by Rayna Mathis
Seattle’s Central District (CD) has gone through drastic changes over the last 20 years. Many communities have called this historic neighborhood home: Jewish people, Japanese Americans, and African Americans. Long-time residents and displaced families whose histories go back generations will lament this sentiment.
If you’ve been to the CD in the last month, you might have noticed an important piece of 23rd and Yesler missing — the Soul Pole. In the summer of 1969, as part of President Johnson’s Model Cities Program (which ended in 1974), the Soul Pole was carved in a month by five teen artists, aged 14–16: Brenda Davis, Larry Gordon, Gregory Jackson, Cindy Jones, and Gaylord Young and was led by Seattle Rotary Boys Club Art Director, Gregory X. The sculpture honors 400 years of African American history by using four figures to represent significant moments of the Black man’s experience from primitive, to slavery, to liberation.
A 1969 Seattle Times article from the Seattle Public Library’s archives about the creation of the sculpture shared this interpretation of the Soul Pole:
“The lack of bodies and arms show that the black man was not truly a man, when he was not allowed to act on his own.
The last figure, done by Gregory X, is not bound by the chain. A complete figure with body, arms and feet, it represents the free black who knows himself as a man.
‘It is where I hope we’re at today,’ said Gregory X.”
The 21-foot sculpture was gifted to the Seattle Public Library (SPL) in 1972 by the club and installed in 1973 at the Henry L. Yesler Memorial Library — aka the Yesler Branch — as it was known before its renaming in 1975 to the Douglass-Truth Branch, after Black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
Since then, it has braved the dramatic elements of the Pacific Northwest and provided shelter to little critters for almost five decades. As time passed, it became clear the Soul Pole was carrying more than a heavy history on its shoulders. Due to age and exposure, the wear had become apparent and it was time to face the reality that the Soul Pole in its current state was becoming a safety concern.
On the morning of April 26, 2021, Artech Fine Art Services, an organization of established professionals, highly skilled in art restoration and preservation, and with a particular expertise working with public art made of wood, carefully deinstalled the sculpture then wrapped, loaded, and transported it to an art storage facility. After a thorough fumigation process (to eliminate any insect activity) it is drying out in a controlled space where it can be properly and extensively evaluated for possible restoration.
For nearly 50 years, the Soul Pole stood rooted on that corner in the Central District. And just like that, in a few hours, it was gone. Many people with personal relationships and fond memories of the Soul Pole are waiting with bated breath on the outcome of this evaluation.
Interim Director of Library Programs and Services Andrew Harbison informed the public in a press release about the Soul Pole’s removal and restoration that “Once we have more information about the potential for restoring the Soul Pole, we can develop a plan.” He went on to say, “The Library knows how important the Soul Pole is to the history and culture of the Central District and the greater Seattle community.” In the Soul Pole’s absence, visitors can still view the plaque with the artists’ names where the brick foundation will remain. To follow the Soul Pole’s journey, SPL will be posting updates on the project at www.spl.org/SoulPole.
The ownership and shared sense of responsibility over what happens next that is felt by the community is evident. As soon as the Soul Pole was disturbed, many community members noticed and responded. One passerby saw the deinstallation in progress and was concerned it was coming down for good but after talking to the staff at Douglass-Truth realized the importance of this process. In their conversation, it was discovered this person may also be able to find information on the current whereabouts of one of the original artists, who attended Garfield High School. This potential lead is exciting news for the Library as they have been on a mission to track down the original artists for their archival records. They know some of the teen artists attended Garfield, such as Gaylord Young, who was the president of the Black Student Union. Unfortunately, Young died in 2007, and few details are known about the remaining artists’ current locations or lives.
In another account, the historian of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (AKA) heard of the Soul Pole’s deinstallation and reached out immediately to Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State (BHS) since 2018, to investigate. Johnson-Toliver connected with Marcellus Turner, then SPL’s executive director and chief librarian, to voice their concerns. After reassurances and a better understanding of the project’s scope, Johnson-Toliver gave support to the project and has since been aiding SPL in community outreach.
Johnson-Toliver’s connection is especially personal. She is also a lifelong resident of the CD, raising her sons as frequent visitors of Douglass-Truth, and whose family’s local history traces back to the early 1900s. Steve DelVecchio, SPL’s Regional Manager, believes her close eyes on the project, as well as those of other notable organizations such as AKA and the Northwest African American Museum, have, in some ways, validated the efforts of the project.
