Seattle Neighborhood’s Segregated Past
Author’s note: A few weeks ago I mentioned Seattle’s often unknown history of neighborhood segregation in one of my articles, which was read by the editor of My Greenlake. She asked if I would write a guest post outlining how Greenlake was affected, and I agreed; so here it is…
Many who live in Seattle, Washington -and those who view it from afar- do not think racism and discrimination are issues that minorities have ever been faced with here, yet history proves otherwise; issues of race and discrimination in Seattle are as old as Seattle itself.
My interest in Seattle’s segregated past goes much deeper than a passing glance. My grandparents were subject to the rules of segregation in every aspect of their lives including where they worked, lived, shopped and so on. They’ve been around long enough to remember a city that did everything but celebrate or encourage diversity.
My grandfather, Robert Terry, born 1926, Pine Bluff Arkansas, came to Seattle after Seattle schools offered him a position, making him the first Black male teacher in the state. His wife Francis decided she wanted to attend Seattle University. She ran into challenges when she enrolled in the nursing program, because nursing students had to live in the nurse’s dorm; Blacks were not allowed.
The compromise? A private room.
“When I graduated they advertised it in the newspapers and on the radio, almost any radio station around, I was the first to graduate from the school of nursing, I didn’t want the publicity, I felt like they should have been graduating people in 1930, why did they wait until 1951 to graduate a Black person? I didn’t feel I deserved it, it was just something that I did, and people do it every day,” she told me.
They settled in the Central District with their five children. They say it was impossible to find a decent house outside of the dilapidated areas of town.
“Sometimes we didn’t even make it inside the houses; they saw us and flipped the sign. They had gentlemen’s agreements,” says grandma Francis of local, White home and land owners.
“There were neighborhood agreements all over Seattle; you knew what neighborhood you had no chance of living in, it didn’t matter if you were Black, Asian, Hispanic, most all of the neighborhoods that were majority White, openly kept out anyone else,” says my grandfather.
Greenlake was one of those neighborhoods. Today it is loved for its family friendly community- and of course that famous, beautiful lake which draws an untold number of visitors each year, it is absolutely one of the best places in Seattle for walking, playing with the kids, getting in on a pickup basket ball game, or just people watching. Greenlake has a very distinct vibe you can’t get anywhere else; it’s a fun place to be that attracts people of all ages, races and walks of life.
And yet it used to be segregated. It was one of the many places people like my grandparents heard of, but never dreamed of seeing because it simply wasn’t allowed.
Decades later, the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (History Project) has worked to uncover this out-of-sight-out-of-mind history for all Seattle neighborhoods, including Greenlake. From their website:
Racial deed restrictions became common after 1926 when the U.S. Supreme Court validated their use. The restrictions were an enforceable contract and an owner who violated them risked forfeiting the property. Many neighborhoods prohibited the sale or rental of property by Asian Americans and Jews as well as Blacks. In 1948, the court changed its mind, declaring that racial restrictions would no longer be enforced, but the decision did nothing to alter the informal structures of segregation. It remained perfectly legal for realtors and property owners to discriminate on the basis of race.
As early as the 1930s, Seattle neighborhoods were governed by restrictive covenants, enforced by associations, land developers, realtors and by law, and written into the deeds of thousands of homes and properties. From 1940 to 1960, Seattle’s Greenlake neighborhood enforced its own covenants:
So far the History Project has found at least two such documents that governed Greenlake:
For the Greenlake Cirlce: Said tract shall not be sold, leased, or rented to any person or persons other than of white race nor shall any person or persons other than of white race use or occupy said tract.
For the area known as Hayes park 2: None of said lots shall be sold conveyed, rented or leased in whole or in part to any person not of the white race nor shall any person not or the white race permitted to occupy any portion of such lot or of any building thereon except ****to servant actually employed by a white occupant of such building.
Seeing the words in black and white probably enhances a plethora of reactions; disbelief, even shame. But Greenlake’s history is Seattle’s history:
Capitol Hill: That no part of said premises shall ever be used or occupied by or sold conveyed, leased, rented, or given to negroes or any person or persons of negro blood…
Greenwood: That neither the said premises or any house building or improvement thereon erected shall at any time be occupied by persons of the Ethiopian race or by Japanese or Chinese or any other Malay or Asiatic race save and except as domestic servants in the employ of person not coming within that restriction…
Madrona: The parties hereto signing and executing this instrument … hereby mutually covenant, promise and agree each with the others, and for their respective heirs and assigns, that no part of said lands owned by them as described following their signatures to this instrument, shall never be used, occupied by or sold, conveyed, leased, rented or given to Negroes, or any person or persons of the Negro blood.
According to the History Project, it was only after Congress passed the Housing Rights Act in 1968 that the Emerald City started to see viable change in Seattle’s segregation.
In 2006, Gov. Gregoire signed Senate Bill 6169 into law, making it easier for neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations to rid themselves of racial restrictive covenants.
Some may question the value of looking back on a painful, embarrassing point in our history as a city. But really, there is no shame in understanding the sobering reality of how far we’ve truly come.