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A Storied Past and an Uncertain Future in Seattle’s Africatown

By Jeffrey Rindskopf

A chain link fence borders the dirt lot on the northwest corner of 24th and Union. The site’s primary occupant today is a bright yellow excavator, but it was once home to Liberty Bank, the first black-owned bank in Washington and one of a select few opened west of the Mississippi River.

A black-and-white image of the stout bank building as it appeared after its opening in 1968 flashed on my phone’s newly-downloaded app Graffter, a window to the site’s storied past overlaid atop its dreary present. This app made up the augmented reality (AR) aspect of the Africatown AR Tour, part of the Cultural Innovation Rack of Seattle Startup Week, sponsored by Comcast NBC Universal.

The tour began Thursday at Black Dot, a coworking space for black entrepreneurs just south of the former Liberty Bank, where a handful of attendees watched a brief video on the neighborhood’s history and then boarded a white tour bus to see Africatown’s historic landmarks firsthand.

For the next three hours, tour guide Wyking Garrett, founder and CEO of the Africatown-Central District Preservation and Development Association (or simply Africatown), offered insight on the history and current preservation efforts happening in the Central District, the longtime heart of African-American life in Seattle.

The foundation of the neighborhood was forged by William Grose, Seattle’s second African-American resident, who purchased 12 acres of land along East Madison Street from Henry Yesler in 1882 and gradually sold off the house lots to other successful black residents.

The first stop of our tour was the home on 24th Ave that Grose built for his family in 1890 after the Great Seattle Fire destroyed his hotel in Pioneer Square. Without the historical context given, the stilted clapboard house would have blended in with the dozens of others that compose this charming residential area.

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As with most predominantly black neighborhoods in most major American cities, Africatown and its residents were often subjected to discriminatory “redlining” policies that enforced racial boundaries between neighborhoods, denying black Seattleites access to healthcare and financial services. The Liberty Bank was a triumph against such policies that undermined the community, as was the Carolyn Downs Medical Center, opened as a free clinic overseen by the Seattle Black Panther party also in 1968.

That year – an eventful one for black civil rights in Seattle and throughout the nation – the City Council voted unanimously in favor of an open-housing ordinance to curtail redlining, one that was soundly defeated in a popular vote four years prior.

The ordinance passed only three weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, who spoke in the Central District during his only Seattle visit in 1961, organized at the behest of his college classmate Reverend Sam McKinney – the pastor and civil rights leader who made the Mount Zion Baptist Church on 19th and Madison into a center of community life in Africatown.

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The neighborhood’s cultural heritage extends beyond the church doors and to its numerous culinary institutions, including soul food eateries like Simply Soul Food or Ezell’s Famous Chicken – an Oprah Winfrey favorite – as well as many Ethiopian and Somali restaurants started by members of the African diaspora that settled in the neighborhood beginning in the 1990s.

But perhaps Africatown’s greatest cultural contributions have come in the form of music. Our tour passes dozens of longtime neighborhood fixtures and historical sites before coming to a stop at the intersection of 12th and Jackson. Today the area is dominated by Vietnamese strip malls, with only an outdated plaque bolted to the sidewalk reminding passersby that all this was once the heart of a thriving jazz scene.

Garrett explains that there were once two dozen-plus nightclubs scattered along Jackson during the ‘30s and ‘40s. These were among the only racially integrated businesses at the time and helped give birth to musical talents such as Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson.

Of course, few figures loom larger in Seattle’s music history than guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix, and his origins in the Central District are exhaustively celebrated at the Northwest African American Museum and the adjoining Jimi Hendrix Park, where sidewalks trace a timeline of the musician’s short life.

During our next stop, we learn that the museum, which opened in 2008 and includes 36 units of affordable housing, was the product of more than two decades of community engagement. A group of Central District activists occupied the formerly-abandoned building from 1985 to 1993 to claim it as the site of a museum celebrating African-American culture.

Were it not for that eight-year act of civil disobedience, the museum building might have been torn down to make room for new construction – a threat now common to many Seattle neighborhoods, and especially to the Central District, where skyrocketing property values have already driven many residents to cheaper neighborhoods to the south. Driving around the sprawling neighborhood it’s difficult to ignore the boxy, impersonal condo buildings that have begun to overtake the clapboard homes on many streets.

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The tour ended with a hearty meal of chicken and rice provided by Taste of the Caribbean, another of the neighborhood’s culinary mainstays, served at the nonprofit educational facility First Place, where the other guests and I ate and spoke with representatives of Black Dot and Hack the Central District, who co-sponsored the Startup Week tour.

Today as in years past, Africatown residents and local organizations like these are active in preserving the past and guiding the future of their historic neighborhood amidst this rapidly-gentrifying landscape. Hack the CD is currently in the process of transforming another historic building, the old Fire Station 6, which will soon become the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation, offering entrepreneurs and other businesses the tools and support often required to succeed in a tech-centric economy.

Similarly, Africatown is among the organizations responsible for redeveloping the former Liberty Bank site into a commercial building that empowers the black community and preserves affordability. While the exact nature of the site’s future is still uncertain, there is reason for hope.

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