Seattle: living elements of the city’s black history
Oh Seattle: how is your black history defined?
With the city’s proximity to Vancouver, my time in or any understanding of Seattle was incomplete without an examination of the city’s non-white communities. I had questions about the black community and in particular why the city remains racially segregated. People of color, including black people, were once forbidden from buying houses in specific neighbourhoods because of their skin colour. The Central District (CD) thrived as a black community in the 2nd-half of the 20th-century, but now, citizens struggle with gentrification, displacement, and economic racism. There’s much more I need to ask and learn, but for now, I describe below a selection of landmarks highlighting contributions by and the historical impact of the black community to city and nation.
Living historical locations
- Africatown Seattle
- Douglass-Truth SPL library branch: “Soul Pole”
- First African Methodist Episcopal Church
- Garfield High School
- Jimi Hendrix Park
- Jimi Hendrix Statue
- Martin Luther King Jr. Mural
- Mount Zion Church
- Northwest African American Museum
Douglass-Truth SPL library branch: “Soul Pole”
Built in 1914 as the Yesler memorial library, the Seattle Public Library renamed the library in 1975 as the Douglass-Truth branch after 19th-century American abolition leaders Frederick Douglass and Soujourner Truth. The building became a city historic landmark in 2001, with a completed expansion unveiled in 2006. The branch hosts one of the largest collections of African-American literature in the western U.S. with almost 10-thousand items including biographies, historical accounts, magazines, music, and film. The African-American Collection of Literature and History began in 1965 when members of the local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a national sorority of black college women, donated books for what was then called the Negro Life and History Collection. Outside the branch at the corner of 23rd and Yesler is the 21-foot “Soul Pole”, a stylized totem pole depicting 400 years of African-American history; 24 April 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the Soul Pole installation. The library’s staff has worked with members of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and staff at the nearby Northwest African American Museum to produce for the library exhibits displaying art, literature, culture, and history of people and places in the community.
• My Northwest (2017).
First African Methodist Episcopal Church
At the corner of Pine and 14th, the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church is Seattle’s oldest African-American church. With Seattle’s 1st black church mission established in 1886, the first black church in the city was built here in the CD in 1891 with the present-day building constructed in 1912. The city of Seattle declared the FAME church as historic landmark in October 1980.
Garfield High School
At 23rd and Jefferson in Seattle’s CD is a key historic cultural and architectural landmark of the city and one of many important present-day engines for the African-American community. Founded in 1923, James A. Garfield High School is a component of the Seattle Public Schools system with its student body excelling in academics, athletics, and the arts. Through much of the school’s history, ethnic and racial diversity have been a hallmark and a reflection of the people within the neighbourhood. The city declared the high school building as historical landmark since 2003.
Some notable figures from the black community include:
• Ernestine Anderson: world-renowned jazz and blues singer;
• Quincy Jones: songwriter, composer, record producer;
• Jimi Hendrix: guitar virtuoso, rock musician;
• Charles Mitchell: NFL player, past president and chancellor for Seattle Community College.
For a couple of years in the late 1940s, a band consisting of Ernestine Anderson (still attending Garfield High) at vocals, Quincy Jones on trumpet, and Ray Charles on keyboard performed regularly in jazz clubs on Jackson Street.
Jimi Hendrix Park
Located in Seattle’s CD, the Jimi Hendrix Park spans almost 2.5 acres (10-thousand square metres) of green space in front of former Colman School, now home to the city’s 1st black museum, the Northwest African American Museum. The park honours James Marshall (“Jimi”) Hendrix who was born in Seattle in 1942 and became one of the world’s greatest guitar players. His sister, Janie, has been a key driver to making the memorial park come to life.
After renaming and a grand opening celebration in 2017, the neighbourhood park is becoming a gathering space for the community over multiple stages of development with the additions of a central amphitheatre with a bright sculptural canopy reminiscent of butterfly wings, a part of the walkway curved into the shape of a guitar, and curved seating throughout the park. The Shadow Wave Wall is a colourful curved steel sculpture sweeping out into the open space as a wave, and features Hendrix’s prominent likeness as well as cut-out silhouettes of Hendrix in performance. Perhaps, this park will be the new home for the Jimi Hendrix Statue that’s presently in Capitol Hill; see below.
Jimi Hendrix Statue
A bronze statue, “The Electric Lady Studio Guitar”, created by artist Daryl Smith (in the Fremont Foundry) depicts Jimi Hendrix playing his Stratocaster guitar, and is located at the northeast corner of Broadway and Pine in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Inaugurated in January 1997, the statue is more commonly known today as the Jimi Hendrix statue, which is located in front of the Blick Art Materials store; both the statue and this building are owned by a local businessman and real-estate developer. Many have expressed a desire to see this statue moved to the Jimi Hendrix Park; see above.
Released on 16 October 1968, the double album “Electric Ladyland” was the final studio album recorded by his band The Jimi Hendrix Experience. On 26 August 1970, Electric Lady Studios was launched in New York City, a state-of-the-art recording studio co-owned by Jimi Hendrix. He died in London less than four weeks later.
