown Seals and many of his contemporaries strived to live lives that were productive, contributory and exemplary in their contributions to their families and communities. He died at the age of 84 in 1995.


 

The Friends of the Buffalo Story is involved in a yearlong project whose mission is to uncover and reveal the heritage-based stories of people who live along the Ferry Street Corridor. As part of this effort “The Friends” is working very closely with community-groups, who have been doing this work for many years. None has done this more effectively and diligently than the uncrowned queens institute for research & education on women, inc.

We are proud to be collaborating with them to bring you this ongoing feature during the month of February, which focuses on some of the “uncrowned community builders” who have done so much to strengthen the African-American community of Buffalo’s East Side as well as the region.

Additional “uncrowned community builders” are as follows:

rev. j. edward nash – a legendary buffalo pastor

eva noles – nurse, historian, pioneer

mary lee crosby chappelle – sage of the ages

john edmonston brent – master builder

hester c. jeffrey – advocate of women’s suffrage movement

Thelma Ayers Hardiman – Stalwart supporter of Buffalo

 

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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