Busing Blues: When Seattle Sent Black Kids To White North End

Oct 29, 2013

On a recent Thursday evening, Amalia Martino rushed from work to catch the last few minutes of her daughter Sophia’s soccer game. She pointed out her daughter on the field, laughing a little: “My daughter is the brown one.”

Martino, who lives in Edmonds, Wash., can count the number of black kids Sophia has played with on one hand.

“Last year there was another girl on the team who was from Eritrea or Ethiopia,” she said.

But Martino doesn’t mind. She would rather 11-year-old Sophia have a sense of community than what she herself experienced as a child living on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, straddling the lines of race and class. 

When Martino was growing up, Seattle Public Schools was in the throes of what would be a 21-year experiment to integrate the school system. Students were bused from their neighborhoods to schools on the other end of the city. 

“I didn’t realize when you get your school assignments that, ‘Oh, I’m going across town because I’m brown and they need brown people at that school,’” Martino said.

Amalia Martino at her daughter's soccer practice.
Amalia Martino at her daughter's soccer practice.
Credit KUOW Photo/Tonya Mosley

Some of her first memories were taking the bus from Capitol Hill to Seward Elementary on Eastlake. She was later bused to Orca K-8 in Fremont, then Hamilton Middle School in Wallingford. Later, she took a 45-minute city bus ride north to Roosevelt High School.

She was popular at Roosevelt, a member of the cheer squad. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was late to the party.

“We were integrated into this high school where lots of kids had known grown up together,” Martino said. “They were from View Ridge, Laurelhurst, Sandpoint” – all neighborhood schools in Seattle’s mostly white North End.

“It was just like being thrown in, and I had never had that experience of growing up with a group of kids from preschool or kindergarten or elementary school,” she said. “It was always kind of disjointed.”

Riding the bus home could also be unsettling. Martino has a white mother and a black father, and it was difficult figuring out where she fit in.

“I think I was the last stop, and so there were a lot of black kids on my bus,” she said. “I was not like them, obviously. I was different, so I got a lot of spitting in my hair, pulling on my hair.”

Minority Burden

Credit Courtesy of Seattle Public Schools Archive

From 1978, when the busing program started, to 1999, when it was shelved, minorities carried the burden of busing, piling onto buses from the South End and the Central Area that were headed for predominantly white schools in the North End.

During the first three years of the program, enrollment of white students in the district dropped by 28 percent as many white families opted for private schools or schools in the suburbs.

Not all black families were happy, either.

Some students of color learned how to manipulate the system to stay in the schools where they felt most comfortable.

At Garfield High School’s reunion for the class of 1993 last summer, Teya Williams revealed a surprise to her friends.  

Williams had left Garfield her freshman year in 1989, when her family moved south to SeaTac. When she returned to Seattle two years later, she tried to re-enroll at Garfield, in the Central Area, but was assigned to another school.

So she tried applying again, this time changing her race – to white.

I actually graduated Garfield as a white female because that was the only way I could get back in is to change my race.

“I actually graduated Garfield as a white female because that was the only way I could get back in is to change my race,” Williams told friends at the reunion.

Back then, the solution for solving the racial imbalance between North and South End schools was a numbers game. If schools had one minority student for every five white students, the school was considered integrated.

Al Wells, 38, another member of the class of 1993, said that he, too, had worked the system so he could attend Garfield. He lived in the South End as a kid but always wanted to be from the Central District – it was considered the cool part of town, he said.

“I spent my younger years trying to get my District cred, so I was always shooting uptown to kick it in the CD,” Wells said.

In middle school, Wells was bused to Eckstein in the North End. Come high school, his family moved two blocks from Garfield, but he was still assigned to another school farther away.

And so, with the help of a staff member at Garfield, Wells said he used a fake address to get in.

“If you just take a bus full of white kids and say, ‘You guys have to go over here and go to school in the black neighborhood,’ and you bring white kids over there, you’re not really integrating,” he said. “You’re just changing seats. There’s really no integration.”

Credit Courtesy of Seattle Public Schools Archive

By 1999, critics deemed the busing program a failure. That year, students were given the option to attend their neighborhood school. In 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled that Seattle Public Schools could not use race to assign students to schools, and that the busing program was unconstitutional.

The school district began to re-segregate, and black kids started attending school on their side of town, and white kids on theirs.

But in retrospect, some black students who were bused said they would do it over again.

'The Best Thing That Could Have Happened To Me'

While living in the housing projects at 19th and Yesler, Anthony Ray started school in the Central District. By the late 70s and early 80s, when the busing program started, he was taking the bus to North Seattle.

Ray attended Roosevelt High School, where 14 percent of his classmates were black. Those black kids made all the difference in some areas, he said. Boy’s basketball, for example.

Now this is going to sound funny, but we won state in basketball - after busing, no more state for Roosevelt.

“Now this is going to sound funny, but we won state in basketball – after busing, no more state for Roosevelt,” he said laughing.

Today, one in 10 students at Roosevelt is black.

Ray said he knew that some North End residents didn’t want black kids bused into their neighborhoods. But for him, the experience offered respite from the projects.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘Forced integration is not good,’ ‘I want my kid to be able to go to school in our community; that’s why we moved here’ – all those things I totally understand,” he said. “But from my perspective, I didn’t have the luxury of living in a neighborhood where a good school was. We didn’t make that kind of money. My mom worked as an LPN at the King County Jail making 6 or 7 bucks an hour. So from my perspective, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.” 

A music teacher at Eckstein Middle School introduced Ray to the possibility of a music career. He went on to stardom, winning a Grammy – as Sir Mix-A-Lot.

“There is no ceiling in life but you never know that if you live under one,” Ray said.

There is no ceiling in life but you never know that if you live under one.

Back at the playfield in Edmonds, Amalia Martino said she believes that although her daughter is just one of a few brown kids at her school, it’s the closest she can give her to a truly integrative school experience.

Next summer, Martino will attend her 20th high school reunion at Roosevelt. For the most part, she hasn’t kept in close touch with her classmates, but she believes she got a good education – even if it came at the expense of community and lasting friendships.

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