OPINION: Segregated Seattle — How Our Racist and Exclusionary Past Has Shaped Our Present

by Alycia Ramirez

Looking back through the last five months of current events and daily protests in Seattle, one might think that the wheels have finally come off. However, the truth is that Seattle has a long and deep history of racism, white supremacy, police brutality, and protesting that goes back to the city’s founding. 

In 1853, just two years after white settlers led by David Denny landed on the shores of Alki Beach, the tiny little frontier town of Seattle was officially born. At that time, it was the view (known as Manifest Destiny) of most white American settlers that it was their God-given duty and right to occupy and dominate as much land on the American continent as possible. The Pacific Northwest was no exception. Despite aid from Chief Si’ahl (commonly known as “Chief Seattle,” who the city is named for) and the Duwamish Tribe, the city’s Board of Trustees passed an anti-indigenous law, called Ordinance No. 5, in 1865, banning Natives from Seattle. It would be one of many exclusionary and racist policies and laws that would be passed over the next 100 years. 

Seattle during the late 1800s resembled a wild west town and one that had little tolerance for non-whites or those deemed to be criminals. There were public lynchings by angry mobs on James Street, as well as forced removals of Chinese immigrants with the assistance of Seattle Police and white residents. It took twenty years for the Chinese community to fully rebuild. 

Though African Americans had been homesteaders in the Pacific Northwest before Seattle was established, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the Black population began to really boom. During this time, most African Americans residing in Washington lived in urban cities, with the majority living in Seattle. Black residents were living in most parts of the city, which made white property owners increasingly uncomfortable. They quickly found ways to keep Black residents confined within certain areas through racial restrictive covenants and with the help of the police. 

Racial Restrictive Covenants were defined as follows: 

“Agreements entered into by a group of property owners, sub-division developers, or real estate operators in a given neighborhood, binding them not to sell, lease, rent or otherwise convoy their property to specified groups because of race, creed or color for a definite period unless all agree to the transaction.” 

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1926 in Corrigan v. Buckley that these covenants did not violate the fourteenth amendment, white property owners saw an easy way to restrain and confine the Black community that was, at the time, legally binding. If a racial covenant was included in the deed or plat map of a property, the owner could not sell to the prohibited races mentioned without being held legally and financially liable. This made the covenants a very effective tool — enough so that white homeowners would often go door to door encouraging their neighbors to also sign the covenants, essentially locking Blacks and People of Color out of the neighborhood. 

Consequently, more than 500 deeds with racial covenants were applied to over 20,000 properties in many neighborhoods in and outside of Seattle. In addition to racial decrees, banks would often not give loans to non-whites, and realtors relied on redlining to draw up desirable properties along racial lines. The Central District quickly became one of the few places in Seattle People of Color could live, with over 90% of Black Seattleites residing there. Areas outside of the Central District became “sundown zones” or places where non-whites could not be after dark.  Neighborhoods like West Seattle, Queen Anne, and Magnolia only tolerated Blacks until the end of the workday, when they would be expected to leave. Those who chose to stay around would be subjected to harassment and questioning by police. The Ship Canal served as a visual dividing line — anything north of it was off limits for People of Color to live and leisure until well into the 1960s. 

The fight to change these practices was a long and hard one that took nearly a decade. Tired of the racial inequity, Black Seattleites fought to end housing discrimination and racial covenants that kept them largely restricted to the Central District in what became known as the “Open Housing Campaign,” which took place from 1959–1968. Protests and sit-ins at the mayor’s office led to the creation of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, and in 1964 the commission drafted an “Open Housing Ordinance” to ban the practice of racial housing discrimination, but it was rejected by white voters who called it “forced housing” and claimed it violated their property rights. It wasn’t until 1968, just three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, that an Open Housing Ordinance was passed unanimously by City Council with an emergency clause making it effective immediately. 

The racist attitudes of white Seattle extended fully to the Seattle Police Department. Officers were known to reserve the more brutal forms of policing for People of Color (a truth that is still evident today in Seattle), and were more likely to see Black residents as criminals. The first public case of police brutality was in 1938, when a young black man named Berry Lawson, who had fallen asleep in the lobby of the Mt. Fuji Hotel after his shift at a nearby restaurant, was killed by police after they attempted to arrest him for loitering. Though the officers maintained Lawson had received his fatal injuries by “falling down” the stairs, the evidence revealed that they had likely beaten him to death. The officers also bribed a witness to leave town while procuring another to falsely say they had seen Lawson fall down the stairs. The men were ultimately convicted of manslaughter, but no real accountability measures would be created until decades later. 

When a drunken brawl instigated by two off-duty Seattle officers hurling racial epithets at a Central District restaurant led to the death of another Black man named Robert L. Reese in 1965, the community was incensed. Thus began the “freedom patrol” or “walking review boards,” led by NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) which walked behind and observed cops. This moment in time planted a seed that grew into the police reform and accountability movement we know today. 

Even now, the Seattle Police Department has not managed to shed its penchant for abuse and discrimination. SPD has been under a consent decree since 2012, mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), for overuse of force and racial bias. When the DOJ released its findings the previous year, they found that officers use force in an unconstitutional manner 20% of the time and that 50% of all unnecessary or overuse of force involved minorities. 

Despite the passage of over 100 years, the city is still haunted by its past, and marginalized communities are still fighting much the same fight as previous generations — for police reform and racial equity. Will Seattle finally address its ugly past that has shaped so much of our present day? Only time will tell. 

Alycia Ramirez is a community organizer active in the Seattle area, with her primary focus being immigrant rights, anti-racism, and demilitarization of law enforcement agencies at the state and local level.

Featured image by Alex Garland.