Historical African American Artist’s Legacy Lives On In Central District

by Beverly Aarons

In the heart of Seattle’s Central District,  a small but significant cultural center is easy to miss as it’s nestled in a humble bungalow house on a quiet residential street.

A Seattle historical landmark since 1992, the Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center houses the artistic and cultural legacy of Dr. James W. Washington, an accomplished painter, sculptor, and writer who committed his life to providing future generations with a life template that they could follow if they wanted to experience success and happiness despite adversity.

After stepping into the one-bedroom bungalow, visitors may notice the 1940s historical artifacts from racially segregated Gloster, Mississippi, where Dr. Washington was born and eventually worked as a shoemaker. He later moved to Seattle where he would become a full-time artist with the support of his wife Janie Washington, one of Seattle’s first black nurses.

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Folks managing the cultural center work with visitors to understand the context in which Dr. Washington lived. (Photo: Naomi Ishisaka)

The cultural center takes great care to help visitors understand the context in which Dr. Washington lived and thrived by presenting a series of powerful exhibits that wind through the timeline of Dr. Washington’s early life — 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. There’s the poll tax registration receipt that was required of all blacks in Mississippi if they wanted to vote, but there are also the souvenirs of Dr. Washington’s service as a Boy Scout leader and his wife’s nurse uniform.

Rev. Dr. LaVerne Hall, President of the Board of Directors and dedicated torchbearer of Dr. Washington’s legacy, took her time as she explained why the cultural center is important and why Dr. James Washington and his wife Janie took such care to make sure that it would survive beyond their lifetimes. Her voice is clear and certain as she speaks of Dr. Washington and his legacy.

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Rev. Dr. Laverne Hall is the president of the board of directors and dedicated torchbearer of Dr. Washington’s Legacy. (Photo: Naomi Ishisaka)

“Dr. Washington’s very humble background growing up in Gloster, Mississippi,” Hall said as she illustrated the significance of Dr. James Washington’s life path, counting out each milestone. “The son of a preacher in a very Christian family with very, very, very little.  And how he discovered his artistic talents and what he did with the talent and what he attributed his talent to. Then coming here to this area and doing so much — meeting contemporary artists and becoming affiliated with them. And just continuing to explore and give thanks to the God that he believed endowed him with such artistic, creative, and artistic ability. And then also having the foresight to document his work and to believe that his work was just as good or even better than any of his other contemporaries. And then to want to share his work with the community, and not only that, but to encourage other people to explore who it is they are.”

Dr. Washington was a prolific artist who produced many public art sculptures that can still be found around Washington today. One of the most famous sculptures, The Oracle of Truth, has been visited by people from around the world and is currently located at Mt. Zion Church in the Central District.

“Dr. Washington dedicated the Oracle of Truth to children,” Hall said. “And everything that is inscribed on that Oracle of Truth has a biblical scripture attached to it. The Oracle of Truth spoke to families about how you’re supposed to teach your children … what he called the correct way. And so it becomes a circle. The cycle repeats itself. The children beget children and those children beget children. And so you’ve got this cycle of spirituality and creativity that just keeps repeating itself.”

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Washington House is filled with artwork and historical artifacts of Dr. James and Janie Washington at this Central District home. (Photo: Naomi Ishisaka)

As an extension of Dr. Washington’s commitment to children, the Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center also provides year-round programming for children, young adults and artists of all ages such as their Artist-in-Residence program, which hosted jewelry artists in August and September, and the Back Porch Talk Series, a series of conversations for women by women.

More information about future programming can be found at the James & Janie Washington Cultural Center website. Rev. Dr. LaVerne Hall says the cultural center is actively searching for new artists of any discipline for the Artist-in-Residence program. All artists participating in the residency will receive a stipend and can work and present at the cultural center.

Locations of Dr. James Washington’s public art in Washington State:

The Obelisk (1970)
Meany Middle School
Seattle, WA

The Three Mysteries of Life (1973)
Transportation Building
Olympia, WA (east lawn)

Young Bird of the Swamp (1959) and Wounded Eagle #10 (1967)
Woodchuck Preparing For Hibernation (1973)
The Seattle Art Museum
Seattle, WA

Martin Luther King Jr. (1969)
Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center
Seattle, WA
(by appointment)


Featured Photo: The Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center is nestled in a home in the Central District in Seattle. (Photo: Naomi Ishisaka)

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