Community Post

CD History: How segregation shaped the neighborhood

We like to think of Seattle as a progressive place, up on the top corner of the country and far away from the South where slavery was once legal and where segregated schools, water-fountains, and lunch counters were the law of the land up into the 1960s. But a pervasive system of discrimination was alive and well here too, and after talking about Edwin Pratt earlier today, we thought it would be a good time to discuss some of the larger history of the Central District too.

In 1882 William Grose, an early black pioneer in Seattle, bought 12 acres of land in Madison Valley from Henry Yesler. That was then “the country”, thickly wooded and a long way from the hub of activity along the waterfront. But when the Madison Street Cable Car began service in 1889, it made the area accessible to other citizens and more black families began to move into the area and started a community.

For the next 50 years, Madison Valley and the hill up to 23rd would continue to be the geographic heart of the city’s African American community. Discrimination helped make sure it stayed that way, even as thousands of new black families moved to the area during World War II. That discrimination, most of it informal but strictly enforced, made the Central Area the city’s only major African American community because it was the only place where black folks were allowed to live up until very recent times.

Although racial discimination was always technically against the law in Washington State, enforcement was rare. According to the UW Civil Rights and Labor History Project, many private businesses in Seattle refused to serve minorities, including African Americans and citizens of Asian descent. Even large hospitals such as Swedish, Providence, and Virginia Mason refused to treat black citizens up into the 1940s.

Nowadays many suburban housing developments come with restrictions that limit what color you can paint your house or how you must maintain your lawn. They’re called housing covenants or deed restrictions, and they are an enforceable contract you accept as a condition of buying that property. Historically, much of the land in Seattle came with similar restrictions. But instead of focusing on paint or allowable vegetation, those old covenants forbid property owners from selling or leasing to minorities.

Neighborhoods all over the city contained such clauses in their deeds, including Queen Anne, Ballard, Alki, and even Capitol Hill. Here’s the clause from the deeds in part of Beacon Hill:

No person other than one of the Caucasian race shall be permitted to occupy any portion of any lot in said plat or any building thereon except a domestic servant actually employed by a Caucasian occupant of said lot or building.

Although the US Supreme Court ruled such covenants unenforceable in 1948, it left individuals free to continue to discriminate however they wished. A white family was still perfectly within their rights to refuse to sell a house to an African American family. And landlords could also decline to rent an apartment or house to minorities without facing any legal problems.

This informal pattern of discrimination continued up into the 1960s, helped along by real estate agents who practiced “red-lining”, refusing to sell home in white areas to minorities. You can see how effective those practices were in this map, where each dot represents 25 black residents in Seattle in 1960. The lines of demarcation are incredibly exact: Madison on the north, 34th on the east, and Irving street to the south:

Change came slowly. In 1964, a ballot measure to enforce open housing rules in Seattle failed by a 2-1 vote. The city council only moved forward on a ban on housing discrimination in 1968, following the passage of the national Civil Rights Act of 1968, which outlawed such practices nationwide.

It wasn’t until then that the region’s African American population began to spread out for the first time. The UW has some interesting maps that show that South Seattle was the first area to see more diversity by 1980, followed by parts of North Seattle and other parts around the county by 2000.

Here’s some reading recommendations where you can learn more:

0 thoughts on “CD History: How segregation shaped the neighborhood

  1. I enjoyed your piece. Are you on Facebook? I wanted to credit you on my post.

  2. Guilty?

    I suppose one could be old enough to have been a landowner which discriminated against others using the land restrictions.

    Certainly, the issue of discrimination is still ripe today (we have sorta banished it from our minds, now we must rid it from our hearts – forget where I stole that line from, not my own).

    I think the “guilty white liberal” should continue to do his/her best to respect the long term healing process, and to not add his/her voice to the problem.

    Is this what you were asking?

  3. The first line pretty much sums up the pompous, ivory tower attitude toward race that is standard issue in this town. And that is: “white, grew up in the NW, no I don’t actually have any black friends but I know better than anyone, particularly people in states like Georgia that have a 30% black population, what is and isn’t racism.”

  4. Once again Scott you have told the story correctly. I appreciate you taking the time to gather the information on the experience that many people living in the central area lived through. You validate our experience.

