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Northwest African American Museum

Theme: Arts & Culture

Since 2008, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) has been a hub for exhibitions and programs that illuminate the history and culture of African Americans and the African diaspora in the Pacific Northwest.

NAAM is housed within the former Colman School building, constructed in 1909 and named for James Murray Colman, a prominent engineer who developed much of the Seattle waterfront. The Colman School operated first as a K-5 elementary school, then as an alternative K-12 school, until 1985.

Although community members in the Central Area had long recognized the need for an African American museum or cultural center, the first real steps were taken in 1984 when Mayor Charles Royer organized the African American Heritage Museum Task Force to plan for a museum. The following year, the Seattle School Board decommissioned the Colman School, and the task force shortlisted it as a possible location for the museum.

An expansion of Interstate 90 was also underway, putting the Colman School in danger of demolition. A subgroup of the museum task force—composed of Omari Tahir Garrett, Michael Greenwood, Earl Debnam, and Charlie James—refused to let that happen. In November of 1985, they broke into the building with the intention of occupying it until they could secure its future. For eight years, the activists refused to leave, relying on financial and in-kind donations from the larger community to stay there. It became the nation’s longest act of civil disobedience.

Under the leadership of Seattle’s first Black mayor Norm Rice, the city agreed to fund the museum in 1993, ending the occupation. The activists remained on the task force, but the planning process became more contentious. After several disputes among the group, all of the occupiers were eventually voted out.

The future of the museum was uncertain until 2003, when the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle announced that it had raised enough money to purchase the Colman building. The Urban League proposed that the museum be housed on the ground floor, while the upper floors would be converted into low-income apartments. After years of community engagement, collecting objects, and additional fundraising, the Northwest African American Museum opened in 2008. Today, NAAM is situated within two city parks: Sam Smith Park and Jimi Hendrix Park. Sam Smith served in the state House of Representatives and was Seattle’s first African American city council member. Jimi Hendrix was one of Seattle’s greatest musicians, with humble beginnings in the Central Area. He led a short but powerful career as an internationally acclaimed rock and roll guitarist and songwriter.


Northwest African American Museum.

Photo courtesy of Converge Media LLC.

Northwest African American Museum

Courtesy of Converge Media LLC.

Northwest African American Museum.

Photo courtesy of the Northwest African American Museum.

Earl Debnam in front of Colman School in 1993.

Photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry.

View of the Colman School from I-90 heading east in the 1970s.

Photo courtesy of the University of Washington.

NAAM behind the Jimi Hendrix Park Wave Wall.

Photo courtesy of the Jimi Hendrix Park Foundation.

Artist Melvin Freeman's mural "We Are Water" along the west boundary of NAAM.

Photo courtesy of Jason Huff.