Seattle’s disappearing black community
African Americans in the Central District are being squeezed out.
Pacific NW magazine writer
PASTOR PATRINELL WRIGHT was just a 20-year-old country girl from Carthage, Texas, who didn’t know what she was getting into when she migrated to Seattle in 1964.
She grew up one of seven children in the Walnut Grove community, to be exact, a nearby farming enclave designated for blacks. That’s how it was in Southern towns back then. If you were black, you knew where you belonged, and it sure wasn’t around white people, unless you happened to be working for them.
Seattle had its own form of segregation, with blacks clustered mainly in the city’s Central District because of racist lending practices and whites-only “covenants” in housing subdivisions in Shoreline, Ballard, Green Lake, Queen Anne, Magnolia, White Center, Bellevue and beyond.
Wright boarded a Continental Trailways coach and set off by herself on the first cross-country bus ride she’d ever taken. But the price of that three-and-a-half-day bus ride to Seattle cost a lot more than what she paid for her ticket.
She was forced to take a seat at the back of the bus, on a bench barely suitable for sitting, the only black passenger on a coach overloaded with hate.
“I was called every name in the book, except ‘Child of God,’ ” Wright says while reminiscing at her home in the Central District, where she has lived for 48 years.
The bus lavatory and the restrooms at bus stations along the way were for whites only, too. Blacks used unisex outhouses behind the stations.
Wright knows what it’s like to live on the margins of a world built by and for whites.
Now she sits in the living room of the house she and her husband, Benny Wright, own on 33rd Avenue, mulling the possibility of being marginalized in her own neighborhood.
The CD, Seattle’s most storied African-American district, one anchored by black churches like Mount Zion Baptist and First African Methodist Episcopal and one that witnessed the rise of Quincy Jones, the emergence of a prominent black middle class, the formation of the city’s Black Panther movement and the birth of local hip-hop, is getting less black by the year.
The district, which spans roughly from the back side of Capitol Hill toward Lake Washington and from East Madison Street down toward the Interstate 90 Lid, was more than 70 percent black in the 1960s and early ’70s when Wright moved in.
Today, less than one-fifth of the population is black, with whites moving in in such huge numbers that in the space of a couple of decades, they’ve become the majority for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, when there was a sizable Jewish presence in the area.
“This was a deliberate attempt to get us out of here because the area is so central and convenient to downtown,” Wright says, echoing a sentiment held by many who fear that blacks are being pushed away to make the district more desirable for whites with higher incomes.
One thing is clear: Seattle hip-hop artist Draze was dead-on when he titled his 2014 “eulogy” for the CD’s black community “The Hood Ain’t the Same,” and when he points out the uneasy proximity of a new, legal-weed emporium to an old black church at 23rd and Union in his latest anti-gentrification song “Irony on 23rd.”
Demographic data show that cities like Renton, SeaTac, Tukwila, Kent and Federal Way have higher percentages of blacks than Seattle’s 7.9 percent.
All over the CD, new town houses and apartments have been squeezed awkwardly between the neighborhood’s older apartments and bungalows in a housing bubble fueled by the arrival of tens of thousands of young, mostly white, tech workers.
“I can’t find my way around — I get lost now,” Wright says.
Her living room is filled with framed family photographs, picture albums and scrapbooks chronicling the successes of the renowned Total Experience Gospel Choir, which she founded as a music class at Franklin High School in 1973.
The choir started with 108 African-American kids.
Today it’s six blacks and 24 whites, Wright says.
Wright steps out to the front porch and points to the big house catty-corner from hers where Seattle’s Black Panther Party was born.
The family of the African-American real estate agent who sold her the house all those years ago still owns the property behind hers.
Wright points there and there and there.
Every one of the houses around this intersection was owned by an African American back in the day.
Wright’s situation is bittersweet. She still owns property in the CD, and it’s worth substantially more than the $17,000 she and her husband paid for it in 1968.
But even the living room’s side window looks back to happier days.
