The Black Community
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In this photograph, a group of female African American children ride on a parade float with a banner reading “Afro-Americans” along First and Second Avenues in Seattle. Seattle’s first Golden Potlatch festival was held in 1911 to celebrate the Klondike Gold Rush. The city-wide, week-long celebration included concerts, parades, and aircraft and boat demonstrations.
The flyer for a speech by African American labor leader James A. Roston at Seattle’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church in 19168 recalls the contested and evolving status of Black longshoremen in the union. A military veteran, Roston became a prominent African American citizen and was involved in various business ventures. During the strike by Seattle longshore workers in 1916, Roston placed ads in papers around the country recruiting African Americans to come west and serve as strikebreakers, working with the Waterfront Employers to import 1,400 non-union workers, 400 of whom were African American. This created an antagonistic relationship between the union and the Black longshoremen, who were initially excluded from membership. This policy shifted in 1917 when African Americans were admitted in the International Longshoremen’s Association local. By the time of the General Strike, at least 300 of the striking longshoremen were African Americans. The successor waterfront union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, formed in 1937 from the West Coast portion of the ILA, would have a much more inclusive history in relation to civil rights, partly due to the lessons in solidarity drawn from this sometimes-contentious relationship between Black longshoremen and the union.
Horace Cayton’s conservative Cayton’s Weekly served the small Black community of Seattle and the surrounding area, focusing on issues important to the community. These Editorial Paragraphs from February 8, 1919 show how many in the Black community viewed the general strike.
This issue of Cayton’s Weekly from August 1917 features an illustration of Seattle as a place of economic prosperity. This issue focuses on the economic opportunities that Black people could find in the city.
Earl George (1894-1985) was a Seattle longshore worker-leader, labor and civil rights activist, and photographer. A WWI veteran, George witnessed the Seattle General Strike and famously recalled that the city shut down so completely during the duration of the strike that “nothing moved but the tide.” George was one of the black longshoremen who witnessed the transformation of the relationship between the longshore local and African Americans. Black longshore workers were first recruited as strikebreakers during the 1916 longshore strike, but were later admitted into the union. However, they were often relegated to secondary status and did not have the same opportunities for job dispatch as their white counterparts. George attributed most of this to the employers, and dedicated much of his working life to service for the union and progressive political causes.
Several weeks after the Seattle General Strike, a committee including James Roston Sr., and D.A. Graham, a fellow African American, sent a letter to the Seattle Central Labor Council concerning race relations requesting that the color bar for all unions that were affiliated to the SCLC be removed, saying, “(Blacks) are refused membership in most of the unions of the city simply on account of race, and consequently are denied the privilege of earning an honest living.”. This request was endorsed by the Seattle Union Record, and agreed upon by the SCLC.” As a result of this, the SCLC passed a resolution in late February of 1919 for “the equal rights of negroes with white men in organized labor.” Though this resolution shoews agreement with the principles of racial equality within the labor movement, addressing systemic discrimination and working for true inclusion and equality would prove a much longer process.
Between 1900 and 1910, Seattle’s Black population grew from 406 residents in 1900 to 2,296 in 1910, a 466% increase. This rapid growth led to an increased need for housing that catered to the Black community. The apartment building pictured here is one of three buildings owned by the Woodson family, also pictured in this photograph.
The Mt. Zion Baptist Church was a central hub of Seattle’s Black community. The church’s Deacon and Board of Trustees, pictured here, were key figures.