Martin Luther King Jr. mural
At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Cherry Street in Seattle’s CD is a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. In continuing the connection with the community established by the preceding restaurant Catfish Corner, the operators for Fat’s Chicken and Waffles commissioned artist James Crespinel to restore his mural of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the building’s outside east-facing wall. The mural’s accompanying caption includes a quote from King Jr. from his 1963 book “Strength to Love”: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
In 2017, an anti-gentrification art project issued “gentrification citations” in the CD. Their citations focused on deep discontent over increased gentrification, driving black people out of the area.
Mount Zion Church
Mount Zion Baptist Church is located at the corner of Madison and 19th. As Seattle’s 2nd oldest African-American church, Mount Zion first gathered here in 1889 with the incorporation of a new church building in 1903. The city of Seattle declared the church as historic landmark in October 2017.
Northwest African American Museum
Next to Jimi Hendrix Park is the former Charles Colman School which served the community from 1909 to 1985. For its cultural and architectural significance and prominence, the city of Seattle designated the Colman School as an official historic landmark in August 2005.
The Northwest African American Museum moved into the renovated building and opened to visitors in March 2008. Today, the Museum chronicles the ongoing history of African peoples in the United States and westward migration to the Pacific coast, and highlights key African-American men and women from the Pacific Northwest who shaped the cultural and political landscape over the last 200-plus years. The Museum is a culmination and continuation of a dream that had been over 25 years in the making. The building also provides a gathering space for residents from the surrounding community.
Within the former Colman school, African-American architects Donald King and Rico Quirindongo designed both museum and 36 units of affordable housing in the adjoining Urban League Village.
In the image above, the numbers refer to: 1. Agnes Oswaha: founder, Southern Sudanese Women’s Association in 2000; 2. Julia Jacob, an African-American woman adopted and raised by the indigenous Suquamish people; 3. Norm Rice, Seattle’s 1st African-American mayor; 4. Larry Gossett, member of Metropolitan King County Council; 5. Ron Sims, 1st African-American to serve as King County Executive; 6. Thelma Dewitty, 1st African-American teacher in Seattle Public Schools in 1947; 7,8. Awa Penda Seck & Adama Ibramhima Seck; their parents were the 1st Senegalese to immigrate to Seattle; 9. John “Dick” Turpin, 1st African-American to serve as Chief Petty Officer in US Navy; 10. Jeremiah “Jerry” Flowers: hotel cook, railroad porter, part of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century African-American pioneer movement.
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of the great American artists of the 20th-century for his depictions of everyday life in the African-American community and important events in African-American history. He taught art in a tenured position at the University of Washington in Seattle beginning in 1971, retiring in 1986 as professor emeritus. His “Migration Series” of paintings can be seen in their entirety online.
The paraphrased caption for the above photo reads:
In the years 1941 and 1942 during World War 2, Al Colvin realized a lifelong dream when he learned to fly as a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. This corps of African American fighter pilots trained in Tuskegee, Alabama; the pilots went on to fly support missions for air bombers in the European theatre – all at a time when the American government believed black soldiers lacked the intelligence, skill, courage, and patriotism necessary to be military pilots. After the war, Al Colvin lived in Bremerton, Washington, and went on to serve on the Bremerton city council for 12 years (three terms).
The caption is courtesy of the Black Historical Society of Kitsap County, based in the city of Bremerton, which is a short ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle. His daughter, Gloria Colvin-Jackson, also wrote of her parents’ story and move from Texas to Bremerton.
• Segregated Seattle: Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, at the University of Washington.
In the near future, I’d like to include the Liberty Bank building, Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Memorial Park (Mount Baker); former Sick’s Stadium (N. Beacon Hill); Washington Hall and Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (Squire Park); the former locations of the following jazz clubs: Basin Street, Black and Tan, and Rocking Chair; and the Jimi Hendrix Memorial at Greenwood Memorial Park in Renton.
I acknowledge my time on the traditional and ancestral land of the first people of Seattle, the Duwamish (Dxʷdəwʔabš) People past and present, and honour with gratitude the land itself and the Duwamish Tribe. I made all images above with a Fujifilm X70 fixed-lens prime on 3 and 7 Mar 2020. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-hcF.
7 Responses to “Seattle: living elements of the city’s black history”
That is a beautiful post, Henry, thank you for shining light on the black history of Seattle.
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Hi, Cornelia. There’s still a lot I need to see and experience in the city’s black community. Thanks for your kind comment!
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Thank you for the post, Henry! It’s an extraordinary historical virtual tour. Appreciate the links of Jacob Lawrence and the story of Al Colvine.
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Hi, Amy. Thanks for your time and for your very v kind comment. I can’t go across the border at this time, but I’m happy to go back to Seattle and learn more about the city’s ongoing black history.
[…] Built in 1914 as the Yesler memorial library, the Seattle Public Library (SPL) renamed the library in 1975 as the Douglass-Truth branch after 19th-century American abolition leaders Frederick Douglass and Soujourner Truth. The building became a city historic landmark in 2001, with a completed expansion unveiled in 2006. Vital to the city’s black community and culture, this library branch is also home to one of the largest collections of African-American literature in the United States. More here. […]
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