by Alexis Taylor
Nestled on the small corner of 21st Avenue East and East Madison Street in the heart of Seattle’s Central District, DeCharlene Williams plugged in her beauty shop’s hair dryers for one of the last times in her life.
Her worn hands knew this routine all too well. On a brisk, overcast day in February of 2018, the shop came to life. She flipped on the main lights and placed her business marquee out front. She pulled out every gel, moisturizer, and hot comb alike, as she set up a chair for a box braid appointment she had scheduled for 8:30 a.m.
I was her client that Saturday morning, and what I would later come to find out, one of the last appointments she’d get the chance to do before her untimely passing from cancer in late May of 2018.
I sat down with DeCharlene for eight hours as she ran through her braiding regimen. To know her was to know family. It was church and it was undeniably black. In the span of an afternoon, I barely scratched the surface of the breadth of her life experience — a sentiment to which anyone who knew her could attest.
The Displacement and Replacement Cycle
The Central District was once roughly 73 percent Black in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but that is projected to decrease to less than 14 percent Black in 2019. Its Non-Hispanic White population is projected to become the overwhelming majority at 62 percent as of this year.
Seattle is bound to a cycle of establishing a community, then completely erasing it away and starting over. As her community has vanished and been displaced, she fought incessantly to preserve parts of her culture that were at risk of being erased.
But DeCharlene’s shop still stands in the Central District, just like a resilient community that has long called this neighborhood home. Her shop had its grand re-opening April 20 and is newly run by her family members and supported by the Central Area Chamber of Commerce.
DeCharlene had been opening her beauty shop’s doors since 1968 at her Central District location. It grew so vast that, at one point, it employed 13 women. Williams always thought big. Aside from all things hair, DeCharlene filled her shop with southern influenced jewelry, clothes, hats and accessories, all of her making. Her space was adorned with wide-brimmed plum hats and plumes that extended up toward the sky. She embellished her walls with framed pictures of all the places she had been spreading the message of her shop as well as accolades that she was met with throughout her 75 years of life.
The late ’60s and early ’70s proved to be one of the most robust times for the once predominantly black Central Area of Seattle. DeCharlene’s shop arrived as the business community in the area boomed, bringing with it challenges that the community had previously faced running black-owned businesses. DeCharlene’s resiliency helped her combat doubts about what she would be able to achieve. She had applied for 30 bank loans, being denied all of them before she, as a single black woman, could finally have one issued in her name.
Rachelle Williams, DeCharlene’s niece and a licensed cosmetologist and esthetician, is one of two head stylists at the now-revamped beauty salon.
“With the shop, DeCharlene was looking to give women a chance to make it on their own and not have to rely on the system that was never built to benefit them,” Rachelle said. “DeCharlene had a beauty and barber college so there was a way for black community members to learn a trade and make a way for themselves.”
DeCharlene Williams embodied what it meant to know yourself, and more specifically the history of yourself. Central Area Chamber of Commerce’s current President Lawrence Pitre has made it his mission to uphold that same core value throughout the Chamber.
“When the Chamber was put together it was actually a brainstorm of women and men in the community that wanted to get a voice at the bigger table which at the time was downtown Seattle and city council,” said Lawrence Pitre “All of those places that make decisions.”
Pitre cites other founding members, such as Millie Russell and Sam Smith, who, alongside DeCharlene Williams, developed this concept, established officially in 1983 to use a chamber as the medium to secure that seat for their community’s voice.
The Chamber and the Salon were always entangled physically and historically because of the way that the community sustained itself at that point in time. The two spaces — both housed in the same one-story, then-yellow brick building — went hand in hand. The Salon provided the example and application of what an all Black run business looks like; the Chamber offered the resources for the community to access that end goal.
It was just before we met in 2018 that DeCharlene received devastating news that developers bought out the plot of available land adjacent to the shop on her same corner of 21st and Madison. Construction was set to be complete by 2019.
DeCharlene’s outrage seemed appropriate, considering the several stories high complex would both literally and figuratively cast a dark shadow over her stout brick building.
“They can’t wait for me to be gone, but guess what? I’m not moving,” Williams said.
By any means necessary
She had adopted a “by any means necessary” attitude in fighting for her community’s longevity, and that is what has brought her and the community this far. She was feisty when it came to never compromising her morality, and no developer was going to make her change now.
With so much rich history housed in such a small but mighty building, how did DeCharlene Williams’ shop stand the test of time against an ever-changing Central District while everything else has vanished? But more importantly, as a previous resident of the Central District myself, I was ultimately concerned with what would become of her shop and the Chamber after report of her passing.
Not only is her building one of the last physical snapshots of what the Black economy of that area once was, it’s also just as good at showcasing how developers have attempted to erode away an entire community. And before DeCharlene’s shop reopened, most of the community members would argue that developers were successful in doing that.
Lawrence Pitre said that the re-opening of DeCharlene’s shop let people know that “the black people of this neighborhood have not gone anywhere. They are still here and have always been here.”
Our existence cannot be bought out and with that mission in mind came the announcement that in DeCharlene’s passing would bring forth a new era for the non-profit.
“We knew we only had one option and that was to keep the shop in this family as long as possible” said Crystal Williams, granddaughter of DeCharlene Williams and head stylist at DeCharlene’s Salon, when asked about their motivations for re-opening.
The next generation
The community is witnessing DeCharlene’s business change from locally owned business into a legacy. And a transition of this nature is bound to have its own set of challenges.
Pitre has worked tirelessly alongside the Williams family to rebuild the business that DeCharlene passed on. It’s still a family business: DeCharlene’s daughter Rita Green is the current owner of her mother’s business, her niece Rachelle Williams is head stylist, De Von McDowell is head barber and longtime family friend of DeCharlene, and granddaughter Crystal Williams is head stylist.
The group is trying to figure out what place DeCharlenes and the Central Area Chamber of Commerce have in their native community as of 2019.
This is a revamp of past traditions met with never before done opportunities for community engagement. The group has implemented a barber shop, for which they are looking to fill seats on the team quickly. Likewise, the Chamber is building a core team to reemerge itself into the community, of which I have been hired on as the Chamber’s first ever Social Media Intern.
I was all too convinced that DeCharlene’s active resistance would be buried alongside her. Her departing words to me were that “no matter what you do, if you’re black just your mere existence is resistance.”
The shop reminds us of that truth, and how DeCharlene will be remembered as a trailblazer indefinitely.
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Featured Image by Alexis Taylor.