Black Dollar Days Task Force: Building Community Responsibility for Economic Prosperity

African American Heritage in King County

The rich legacy that African American residents have contributed to the growth and development of King County has been felt throughout the region for 150 years. Here are the histories of a few of the many people and events that shaped our heritage from the arrival of the first African American settlers through the early 20th century.

Pioneers on the Puget Sound: When the first non-native settlers arrived in the Puget Sound region in the 1850s, African Americans were among the early pioneers. African-born Manuel Lopes was Seattle’s first African American settler, arriving in the young town in 1852. Lopes became the community’s first barber and had his barber chair shipped by sea from Boston. His shop was just south of what is now known as Pioneer Square Park and Pergola.

William Grose, the city’s second black resident (and eventually its wealthiest during the 19th century) arrived in 1861. Grose opened a restaurant and hotel called Our House near today’s Pioneer Square. But after the fire of 1889, he moved to his 12-acre ranch northeast of downtown (near today’s 24th and Howell streets) and formed the nucleus of one of the city’s most important early African American residential districts.

Although many early black settlers purchased land near modern downtown, African Americans like Grose were pioneer developers of outlying districts, too. In 1869, for example, George Riley purchased 12 acres of timberland on Beacon Hill to help develop an early suburban housing tract.

African Americans were an important part of the early business community. However, discrimination in employment limited job possibilities to such positions as manual laborers, porters and maids. As a result, many Africans Americans began their own businesses.

By the 1890s, these businesses included a number of free-standing enterprises, like Robert and Anna Clark’s dairy, and by 1910 there were commercial districts like the series of black-owned businesses on East Madison Street which included a lodging house, coal business, and restaurant. Other residents found employment in a variety of fields, from railroad porter and steamship cook to carpenter and newspaper editor.

Horace Cayton arrived in 1889 and established the Seattle Republican, which for 19 years was a leading voice for civil rights and, for a time, the city’s second-largest newspaper. As Robert O. Lee, the first African American admitted to the Bar in Washington State, wrote in 1889, some residents chose Seattle because they were seeking a place “where race prejudice would not interfere with his prosperity.”

Building a Community: As the African American community grew, so did local institutions like churches, fraternal lodges, and civic clubs. In fact, two of the oldest churches in the state are houses of worship started by early Seattle African American congregations. The First African Methodist Episcopal Church evolved from a Sunday school that first met in 1886, and Mt. Zion Baptist was founded in members’ homes in 1894. Meanwhile, in 1891, William Grose, Dr. Samuel Burdett, and Conrad Rideout established the Grand Lodge of York Masons in Seattle. In March of the following year, lodge members paraded downtown in full regalia, establishing an annual tradition.

Seattle was also a center of arts and entertainment. Jazz had its local roots in Jackson Street in the 1920s and 30s, where several black-owned clubs hosted such musical luminaries as Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton. These stars would join local musicians, often playing Jackson Street after engagements at larger downtown venues. Between the businesses and the entertainment, the neighborhood was sometimes compared to Chicago’s State Street or Memphis’s Beale Street.

Seattle has long been known as a theater town, and one of the most extraordinary theater endeavors was the vibrant Seattle Negro Federal Theatre, a federally funded project established at the University of Washington in 1936. The company of black actors, singers and dancers featured innovative plays that focused on the African American experience.

Black builders were also at work at the turn of the century. For example, builder Charles Harvey arrived in 1887, and builder E. R. James and his architect son Harry were in practice in the early 20th century.

Obstacles and Opportunities: By 1900, as the city’s population grew, various restrictions-both formal and informal-began to hinder opportunities. One example can be seen in the platting of the Mt. Baker residential area in 1900, which included restrictions on people of color. But shortly thereafter, an African American resident, Susie Stone, sued to open the residential tract to all, finally winning in the State Supreme Court in 1911 and building her house in the neighborhood.

Job discrimination, practiced by both unions and employers, was a serious problem. In 1917, in the midst of the wartime boom, the Negro Business Men’s League of Seattle wrote: “There is a disposition to prevent us from participating in this promised prosperity wave (but)...there are many opportunities in and about Seattle awaiting... including corner grocery stores, shoe repair shops, market stalls, truck gardens, and henneries in the suburbs, berry farms and small dairies in the country as well as other small enterprises.” Indeed, African Americans found employment and created businesses in all these areas. And in 1909, the first black military officer in Seattle arrived at Fort Lawton.

Beyond Seattle

African American settlers lived outside Seattle from the earliest years. African Americans especially played an important role in the county’s early mining industry as well as operating truck farms and berry farms. Here are a few examples:

  • Kent: The year of statehood, 1889, saw the first African American resident in the small farming town of Kent. William Scott operated a successful truck farm where he raised vegetables for the Seattle markets. In 1890, the region’s first celebration of Juneteenth Day (celebrating the June 19, 1865 order that all workers must be paid for their labors, thus strengthening the earlier Emancipation Proclamation) was held in Kent, drawing celebrants from Tacoma and Seattle.
  • Federal Way: A Civil War veteran and his wife-John and Mary Conna-were among the first settlers of Federal Way, acquiring a 157-acre homestead in 1885. In 1889, Conna became the first assistant sergeant at arms for the new Washington State Senate and sergeant at arms in the 1890 special session of the legislature.
  • Coal mining towns: In 1891, African American miners arrived in the King County coalfields, moving to the site from the South, Midwest, and other parts of Washington. These industrial workers were engaged in one of the region’s most important early industries, and they moved from mine to mine in places like Newcastle, Coal Creek, Ravensdale, and Franklin. The community of black miners numbered more than a thousand by the turn of the century, and their influence was felt in towns like Newcastle and Franklin where African Americans served as school board members, police, jurists, and church leaders. The Colored Baptist Association of Washington was formed at Newcastle in 1900.
  • Bellevue: At the turn of the century, when Bellevue was a rural community, African Americans from Seattle enjoyed an annual picnic held by the Fraternal Order of the Hawks, a mutual benefit society. Picnickers would board the Leschi ferry in the morning and enjoy a full day of good food, friends and fun.
  • Renton: African American farmers and miners arrived in Renton in the 1890s. But the population really grew in the 1940s, when the wartime employment boom attracted defense plant workers from throughout the country.
  • Auburn: Some of the earliest African American residents in Auburn arrived by 1910 and worked in the railroad yards of the community.

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