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African American Heritage in King County

Perseverance, creative endeavor, unity, and pride are the overlapping themes found in the spirited evolution of the Black community in King County. The past is fixed; we cannot reverse it. However, with past lessons learned and documentation of our shared history, we can create a map that serves to inform our future and guide our opinions.

Created by the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, with contributing partners Jackie Peterson | Exhibit Services, Converge Media with Carlos Imani, and Shelf Life, this tour of African American heritage sites in King County with special emphasis on Seattle’s Central District combines narratives, images, and audio in a thematic itinerary curated to heighten awareness and value identity while exploring historic destinations. The waypoints on the tour are categorized in four themes to weave a story of community and tradition: Legacy, Arts and Culture, Call to Action, and Spirituality and Community. 

Legacy

“Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.”Malcolm Gladwell

African American historical sites are named for legacies and icons to acknowledge and honor sense of place throughout King County. Though legacy waypoints are numerous in the county, two sites of historic interest are identified as legacy stops on this tour. At a local park, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is memorialized as an influence that reflects a culturally aware city. Also held in high regard is a site located at the heart of the Central Area that today pays homage to community economic empowerment and investment that was once the first Black-owned bank west of the Mississippi.

Arts and Culture

I stay cool and dig all jive, that’s the way I stay alive.  My motto, as I live and learn, is dig and be dug in return.”Langston Hughes

African American artists, musicians, dancers, poets, and writers have significantly impacted and contributed to the cultural essence of King County since the mid-19th century. From the historic Jackson Street jazz corridor to newly developed and art-infused residential buildings, the Central Area serves as a hub for a vibrant and re-emerging innovative arts community.

Call to Action

“If not here, then where? If not now, then when? If not us, then who?”K. Wyking Garrett  

By the 1930s, King County’s African American population began to grow rapidly. The newcomers quickly discovered that while equality and access were attainable on some levels, there was a repressive system with respect to housing, economic mobility, and education. Activism, advocacy, and calls to action emerged out of the demand for equal rights. Locally, African Americans aligned themselves with civil rights organizations and formed grassroots movements for equitable change.

Spirituality and Community

“Let us count the many blessings this YWCA (Phyllis Wheatley Branch) has given to the community, and let us continue to beat the drum, setting the cadence as we march into the future.”Dr. Mona Lake Jones

As African Americans relocated to King County from the Jim Crow South, many came by faith and hoped to make a better life for themselves and their families. Arriving in the unknown and desiring a welcoming and friendly community with familiar interests, Black people sought housing, churches, and social services. The nation’s first racially integrated public housing development was located here, two of King County’s oldest African American churches were founded in Seattle, and Central Area branches of the YWCA and YMCA were forming deep roots to establish a rich history for how they helped sustain the community.

This project is made possible through the partnership of

Images

Mural on the Liberty Bank Building, built on the site of Liberty Bank.

Photo courtesy of Converge Media LLC.

Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Photo courtesy of Converge Media LLC.

Northwest African American Museum.

Photo courtesy of the Northwest African American Museum.

The People's Wall.

Photo courtesy of Converge Media LLC.

The Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center.

Photo courtesy of Converge Media LLC.

Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Memorial Park.

Photo courtesy of Converge Media LLC.

Video

Images courtesy of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and Museum of History and Industry/Al Smith Collection. Video production courtesy of Converge Media.

Cultural Waypoints Points of Interest icon

Liberty Bank Building

Legacy — The first primarily Black-owned bank west of the Mississippi River, Liberty Bank provided essential services to people and businesses who were otherwise unable to obtain them. Though the bank itself was demolished, its legacy lives on through the Liberty Bank Building which offers affordable housing and supports Black businesses.

Visit Liberty Bank Building

Black & Tan Club

Arts & Culture — From its founding as the Alhambra Cabaret in 1920, through the 1930s when it was renamed, and into the 1960s, the Black & Tan Club hosted nearly every nationally acclaimed jazz musician and well-known local talent. "The Black & Tan" also employed an almost exclusively Black staff until closing its doors around 1969.

