Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Elizabeth A. Coles Bouey

Elizabeth A. Coles Bouey (14 November 1890–5 February 1957), founder of the National Association of Ministers' Wives, was born at the Bendoo Industrial Mission Station, Cape Mount, Liberia, where her parents, John J. Coles and Lucy Ann Henry Coles, were serving as missionaries for the Baptist Foreign Mission Commission of the United States of America (one of three groups that in 1895 merged to form the National Baptist Convention). Ethnic violence in the region and her father's ill health caused the family to return to her parents' native Virginia in July 1893. In September of that year John J. Coles was elected corresponding secretary of the mission board, but he could not overcome malaria contracted in Africa and died in Richmond on 7 November 1893. Lucy Coles, a graduate of Hartshorn Memorial College (which became part of Virginia Union University in 1932), served out her husband's term as secretary. In the ensuing years, even with several small children to raise, she remained involved in missionary affairs, served for a time as editor of the National Baptist Convention's Sunday school journal, and taught in the night school at Richmond's Armstrong High School. Lucy Coles's discipline set an example for her daughters, and her situation as a woman and a devout and outspoken Christian worker left in an ambiguous relation to the church by the death of her husband must also have made an impression.

Elizabeth Coles announced on 15 June 1911, the night that she graduated as valedictorian of Armstrong High School, that she intended to become a missionary to Africa. The National Baptist Convention did not support unmarried female missionaries, and so she attended the Armstrong Normal School and prepared for a career as a teacher. One day she received a letter from Edward H. Bouey, who like her was the child of missionaries. His father, Harrison Napoleon Bouey, was a former slave and local political leader in Edgefield County, South Carolina, who had led his Baptist congregation to Liberia after whites took control of local government through violence and fraud. Bouey returned to the United States in 1882, married, and served as superintendent of missions in Missouri, where Edward H. Bouey was born. The elder Bouey went to Africa again with his three sons after his wife's death in 1902, and he died there in 1909. Aid from the mission board enabled Edward H. Bouey to graduate from Morehouse College, and he sought a wife who would join him in missionary service. He proposed to Coles on their first meeting, and during his third visit to Richmond they married on 28 April 1920. They had one son and two daughters.

The young couple set out soon afterward for Liberia as independent missionaries, with Lucy Coles organizing support for them at home. They reestablished the Bendoo Station, where her parents had once worked, and during the five years that they successfully operated a school there two of their three children were born. After a short furlough in the United States the Boueys returned to Liberia as supervisors of education for the National Baptist Convention's Foreign Mission Board. They also supervised construction of the Carrie V. Dyer Hospital in Monrovia, which for several years was the only hospital in the Liberian capital.

In 1929 the family returned to the United States, bringing with them an adopted African youth, Johnson Moore, who later became a government official in Liberia. Bouey's husband became pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Richmond, and she became a teacher in the public schools. In addition to coursework in education, which earned her a master's degree from Columbia University in 1945, she also studied theology at Virginia Union University.

Bouey knew from experience that no specific training was available for the wives of ministers, despite their many responsibilities. In June 1939 at the annual interdenominational Christian Conference for Women at Petersburg she proposed the formation of a national association of ministers' wives. She repeated her proposal to the Richmond Baptist Ministers' Wives Union in October. Others endorsed Bouey's idea, and in November 1939 the first chapter of the National Association of Ministers' Wives was founded at the Second Baptist Church in Richmond.

Bouey devoted the following year to organizing other chapters in Virginia and to corresponding with other ministers' wives throughout the United States. On 8 April 1941 more than one hundred people attended the first national conference in Richmond. Bouey was elected president of the association and held the post until her death nearly sixteen years later. During those years ministers' wives from more than thirty states and from West Africa joined the NAMW. The organization established a quarterly journal, the Ministers' Wives Herald, and purchased a headquarters building in Richmond. Since 1957 the NAMW has grown to become the International Association of Ministers' Wives and Ministers' Widows with more than 40,000 members from more than 100 religious denominations.

In 1950 the Afro-American newspaper chain named Bouey that year's "Ideal Mother," noting that in addition to her busy schedule as a teacher, wife, mother, and president of the NAMW she made her home a haven for Africans studying in the United States and even for inmates recently released from prison. Bouey developed cancer in 1955 and had to be returned by ambulance to Richmond from the NAMW's 1956 conference in Washington. Despite her physical pain and the sorrow of her husband's death on 4 August 1956 she maintained her courage and insisted that there be no mourning at her own funeral. Elizabeth A. Coles Bouey died in Richmond on 5 February 1957 and was buried in Woodland Cemetery, in neighboring Henrico County. Her remains were reinterred in Richmond's Riverview Cemetery in 1997.

Sources Consulted:
From a Dream to Reality, 1941–1980: The Story of the International Association of Ministers' Wives and Ministers' Widows, International (Interdenominational) (1982), with several portraits; feature article on father and his obituary in Indianapolis Freeman, 27 Apr. 1889, and Richmond Planet, 11 Nov. 1893; letter to the editor by mother containing biographical information and her obituary in Richmond Planet, 22 Oct. 1898, and Richmond Afro-American, 13 Aug. 1955; obituary of husband in Richmond Afro-American, 11 Aug. 1956; other information provided by daughter Melicent V. Bouey and Shirley Alexander Hart; Marriage Register, Richmond City, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; Lewis G. Jordan, Negro Baptist History, U.S.A., 1750–1930 (1930), 227–229, 236–238; C. C. Adams and Marshall A. Talley, Negro Baptists and Foreign Missions [1944], 35–36, 43–48; Mrs. S. D. [Mary O.] Ross, The Minister's Wife (1946), 12; Richmond Afro-American, 13, 20 May 1950; Norfolk Journal and Guide, 16 June 1951; obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6 Feb. 1957, Richmond Afro-American, 9, 16 Feb. 1957, and Norfolk Journal and Guide, 16 Feb. 1957.

Image in Richmond Afro-American, 13 May 1950.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by John T. Kneebone.

How to cite this page:
John T. Kneebone, "Elizabeth A. Coles Bouey (1890–1957)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001, rev. 2023 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Bouey_Elizabeth_Coles, accessed [today's date]).

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