We at the Historical Society of Berks County believe that the history of no group should be confined to single a month of the year, and that all social and ethnic groups deserve representation throughout the year. With that said we would like to take the opportunity of African American history month to not only expand our own archival holdings, but also to illustrate the research processes and bring to light the story of a life.
The subject of our inquiry is Sadie Umbles Brown. Our attention was first drawn to the life of Sadie Umbles Brown through the columns of Scholla written by Arthur D. Graeff. Within the In Memoriam tribute to 1945 (publsihed in the Reading Times, 1/9/1946) was listed a paragraph recognizing Sadie as a graduate of Robesonia High School, she was fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch, but most notable she was a very accomplished singer. Graeff commented that recently before her untimely passing she had returned to Berks County and given an excellent performance singing in Pennsylvania Dutch Dialect
With that information as our starting point we began to investigate further. The 1920 census showed that Sadie Umbles was the daughter of Warwick Umbles, age 43,and Edmonia Umbles, age 37. They had seven children Floyd, 14, Sadie, 12, Charles, 9, Harry, 7, Caroline, 5, Georganna, 3, and Seldon, 1. The family was listed as living in Heidelberg Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania. Mr. and Mrs. Umbles are listed as having been born in Virginia and that Mr. Umbles was a laborer at an Iron Furnace. They were listed as having rented their home, which rules out a Recorder of Deeds search to find their home address in Berks County.
By the 1930 Census the Umbles family is listed as residing in Canton, Stark County, Ohio. The family also grew with the addition of Howard age 9, Aeola, 8, and Christian, 4. There are also some enumeration errors such as Warwick being listed as Warren, and Georganna listed as Georgia.
Through the invaluable contributions of researcher Fred Paul we attained several newspaper articles, and pinpointed important dates in local papers. From the Reading Times (5/24/1924 page 9) we learned that Miss Sadie Umbles was a member of the Class of 1924 of Robesonia High School. She was also recognized by the Daughters of the American Revolution as the winner of an essay contest held by the organization. She read her essay at the graduation ceremony and received an award from the DAR.
Between 1924 and June 17, 1927 the Umbles family makes the move to Canton, Stark County, Ohio. We learned this information from the obituary of Edmonia’s sister Georganna Green. (Reading Eagle 6/17/1927) Later in our research we confirmed that the family moved in 1925. (http://www.readingnaacp.org/#!woven-western-berks/c8yi).
With the families move to Canton, Ohio we lose track of the Umbles Family, and Sadie Umbles. During our research she resurfaces in March 5, 1943, in The Evening Independent, Massillon, Ohio.
In the same newspaper again on March 9, 1943
With the final follow up of her performance on March 12, 1943 in The Evening Independent Massillon, Ohio
In summary from all accounts she was an excellent vocalist. She was a mezzo-soprano and was able to sing in Italian, French, German, Latin, Pennsylvania Dutch Dialect, as well as English. The life of Sadie Umbles Brown has a tragic ending, she died June 24, 1945 at the early age of 38. From her obituary we learn she had been studying in New York City, at the LaForge-Berumen Studios. While in New York she became ill and returned to Ohio to regain her health. Five days before her death she was admitted to the Mercy Hospital in Canton, Ohio where she passed away.
From her obituary we learn that she married James C. Brown, a former professional boxer and at the time of her death a boxing promoter. A cursory search of information on her husband proved rather difficult. If you search for a James Brown from Ohio, you must first wade through all the material on James Brown the Cleveland Brown football great.
Sadie’s brother Floyd Umbles, after retiring in 1972, returned to Berks County. He provided valuable information for future generations. The Reading Eagle featured Floyd Umbles, in an article on February 24, 1980 (Berks Black Families Reflect on Their Heritage). Of particular interest is Floyd’s family photographs. Published in the paper was a picture of his mother Edmonia on the eve of her wedding. Floyd shared his experiences growing up in Robesonia, attending Robesonia High School, and working at the Robesonia Furnace. Floyd passed away in 1997.
Our research into Sadie Umbles Brown will continue and we hope to provide a future update regarding our findings. A particular interest would be to find a recording of her performance., whether one exists is yet to be known, but hopefully one can be uncovered. Once again I would like to thank Fred Paul for his contributions to this research topic.
Archivist Notes: History is an immense field of study, full of minute details. Due to practicality constraints we often limit ourselves to a broad view of history. If we think of history as a tapestry, a quick glance can give you an understanding of the events that took place. If you can get closer and examine the individual threads of the tapestry you can better understand the whole. In this inaugural article of Threads we provide some insight to the life of Sadie Umbles Brown. She was a native of Robesonia, PA, and was a vocalist of note. We hope to uncover a recording of Sadie Umbles Brown and hope to share it with you in the future.