Every Sunday, at exactly 9 a.m., Mr. and Mrs. Davis, African-American neighbors, would stroll by Wright’s house and wave at her as they headed to their church about a block away, and that’s how Wright knew it was time to get dressed and head to her own worship service.
“Now it’s just five of us,” Wright says of the dwindling black population in her immediate neighborhood. “It used to be so friendly. We watched out for each other’s children. We used to take care of each other — and with a tremendous amount of love and respect.”
Wright’s husband was raised in Seattle in a house that used to stand by the intersection of 21st and Fir.
“His home is now a cracker-box apartment,” Wright says with a sneer.
Her husband’s old church at 17th and Fir: “It’s an apartment building now,” she says.
She gets up and heads to the kitchen, then returns seconds later with a tall, rectangular box of saltines to demonstrate the general shape and cramped design of the new buildings cropping up all over the CD.
Wright says annual property taxes have nearly doubled in recent years to around $5,000, and expenses like monthly house bills further strain the budget.
“Most of us are ashamed to admit that we can’t afford our places anymore,” Wright says of the few older black homeowners living on fixed incomes who remain. “The utilities are killing me.”
TO BE BLACK in Seattle requires an ability to hold your own in mostly white spaces, a tolerance for curious stares and ill-considered comments when you just want to fit in, and a gift for drawing cultural sustenance from the most fleeting of moments. You have to get used to representing not just your own idiosyncrasies as a person but an entire race. It can be draining work, and it can detract from the obvious benefit of living in a region with good-paying jobs, a mix of lifestyles and otherwise easygoing people.
A head nod and wave, a gesture of mutual acknowledgment between African Americans that has been passed down through generations, can mean a lot under these circumstances.
This winter and spring, Metro buses carried a beguiling poster for a Seattle Art Museum exhibit featuring the florid portraits of African Americans painted by black artist Kehinde Wiley.
For the time it takes to pick up a passenger, Wiley’s “Morpheus,” a languid portrait of a young black male on a backdrop of flowers, stared back at anyone who caught the subject’s gaze, briefly filling a void that runs deep but can be difficult to explain.
Among those who’ve known the CD all their lives, the slightest suggestion can touch off a flight back to the good ol' days, when black barber shops served as chummy debate societies; when there were enough black folks to line both sides of 23rd during the Black Community Festival parade; and when people could walk down the street and see a little bit of their heritage, struggles, triumphs and hopes reflected in the eyes of their neighbors.
Say “Quincy,” and flash back to the teenage Quincy Jones delivering papers and attending Garfield High School in the CD or playing his first gig at the age of 14 at the East Madison Street YMCA or studying his buddy and mentor Ray Charles’ Braille musical arrangements or bebopping all night long in one of the dozens of black and mixed clubs along Jackson with Charles and Ernestine Anderson at his side.
Say “Jimi” to Wright, and she’s likely to pull from her scrapbook a picture of her singing at the funeral of another former Garfield student, Jimi Hendrix, in 1970.
People were tight, often when they didn’t really want to be, because in order to survive the conditions thrown at them — segregation, drugs and gangs, the onset of gentrification — they needed to be.
The late author Maya Angelou described the idea of home as, “the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
If you lived in the CD, people didn’t have to question you because, chances were, they knew the rough outline of your story before you even said your name, because it was their story, too. People didn’t just share a physical space. They shared an experience, and with that, they created a whole familial world made up of total strangers.
In the CD, you didn’t need to “represent,” because the neighborhood represented you.
The discussion over gentrification, however, has sparked a parallel debate within the black community about how the CD’s changes were allowed to happen.
When I asked about the state of black leadership in Seattle, most responded with gallows humor, something to the effect of, “Where are they? Do you know any?”
When I asked African Americans young and old about Seattle’s “black community,” almost to a person the response was, “There is no ‘black community’ in Seattle — not anymore.”
The pessimism is striking for a city in which blacks are no longer forced into a single part of town, where there once was an African-American mayor, Norm Rice, and an African-American county executive, Ron Sims.
“What we ought to do is, we all should go to City Hall and make our voices heard, but that’s not going to happen because we’re so divided among ourselves,” Wright says.