Johnson-Toliver also connected with and sought support from Omari Salisbury, co-founder of Converge Media, a news outlet specifically for the Northwest’s Black community. Salisbury grew up in the Central District too. He recalls spending hours at Douglass-Truth, as there weren’t many safe spaces for young folks to go. Their high regard for one another, developed by working together on several ventures, adds another layer of credibility to the Soul Pole restoration project. While other regional organizations ignored the region’s Black history, Salisbury acknowledges, “Their [Black Heritage Society’s] archives are not appreciated by contemporary viewership, despite it bringing real meaning to our contemporary culture. They have been waiting so long to share this wisdom with Black people who are in the everyday. If it wasn’t for the BHS, our history would be so incomplete, so scattered. She [Johnson-Toliver] is this moral compass that comes into play now more and more.”
There have been some challenges along the way. For example, the Seattle Rotary Boys Club was transferred to Boys’ Clubs of Seattle and King County and all records about the Soul Pole were lost, hence the call to the community to locate the artists. Concerns about the uncertainty of the Soul Pole’s future have also been large hurdles to face. Despite this, SPL has continued to stay intentional and committed in their efforts to keep community input at the forefront of this journey, which has proven to be a fruitful and rewarding endeavor.
SPL has long aimed to have its neighborhood branches reflect and respond to the needs of its communities and witnessed wide demographic changes in the communities it serves. In recent years, they have further prioritized designing programs and services not just to meet community needs, but to involve them from the beginning. Some elements of this approach included providing better accessibility to the Library’s archives and African American collection, varying program times and services, having a dedicated special collections staff who maintain documentation of Seattle’s history in the Pacific Northwest, convening community listening sessions and conversations, as well as involving stakeholders as co-creators of programs, with the goal of creating a sense of ownership where the community feels their feedback is heard and implemented.
Multiple community members have expressed how carefully they are watching everything unfold and their intentions to keep the Library accountable, while also offering their unwavering support. In a statement supporting SPL, Johnson-Toliver, emphasized the importance of this historic artwork. “At the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, we deeply appreciate the preservation efforts by SPL to assess the condition of the Soul Pole that depicts 400 years of African American history. Currently more than ever, the Soul Pole represents a beacon of pride that anchors the history of Black people to Seattle’s Central District. As assets are razed and vanishing from the Central District, with some recognized as historic footprints, it is our combined responsibility to act as good stewards of the art and culture that define our community. When SPL does what it takes to assess and preserve the Soul Pole, it signals a proactive commitment to solidify and honor the significance of the past to acknowledge the future of more than a pole.” Likewise, SPL leadership states they also believe the only way to move forward is by honoring the past.
While the sculpture is being assessed, the Library encourages the public to continue to engage with the Douglass-Truth Branch as it remains a vital space for community dialogue. In addition to being the site of the historic Soul Pole, Douglass-Truth self-manages and maintains one of the largest collections of African American literature and history on the West Coast. In 1965 the Library, with the help of the local chapter of AKA, founded at the branch the African-American Collection, previously known as the Negro Life and History Collection. There are over 10,000 items of African American literature and history maintained by SPL, including a budding digitized section known as the Black Culture and History Collection.
Additionally, SPL is still searching for the original artists to learn their stories and more formally recognize their efforts. If you are one of the original artists or have information about them, SPL asks that you contact Andrew Harbison at email@example.com.
The Soul Pole has stood as a symbol of Black resilience, history, artistry, and community efforts for generations. While the buildings and the people around it changed, the Soul Pole stood still, ever watchful and never changing. So, the question remains: without the pole, what is left of the original soul of the CD? Soul can be found in more than a single object. It is in the community members who speak up when the neighborhood continues to forcefully change. It’s in the people who see the importance of this sculpture, the art and history of Seattle, and who strive to meet the needs of the community. And there is no question, that spirit runs deeper than the violence of gentrification and displacement could ever reach. So long as that drive remains, there will always be soul in the CD.
Rayna Mathis (she/her) is a graduate of the University of Washington with a B.A. in history. Her work at the SAM as a museum educator, seeks to amplify the work and voices of teen artists and activists. In her spare time, Rayna can be found tending to her Little Library in Beacon Hill, outside of The Station coffee shop.
📸 Featured Image: Close up of sculpture the “Soul Pole” in Seattle’s Central District, before its removal in 2021 for restoration (image courtesy of SPL).
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