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Black History of the Northwest
caption: Jessie Grimes McQuarter in 1949. She won the Royal Esquire Club pageant two years in a row. Now 84, McQuarter lives in Covington. 
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Jessie Grimes McQuarter in 1949. She won the Royal Esquire Club pageant two years in a row. Now 84, McQuarter lives in Covington.
Credit: Courtesy of J.C. Cook

Seattle's first black Seafair queen and others from these forgotten photos

A year ago, we published photos from the 1940s and 50s of black people in Seattle just living their lives.

The photographer was Al Smith, an amateur photographer. Boxes of his work were donated to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

But there was a problem. The people in those boxes – we didn’t know who they were.

So we asked you to help us identify these people. We received 45 responses, including from people who told us they took their iPads and computers into churches and nursing homes to get answers.

But there was one photo that remained a mystery: It shows a young woman in an itsy bitsy swimsuit, waving from the back of a white Cadillac. She looks radiant.

Her eldest daughter emailed us last month. The woman in the photo was Jessie McQuarter, her daughter said, née Jessie Grimes, and she was living in Covington, Washington with her daughter and son-in-law.

So what was going on in that photo?

“I was invited to be in the Seafair Parade as the first black queen,” McQuarter said.

McQuarter was living in the Central District at the time, and she had attended Garfield High School.

“I was one of these, ‘If there wasn’t a black kid involved, get in it,’” she said. “Because we heard about how things were in the South and parts of the East.”

McQuarter said there wasn’t segregation or prejudice in Seattle at the time – that came later, she said, after World War II.

In 1948, the Royal Esquire Club was founded in Seattle as a place where black men could socialize. (The club still exists today.)

McQuarter’s sister’s husband was part of the club. When Royal Esquires put out word they were hosting a pageant, McQuarter’s sister signed her up – and bought her that tiny white swimsuit.

“It was very, very revealing, let’s put it that way,” McQuarter said.

For the pageant, “They made you kind of prance around,” she said. A member of the club held her hand as she strutted around, but he was taller than her, and she found it hard to keep up.

She won. She credits the suit.

Winning meant McQuarter got to be in the Seafair Parade.

“The black society in Seattle was very happy to see me in the parade, because they really turned out,” she said.

She entered the pageant again the next year, and won again. After that, she got married. She had four children with that husband – and four more with her second husband. She also has a stepchild.

McQuarter left the Central District in the late 1960s because of ongoing violence there. Her husband moved the family to Covington, about an hour from Seattle.

“I had a good life,” she said. “At 84, I think I look pretty good. Everybody says, oh that was you in the picture? And I say yes, I’m still here, only there’s two of me.”