Isabelle B. Rich

One of the first African-American women to enlist in the Army, she worked as a housekeeper before opening a salon

January 05, 2009|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Isabelle B. Rich, a beauty salon owner who was one of the first African-American women to enlist in the Army, died last week in Birmingham, Ala., of complications from Alzheimer's disease. The former Baltimore resident was 91.

Born Isabelle Brown in Baltimore, she was the eldest of four children. She was raised in the Sandtown neighborhood and as a child was nicknamed "Cissy." She had a child when she was in her early teens and named the baby Delores. She quit school after the eighth grade and went to work as housekeeper. Delores died of pneumonia before she turned 2, said another daughter, Dr. Patricia A. Outlaw, who is an ordained minister in Birmingham.

In 1942, at age 25, she decided she wanted to join the Army. She was turned away at an Army outpost in Baltimore, but she returned, and with the help of a neighborhood grocery store owner named Ralph Fisher, she was granted entry.

In an interview a few years ago with Portico, a magazine in Birmingham, she said that after the clerk rebuffed Mr. Fisher, the store owner shouted, " 'Well, the only way you'll get this line moved up today ... is if you wait on her, 'cause she's going in the Army!' And that's how I got in. I was one of the first African-American females in World War II because of that situation. I mean, we're at war, and they're turning me away? How do you expect to win this war without all the people joining in the fight?"

She served as a cook in the first black Women's Army Corps. She was stationed in Des Moines, Iowa, for two years before she was given an honorable discharge.

"She just felt like she wanted to serve her country," Dr. Outlaw said. "She saw beyond where she was. She knew it wasn't always going to be like that. ... She was very progressive in her thinking. She could see a day when we would be equal."

After the Army, she lived in New York City for several years, where she worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. After moving back to Baltimore, she continued to work as a maid. In 1946, she gave birth to her second daughter, whose father, Arthur "Bud" Outlaw, was a longshoreman and the owner of a local pool hall. The two never married. Mr. Outlaw died in 1975.

She married James Carroll Rich in the early 1950s. The couple divorced about two years later.

Mrs. Rich began attending vocational school at night to learn to fix televisions, but without a car, she felt unsafe traveling to classes in the dark. She decided to become a cosmetologist in the early 1960s.

A single mother, she bought a house in her beloved Sandtown neighborhood on Laurens Street. "She was the first home buyer in the family," her daughter said.

Mrs. Rich started a salon in her basement and later rented a storefront a block from her home. Later still she had a salon on Fulton Avenue near Reisterstown Road.

A cousin, Deborah Miller-Martin of Baltimore, said that Mrs. Rich would style the hair of all the little girls in the neighborhood while telling them stories. She also threw a legendary New Year's Day party, cooking her specialty of pig feet and lima beans, a tradition that family members hope to carry on.

"She was like a role model," Ms. Miller-Martin said. "You were always in awe of how you would hear her tell the story about how she managed to get in the Army and her experience. We always looked up to her as a pioneer."

She retired at 65, selling her beauty salon. She also sold her home but lived in her own apartment until she was 82. She enjoyed doing macrame and going to church at Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore, where she was an usher. In June 2001, she moved with her daughter to Alabama.

Services were held Friday in Towson. Interment will take place at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Rich is survived by six nieces, two nephews and several cousins.

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