ONCE A MONTH, the downtown nightclub Re-bar hosts a DJ party, Soul-Fi, that, while frequented by a friendly, racially mixed crowd, helps blackness in Seattle get its groove back.
The parties are black as in Chaka, Luther and Stevie. Black as in Shabba, Missy and Beyoncé. Black as in old “Soul Train” clips playing on a projector screen above the dance floor. Black and hipster, black and gay, black and straight, black and trans, black and please don’t touch my hair. Black and from around the way. Black and from Federal Way.
Organizer RC Brown, who moved to Seattle 13 years ago, says the idea for the parties grew out of personal frustration. He’d go to soul-music nights at different venues around town, and the crowds would be all white.
“‘Why am I the only black person in the building on a soul night?’ ” he recalls thinking. “I was paying a white person money to play music by the people that I come from.”
Brown says that being black, queer and trans, along with having a predominantly white social circle, only added to the sense of alienation. Something was missing.
Brown and his friends started throwing house parties in the CD, but eventually he decided to put on an event for the public at a black-owned art gallery on Capitol Hill, featuring himself as novice DJ.
Today, friends and fellow black-culture curators like JusMoni and Stas THEE Boss rotate at the decks on Soul-Fi nights, while their peers host racially conscious events at formal establishments, out-of-the-way bars and private homes all over town, mixing a love for jamming with a mission to explore the black experience in all of its forms.
“I think the parties that we’re throwing, the work that we’re doing to keep the spaces that we have, it’s integral,” Brown says, noting that many in Seattle’s underground black-cultural scene see themselves not only as promoters but social catalysts, activists and educators.
While younger African Americans revolutionize the very idea of “black community” with pop-up events and online social networks for connecting and sharing information, centers of gravity are emerging far from the city center, such as in South Seattle and the Kent area, where home prices historically have been more affordable.
“This is the hub of what I call ‘blackness’ in Seattle,” says Melba Ayco, founder of Rainier Beach’s Northwest Tap Connection, a dance school located near a library, community center and predominantly black high school near the busy intersection at Rainier Avenue South and South Henderson Street.
At the school, about 150 students, the vast majority of them African American, take rigorous classes in tap, hip-hop and modern ballet in a small building set back from the street.
Ayco is all about discipline and positive thinking. She wants the African-American students in her classes to learn not just the intricacies of dance and the history of each style; she wants them to find inspiration in who they are and who they come from — then use that inspiration to achieve great things.
“I’m very much about instilling black pride,” says Ayco, a gregarious leader who dotes, scolds and dishes out lessons on race relations with equal amounts of sugary affection.
She modeled the school on what she describes as an “old-time black church” ethos in which each adult is a role model, authority figure and safety net.
Ayco was raised in Louisiana during the early days of school desegregation. She remembers white parents yelling racial epithets and throwing things at her as she walked into her integrated school. To survive, you needed a strong sense of self and a community of support to reinforce that inner strength. For many Southern blacks, and by extension for African-American transplants who settled in Seattle, the church represented that community.
“I encourage everybody to take responsibility for the children that are here,” Ayco says, noting that the school also offers students help with academic and behavior issues.
The stakes are too high to let even one black child slip and get into trouble, Ayco says.
She ought to know. She works as a supervisor in the records section at the Seattle Police Department. The names of too many African-American young people from the CD and Rainier Valley who’ve gotten caught up in the criminal-justice system have wound up in her files.
“Choices, options and consequences run through the curriculum here,” Ayco says. “If you get into trouble, you’re not dancing.
“My goal for the program is that the kids who come through here never come across my desk” at SPD.
ALONG A TWO-BLOCK stretch of Renton Avenue South, the sizable and storied sanctuaries of the traditional black CD neighborhood have been re-imagined for working-class suburbia.
Some 10 African-American churches hold services every weekend in the storefronts of gutted strip malls that have been fitted with pews, pulpits and organs.
While the scruffy outward appearance of the district leaves something to be desired, the area lives up to its nickname of “Holy Hill.”
