What is it like to be black in the fifth whitest major city in America?
It’s not an easy question to answer.
Seattle’s black population hovers around 8 percent, with more leaving every year.
I was at a friend’s house off Lake Washington over the summer, saying goodbye to one of those friends. The sun was out, there was a breeze in the air, and everyone was dressed to the nines. Kids were running around, laughing, and friends were catching up.
By the end of the night, there were close to 200 people here. It was rare to see so many black people in one place.
We were sending off my friend Benita Thomas, who was moving to Charlotte, N.C. In Charlotte, 35 percent of the city is black.
Me: So Benita, why are you moving?
Thomas: Because I want to expand my horizons.
Me: Seattle not good enough for you?
Thomas: No. I need some black experiences!
Me: What do you mean by black experiences?
Thomas: I need to go to a place where more African Americans are rising to positions of power, and things are more positive, and you find a lot of them, not just a couple of them.
Thomas is my third black friend this year who said Seattle wasn’t cutting it for her. There weren’t enough black people in general, not enough black men (she’s single) and too few opportunities.
Her move magnifies a larger issue that plagues the black community in Seattle: After 35 years of living here, Thomas felt like an outsider. Depending on where you live in the city, you can go days or weeks without seeing another black person.
Staying In The City
There are those who stay, of course. Margaret Hardin, age 100 and two months (yes, that’s right), refuses to sell her Central District home.
Hardin moved to Seattle from New Orleans in 1926 to work for a white doctor’s family, ironing handkerchiefs and answering phones. She was 14.
At 16, her work for the doctor ended, and she found herself out of work. “It was just me and the world,” she recalled.
She found an extended family through the First A.M.E., the city’s oldest black church, which still stands today, just east of Capitol Hill. Even though she didn’t know many people at first, just about everyone she met in the black community was friendly and eager to help her.
“For us, we were a little closed society more or less,” she said.
Most blacks lived the Central District at the time, because restrictive covenants excluded them from living north of the Ship Canal, in neighborhoods like Queen Anne, Green Lake and Magnolia.
Outside of the welcoming Central District, Hardin faced a far less welcoming world.
“One thing I remember – and it hurt me to my heart – the Bon Marche needed a maid in the beauty shop and I wanted that so bad because I needed a job,” she said. “But they didn’t take you if you was too brown. So this girl that got the job was fair, of course, and that just hurt me.”
Decades later, after being denied positions at department stores in “the front of the house” as a clerk or seamstress, Hardin rose to become a supervisor with the Seattle Public School’s transportation department.
She and her husband bought a house in the Central District, at 28th and Republican, where she has lived for 50 years.
When I was interviewing Hardin, the doorbell rang. Standing there was a man who asked if she was interested in selling her house. She told me that happens often, but she won’t sell.
Her black neighbors have taken offers though. Others just couldn’t afford to stay.
Now she’s the only black person on her block.
Making The Effort To Connect
Gentrification of the Central District sped up in the 1990s and early 2000s, as Seattle became home to companies that employ tens of thousands of people. The Central District is just a few miles from downtown, and close enough to the I-90 bridge for a quick commute to the Eastside, home to Microsoft, Nintendo and T-Mobile US.
For working class blacks, it was tough to buy homes in the neighborhood where they grew up, so families spread out to more affordable cities and neighborhoods – like South Seattle, Renton, Tukwila and Tacoma.
The Central District, once the hub of Seattle’s black history and culture, is almost fully gentrified now, and unlike other major cities, there is no longer a black center or black part of town.
That means black families have to make time to connect with each other.
In Edmonds, Wash., April Nowak takes her daughters Camille and Simone to play dates with other brown girls in the area. They’re part of Jack and Jill, a national, invite-only group for black mothers that aims to strengthen connections between black mothers and their families.
“When one of my best friends joined I said, ‘Oh my gosh can you get me an invitation?’” Nowak said. She joined eight years ago and is now she’s the president of the local chapter.
Nowak moved to Seattle from Chicago 16 years ago to work for Boeing. She said she constantly receives emails from black families moving into the area.
They ask her: Where are the black people?
“A lot of the companies – God bless them for the diversity they are bringing into the Puget Sound area – but if the kids aren’t happy, and the wives aren’t happy, or you’re recruiting a black female executive that’s going to have a hard time getting her hair done, that’s going to be a hard sell,” Nowak said.
I attended the 55th anniversary of the Seattle’s chapter of Jack and Jill, where I spoke with Naomi and Roland Truitt, who have three children. They’ve been members for 11 years.
“There’s not many brown faces where we live, in Port Orchard,” Naomi Truitt said. Her husband Roland works for the naval shipyard in Bremerton.
And so, several times a month, the Truitts take the hour ferry – or they drive around the peninsula – so their three kids can hang out with other black children. They had lived in Tacoma, but the commute was simply too longer for Roland Truitt.
“I am willing to commute around the peninsula for the Jack and Jill activities, because I see the worth in it,” he said. “I want them to experience black culture year round, and so if we have to import it, that’s what we’ll do.”
Naomi Truitt said she believes their efforts will pay off.
“We hope to have well-rounded children,” she said.
Thomas was a member of Jack and Jill for years. She tried to connect other ways too – joining black groups, even starting groups of her own. But she said that in the end, she was tired of having to manufacture of a black connection.
It’s been seven weeks since she left for Charlotte, so I decided to call her to find out – was it worth it?
Me: How is Charlotte treating you?
Thomas: I really like it, I think it’s really a nice place.
Me: Do you miss Seattle at all?
Thomas laughed: Uh, no. The folks here, my God, everybody is just incredibly nice and they seem to be very accommodating.
Me: What advice would you have for another black person here who says, “I just can’t make this place home?”