Visit Black & Tan Club

Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center

Arts & Culture — The Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center is a Craftsman bungalow in the Central Area that was once home to James and Janie Washington, who moved to the Seattle area during World War II to seek work in the naval shipyards. Janie later became a nurse; James was an activist with the NAACP and an acclaimed artist whose work was exhibited throughout the Seattle area.

Visit Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center

Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute

Arts & Culture — Originally a synagogue and later a community center administered by the Seattle Parks & Recreation Department, the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute has been a venue for Black performing arts in the Central Area since the 1970s, offering classes and performances in dance, film, music, and theater from local and international artists.

Visit Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute

Northwest African American Museum

Arts & Culture — Since 2008, the Northwest African American Museum has illuminated the history and culture of African Americans in the Pacific Northwest. The museum is housed within the former Colman School building, constructed in 1909 and claimed for the Black community in 1985 by activists who occupied the building for eight years in the nation’s longest act of civil disobedience.

Visit Northwest African American Museum

Washington Hall

Arts & Culture — Originally built in 1908 by the Danish Brotherhood in America, Washington Hall was one of the few venues in town that would rent space to African Americans. As a result, it was the site of Black civic, social club, and military gatherings through the 1960s and hosted such musical greats as Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday.

Visit Washington Hall

Byrd Barr Place/CAMP

Call to Action — A former firehouse built in 1909, Byrd Barr Place is known to many as the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP). Created by local activists to tackle citywide poverty and racism, CAMP became the first community-inspired program to receive federal funding through Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and remains the oldest surviving independent agency of that era.

Visit Byrd Barr Place/CAMP

The People’s Wall

Call to Action — The People's Wall is a mural commissioned by the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, covering a street-level retaining wall which is all that remains of the Party's demolished 1960s headquarters. Incorporating iconic images and names of fallen comrades, the People's Wall stands today as a call to action to serve, protect, and empower the Black community.

Visit The People’s Wall

Douglass-Truth Library

Spirituality & Community — First named for Henry Yesler, one of the city's founders, the library served a changing ethnic community across several decades. In the 1960s, the Black Friends of the Yesler Library were instrumental in acquiring collections of African American literature to expand the collection into a major regional resource. In 1975, a public vote changed the library's name to the Douglass-Truth Library.

Visit Douglass-Truth Library

First African Methodist Episcopal Church

Spirituality & Community — The First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) is the oldest African American church in Seattle. In the 1960s and '70s, its church leaders were instrumental in the Seattle civil rights movement. Today, the church operates the Martin Luther King FAME Community Center, promoting social, cultural, arts, and economic programs for all residents.

Visit First African Methodist Episcopal Church

Mount Zion Baptist Church

Spirituality & Community — Mount Zion Baptist Church has a legacy of more than 100 years of continued service in Seattle. At one point, the church grew to more than 2,500 members, making it the largest African American congregation in the state. The current church is an example of Afrocentric architecture, expressing the history of African and American faiths.

Visit Mount Zion Baptist Church

Yesler Terrace

Spirituality & Community — Yesler Terrace is known as the first racially integrated public housing project in the United States. Built by the Seattle Housing Authority in 1939, Yesler Terrace served a growing African American population migrating to Seattle during World War II. Since its construction, social equity and non-discrimination have remained key values of the housing project.

Visit Yesler Terrace

YMCA Meredith Mathews-East Madison Branch

Spirituality & Community — Initially operating on an all-volunteer basis from a donated building, the YMCA Meredith Mathews-East Madison Branch became an Armed Services YMCA for African American servicemen during World War II. It also attracted new audiences by developing youth programs and hosting live music, featuring some of the Northwest's best-known jazz and R&B musicians.

Visit YMCA Meredith Mathews-East Madison Branch

YWCA Phillis Wheatley-East Cherry Branch

Spirituality & Community — With African American members restricted from the Seattle YWCA downtown, the YWCA Phillis Wheatley Branch was born as the Y's African American Culture Club. In the 1930s, when its board representative petitioned to receive (and was granted) voting member status, Seattle's YWCA board became the first racially integrated YWCA board in the nation.

Visit YWCA Phillis Wheatley-East Cherry Branch