The 1940’s were times of change for Seattle, as the world war and social pressures associated with it brought the beginnings of maturity to the city. Seattle’s African American citizens experienced much of this change directly. Populations from the south, and elsewhere in the country, were drawn to better-paying war work in Seattle and brought cultural conflict. Discriminatory housing practices meant crowded living conditions in often substandard housing. People whose war contributions sometimes meant risking their lives were not willing to put up with petty instances of racism. Organizers fought for integrated worksites for Boeing workers, and began to agitate for freedom from racism in employment generally. Changes wrought in this tension brought community activism on the part of church and civic groups to improve civil rights in Seattle; in this way, Seattle began to grow up.
Quintard Taylor’s book, Forging of a Black Community, describes the tensions created in the community as the established black families saw the arrival of people from rural and big city environments who were perceived as not ‘genteel’. Boeing, the region’s largest employer, resisted integration of the workforce, despite pressure from NAACP and Urban League representatives, until 1942. Most of the new arrivals found work in shipyards because they relied on government contracts and could not discriminate in employment. The Sotero photograph collection, available for viewing at the Douglass-Truth branch or the Seattle Room, includes images of off-duty African American soldiers at Fort Lawton and Camp George Jordan from this time period.
The 1940’s saw the beginning of a housing crunch in the central area. Due to restrictive covenants, African Americans could not purchase property elsewhere in the city. As Japanese Americans left that neighborhood, African American workers moved in, and the renting population increased to a greater density than in peacetime. The decline in housing stock resulted in things like Yesler Terrace, which opened in 1940 as an integrated low-income housing facility.
Forging of a Black Community makes great background reading for an upcoming event at the Douglass-Truth branch. On Saturday, June 1,Trevor Griffey will be discussing the growing political awareness and social sensitivities that shaped Seattle’s civil rights in the 1940s. Griffey is a visiting faculty member in U.S. History at Evergreen State College. He’s also a co-founder and of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. We hope you’ll join us for this interesting event.