Longtime Central District resident Merlin Rainwater advocates for alternative forms of transportation, like walking and biking. She leads neighborhood “slow rides” to get older women more comfortable with urban cycling and shows them around parts of the Central District they might not know about: public art, small parks, black-owned cafes and restaurants.
Recently, she added a new kind of ride: a tour of the so-called “red line” that segregated Seattle for decades.
She got the idea after seeing a display at her neighborhood library, Douglass-Truth, which exhibited photos and documents from the struggle for open housing in Seattle in the 1950s and '60s.
"And as I looked at it, I thought, you know, this is information that really ought to be in Laurelhurst. It should be in Broadmoor," Rainwater said. "Because black people in the Central District, they know this history. It's the white folks in the segregated white parts of the city that need to know that there was a struggle for open housing in Seattle."
Read more: Why is Seattle so racially segregated?
Even after the city passed an open housing ordinance in 1968, the city was still segregated for another decade by redlining — banks discriminated against people who wanted to borrow for properties in the Central District and other neighborhoods inhabited primarily by people of color.
Rainwater wanted to bring this kind of history to the mostly white people who go on her bike tours.
“Then I came across an article about the historic maps of redlining, the maps that were created by the Federal Housing Authority. I looked at the map of Seattle online and, you know, a map and a line? That could be a bike ride!"
Rainwater was surprised by how many people wanted to learn what she wanted to teach. The first time she offered her red line bike tour, so many people showed up that they had to split into two groups.
"I've done it several times, and the main reaction has been, ‘you need to do more of this!'" Rainwater said.
Rainwater said the ride shows how the effects of redlining still linger in the Central District. "We see both the remnants of disinvestment and segregation side-by-side with the influx of wealth and gentrification. It's thought-provoking."
Rainwater hopes people come away from the tour with the understanding that racial segregation was no accident. "It was a result of a number of very deliberate policies on part of the white power structure. They wanted to keep the majority of the city white."
Rainwater said it’s important that white people, like her, do their part to educate other white people about the back story to their privilege.
"It really is white people's history. White people were the actors that developed and implemented the policies that led to segregation. And it's really inappropriate to, say, segregate those aspects of history that black people suffered under, and label those 'black history' as if they weren't relevant to the rest of us."
Merlin Rainwater is leading two sold-out bike tours, and two sold-out walking tours, of Seattle’s red line in conjunction with the Museum of History and Industry on March 24. It’s part of the museum’s Segregated Seattle event series.