  5. Thanks for writing this. It always astonishes me how little is known about the civil rights movement in Seattle. To pretend like this region never had a problem with racism is truly revisionist history, yet it seems to be the prevalent attitude. This should be common knowledge and part of everyone’s understanding of why this city is the way it is and therefore we are all more aware of how to affect change based on that understanding.

  6. Hey, Scott

    I researched and wrote a portfolio on the Central Area for my Environmental Science class last year. I’d be happy to send it to you or upload it if you think people would be interested.


    Jen B

  7. Thanks for providing historical context regarding our neighborhood. I am proud of our current neighborhood and the history behind it. It is a great place to live.

  8. Scott: Thanks so much for providing this history of the neighborhood. It is so important. This is part of the reason I am always talking about the 12th Ave Urban Village having roots in the CD, and not Capitol Hill, because there is a very different history to this area, one that we do not acknowledge and talk about enough. The CD was also historically the center of the orthodox Jewish community, before moving south to Seward Park. Morrie Capaluto Owner of Seattle Curtain on 12th and Yesler, could share a lot of perspective on this, as he grew up in the CD and has owned that biz for over 40 years. Thanks again.

  9. Scott grew up in the South, fyi.

    Oh, now I’m not sure if you meant that for Scott at all — my comment is unnecessary if you’re just saying it’s all too common for white people in Seattle to be ignorant about race-based inequities while under the false impression that they have some great insights into them.

  10. I live in Madison Valley and, although there are those who want to call it East Cap Hill, near Madison Park, Arboretum or other real estate nonsense, most of us are well aware that THIS is where the Central Area started.

  11. This is good comment. Historically CD has always been in flux with one group moving out and another moving in. Jewish (not just orthodox), European immigrants, and most recently (after WW 2) African American.

  12. Yeah I took Brian’s comment as being towards Seattleites in general, not Scott. Great post, BTW Scott!

  13. People interested in this subject might look at anything written by Esther Mumford, but especially Calabash, a walking tour of Seattle’s black historical sites. Also interesting, in light of the layers of culture in our neighborhood:
    Historic Jewish Seattle: a tour guide / by Jane A. Avner and Meta Buttnick and the Washington State Jewish Historical Society.

  14. And don’t forget Japanese folks (the source of many of our neighborhood fruit trees), primarily prior to WWII and the internment camps.

  15. Seattle wasn’t the only place. When I graduated high school in 1952 I sold suits door to door with my uncle. Moses Lake was a sundown town and no blacks or Mexicans were permitted to live any closer than one mile from the city limits (they made up the bulk of our customers) Black workers on the Eastern Washington dams had to drive 50 to 60 miles to work because they couldn’t live near the construction areas. Many commuted from the city of Grand Coulee which was segregated by a river that ran through it with blacks on one side and whites on the other.

    At his death flying with Wing Luke, Sid Gerber (Gerber Knives) was engaged in trying to place black families within a mile of each other in Seattle in order to break down residential discrimination.

    I remember, in the early ’50s going to a black after hours joint in the 12th and Boren area with my friend Ed Jones. I was behind Ed in the line to buy “memberships” in the Cosmopolitan Athletic Club and the black employees Jim Crowed Ed to wait on me first.

  16. Important first hand memories which should be told. Thank you.

  17. I suspect it wasn’t so much real estate agents practicing red-lining as it was banks and savings & loans refusing to provide mortgages to minorities buying outside “their” territory. An old friend once reported seeing such a map in a bank with, yes, actual Red Lines denoting such areas.

    It would be interesting to see the map updated every ten years, to show the trend and current pattern.

  18. The current trend?

    Gentrification by guilty white liberals. Oh, we’ll build a few low income housing units for cute Somali families to relieve the guilt, but otherwise, expect more organic, sustainable sock shops, yoga studios and farmers’ markets with $5 tomatoes.

  19. BTW, who wants to bet that this blog and the posters aren’t the whitest thing in the CD?

  20. this blog, to me, offers a balanced view of the CD; the articles are ones that i can use to make informed judgements, to keep me up to date on some of the issues that will have some impact on me, and as a resident of the CD, regardless of my color.