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Willie Brown Seals

Born on 11-22-1910. He was born in Bayou Rapides, LA. He was accomplished in the area of Religion. He later died on 4-19-1995.
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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, near Alexandria, Louisiana. He was the eldest child and only son of Irene Lair. His only sibling, Alice Roosevelt Seals, was born two years later. Their father, Giuseppe Nasello was a native of Sicily, who immigrated to this country in 1901. Giuseppe, or Joe, was married during the time of his relationship with Irene Lair, and never acknowledged his son or daughter. He owned a dry goods store in Alexandria. He died in 1958 and while W.B. knew where to find his father, it's unlikely that father and son ever met formally.

The origin of the Seals name has some mystery attached to it, as neither child was given their mother's surname of Lair. According to W.B. "Seals" was a name, he made up. He claimed to have taken the name, from a favorite teacher, named Lucille Ceil. Initially, he omitted the "s" from the spelling. He said he added it later, because Seals sounded better then Seal. The 1920 census confirms that the name was originally spelled "Seal", but Willie was uncertain as to when the alteration was made.

W.B. and his sister Alice grew up in the cities of Alexandria and Lake Charles, Louisiana. He attended schools in both cities; however his 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 with a local teacher. 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 area 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, W.B. 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 fact, after his move to Buffalo, he responded to the request of young people at the St. John Baptist Church, to assist them in starting a choir. The Bells of St. John organized under Rev. Seals' leadership, in 1948, continue to provide musical accompaniment to the church service to this date. He also mentored other young musicians. Carole Varner, St. John's Minister of Music in the 70s acknowledged his mentoring influence on her musical development.

In 1931, Rev. Seals married Nettie Mae Patterson. They had four children, Willie P., John D., Mildred I. and James C. 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 A., 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 an incapacitating stroke. Her daughter Alice, who had recently moved to Buffalo, moved Irene to Buffalo to take care of her. Irene Lair's death in September 1946 set into motion a chain of events that resulted in major life changes for the Seals family. At the urging of his sister, Rev. Seals agreed to move to Buffalo so that the two siblings and their 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 John and teen-aged daughter, Dorothy.

The apartment that the family shared at 266 Walnut Street near Broadway was typical of Buffalo's Black neighborhood at that time; very old and crowded housing stock. 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 following the move to Buffalo.

In spite of the fact that he worked a full time job, 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 the congregation of 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.

For extended periods, he also ministered to other congregations outside of the St. John congregation. In 1956, he was called to the pastorate of the Cold Spring Baptist Church and remained there until the early 1960s leading the congregation in retiring its mortgage debt and significantly increasing its membership. In succeeding years, he was interim Pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church in Niagara Falls as well as New Hope Baptist Church of Buffalo. He was invited to numerous churches as a guest preacher and Bible study teacher during his many years in the ministry.

After his move to Buffalo, he developed an interest in photography. He started photography as a hobby in 1947. Once his interest was peaked, he spent a great deal of time perfecting his photographic techniques and skills. Although he had a mentor, 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.

During his lifetime, he received numerous recognitions from the churches and church groups he worked with. But he was most proud of the citations and proclamations he received from the New York State Governor, Buffalo Mayor and Common Council on the occasion of his 80th birthday. In many respects, the story of Willie B. Seals' life is reflective of the lives of many unheralded African American men, who were born in his era. In spite of the oppression and overt institutional racism that was condoned by the Jim Crow laws and associated societal conventions of the early twentieth century, Willie Seals and many of his contemporaries strived to live lives that were productive, contributory and exemplary in their contributions to their families and communities.