On Palm Sunday, there is only a handful of worshippers in attendance at Full Gospel Deliverance Center Church, which is housed in a room as austere as a tax office. But it doesn’t seem to matter. A member of the church, dressed all in white, stands before the congregation and gives thanks to God for helping her control a drug addiction. Then she launches into 15 minutes straight of up-tempo, gospel call-and-response, and the church suddenly comes alive with jangling tambourines and slick drums and a swinging organ.
The woman’s deep, growling delivery and hip-rocking, foot-tapping swagger remind you that black rhythm and blues was born among the pews, in that furtive space between earthly temptation and religious devotion.
Clap your hands.
Stomp your feet.
This is not sitting-down music; it’s getting down music.
With the singer’s every ad-lib, the congregation sings it right back.
Every time she sings, “He’s worthy,” the crowd sings back, “He’s worthy.”
When she sings, “We’re gonna have a good time,” the crowd returns with, “We’re gonna have a good time.”
The emphatic call-and-response sends high praise through the low ceiling.
Meanwhile, across the street, services at Truevine of Holiness Missionary Baptist Church are also under way.
Worry stalks this room. You can see it in the way women rock back and forth and the way men sit with heads bowed.
In the space of a personal testimonial of hardship, smiles produce tears and tears produce smiles and restless souls succumb to a weariness that only the Lord can understand.
By the entrance, two ushers in matching blue suits and skirts and starched white gloves sit next to each other with eyes shut. One leans her head on the shoulder of the other as they share a silence all their own in a room booming with joyful noise.
A woman stands to tell the congregation that she’s not always been a good person, but God’s still working on her.
Another woman drops to the floor after Pastor Lawrence “Ricky” Willis lays a hand on her while praying. A crowd forms a tight circle around the woman to show moral support, lifting her up from a posture of deep despair.
Joy and pain. Sunshine and rain. The room swells with knowing uhmm-hmms and amens, all to the sound of church music.
A light drizzle starts to fall outside, but the music, message and fellowship found inside these churches pierce the stained glass of loneliness and dislocation, both of which are recurring subjects for Willis’ sermons.
In one of his prayers, Willis appeals to God as one might an old friend, imploring him to “Stop by and see about us.”
This isn’t just church. It’s community-building, people looking out for one another in a world in which people often look out only for themselves.
For an hour or two, there’s unity and peace and belonging. Many in the congregation, like Willis, who lives in Federal Way, have to commute to Skyway to attend the service, but somehow it feels like coming home.
As a pastor, Wright is used to calling for witnesses to testify about God’s love, but as one of the African-American holdouts in the CD, she’s a witness of another sort.
From her house, she can see the tech-company employee shuttle rolling along the quiet streets, picking up and dropping off some of her newer, better-paid, white neighbors. Every so often, she’ll spot real estate agents walking around pretending to be casual visitors or bird watchers, discreetly snapping pictures of houses. Some even knock on her door and ask, “Are you looking to sell?”
“It’s annoying,” Wright says.
She used to look out the windows to know when it was time to go to church.
Now she looks out at signs that seem to be telling her it’s just time to go.
If worse comes to worst, Wright says, she can always go back to Carthage, where her family still owns seven acres of land.
That is, she could go back physically.
Her heart, that stays here on 33rd.
“Inside of all of us, there’s a desire to come home,” Wright says, referring to the CD. “People would love to come back here if they could. But they can’t come back because they could never afford to buy the houses they lived in before.
“There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears for me in Seattle, right here on this corner. Memories, marriages, divorces, grandchildren — all here in this house.”
Wright’s composure gives way, and her eyes well up. But she doesn’t shed a tear.
Instead, her sad resignation turns to defiance.
The hood ain’t the same.
But as any good pastor knows, every goodbye ain’t gone.
If Wrights sells, she knows her home might get torn down and turned into another of those “cracker-box” dwellings, tearing out yet more of the old African-American community’s roots at the same time.
“I’m willing to fight for it, even at 72,” Wright says. “Until the day comes that I can’t, I’ll still be out there fighting.”
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2251.
Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.