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: