by Beverly Aarons
“Doug gave me a standard as a Black man,” said Merman Sallier, a music producer and digital instructor from Seattle who grew up in the Central District and attended Zion Preparatory Academy with the class of ’91. “Just the way he carried himself and the way he communicated with people — his cars, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with his children, just everything. He was someone that me and a lot of my friends looked up to as the standard. At the time, the only other Black men to emulate in his community were drug dealers and pimps.” But even “those guys looked up to Doug,” said Sallier.
For more than 40 years, Doug Wheeler has been a force for progress in Seattle, especially in the Central District. In the late 1960s, he worked with the Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Department to study the effectiveness of caseworkers working inside of jails. Then, in the 1970s, he served as a grief crisis counselor for the National Organization for Victim Assistance and as a community mediator for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (KCPAO) under the direction of Christopher T. Bayley. That was a time of great distrust between the Black community and law enforcement because of Seattle’s notorious reputation for police corruption.
“Everyone knew it was corrupt,” Wheeler said in Bayley’s memoir, Seattle Justice. “Certain attorneys could guarantee their clients would receive light sentences from judges. Pimps would pay bail bondsmen monthly to ensure their women wouldn’t be hassled by the police.”
But Wheeler wanted to make a change and build authentic trust between the KCPAO and the Black community. Wheeler worked for the department for several years, mediating community complaints brought against the police. He helped the community understand that there was at least one person in the department willing to listen to their side of the story.
Respect, compassion, and nonjudgment were key to Wheeler’s success in the community.
“I found out how important people are, and that no matter what people look like, it doesn’t matter,” Wheeler said during a telephone interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “It doesn’t matter who they are, you know? Or how they hurt, you know? They are people, and we are there to show them respect. And there’s always a gift that you get in kindness … there’s something that grows there … and they remember that they can come to you.”
In that spirit, Doug Wheeler carries on the legacy of his father, Art Wheeler — Washington State’s first Black probation officer. Art was respected in the community — by ordinary people and law enforcement alike — a point of pride for Doug, who recounted that motorcycle officers often visited his house to get a bite of his mother’s home cooking and to talk to his dad. But before the Wheelers lived in the big corner house on 31st and Jefferson, the family lived in public housing in West Seattle while Art Wheeler worked at the post office and attended the University of Washington. Doug Wheeler’s early childhood days were punctuated by his father’s routine. Art awoke early in the morning, showered, ate breakfast, and donned his blue-collar attire for the workday.
“Next thing I know, he wasn’t going to work at the post office anymore,” Doug Wheeler said. “He started wearing suits, you know? And he had shined shoes and was looking really, really sharp.” He paused for a moment and added, “It really kind of changed the way I even looked at him.”
It was the 1950s, and Seattle’s racial restrictive covenants kept Black families out of areas like Queen Anne and Magnolia, confining them to the Central District, a neighborhood where William Grose, a successful Black businessman, purchased 12 acres of land from Henry Yesler in 1882 for $1,000 in gold coin. Grose would eventually sell off small land parcels to other Black families who wanted to settle in the area.
“We had a house full of kids,” Wheeler said of his childhood home in the 1950s and ’60s. His parents fostered 13 children and provided a safe haven for kids in the community from a wide variety of races and ethnicities.
Jimi Hendrix, one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century, and his younger brother Leon were two of those kids who found refuge and a second home with the Wheelers.
“Doug was like a big brother to me,” said Leon Hendrix during a telephone interview with the Emerald. He described Doug Wheeler as clever and kind. “The Wheelers loved me. They wanted to adopt me.”
Hendrix’s father was out of work in the late 1950s, food was scarce, and the family often stayed in rooming houses unsuitable for children. But he wasn’t willing to give up custody of his boys — not permanently.
“The welfare people were looking for me and Jimi all the time to take us from my dad,” said Hendrix, who is a painter, songwriter, and musician. “But after Jimi turned 12 and I was still 8 or 9 … he was older, so they didn’t want him no more.”
His father placed Leon in the Wheeler home as a foster kid.
“When my dad dropped me off over there, he started crying, then I started crying, and Mrs. Wheeler started crying. She hugged me and held onto me for like a whole hour. … I ended up calling her ‘mom.’ You know, I don’t even know her first name. [For me], it was mama, Mama Wheeler.”
In the early 1980s, the crack epidemic was tightening its grip on Black communities throughout the United States, and Seattle’s Central District wasn’t immune to the chaos caused by addiction and crime. Many Black youth were living in unstable and unsafe environments, and their educational progress suffered because of it. Wheeler was already immersed in collective efforts to solve some of the most difficult problems facing the community, so it made sense that in 1982 he, along with his father-in-law Bishop Eugene Drayton; Drayton’s wife, Coreather; and their daughter, Elizabeth Wheeler, founded Zion Preparatory Academy in a two-bedroom house on 21st and Jefferson. They had only $13.64, six students, and one solitary instructor — Patricia Greene. They wanted to provide affordable, high-quality, faith-based education to low-income students.
“I felt like at Zion, I was covered,” said Josalyn Ford, the vice president of development at the nonprofit Hopelink and a 1990 graduate of Zion Preparatory Academy. “I was protected and I never had to see color. I was celebrated for my person, not my color. You know what I mean? Because it was predominantly Black, it was like a mecca, if you will, of education and family and community and everything.”
Wheeler served as Zion Preparatory Academy’s principal and director, and the school eventually expanded, serving up to 400 students a year until its closure in 2004.
“One thing that Doug did during his time at Zion is build trust relationships with really influential business leaders in the community,” said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg during a telephone interview with the Emerald. “Once they knew Doug and knew his heart and knew what he was trying to do for the kids, they didn’t think twice about writing a $50,000 check and saying, ‘Here, go do good works.’”
Satterberg had heard of Wheeler’s good works in the King County Prosecutor’s Office, but he really got to know him personally by attending Zion Preparatory fundraising breakfasts. Then, in 2007, Satterberg was attending his son’s football game when he spotted Wheeler. He sat down next to him, and they had a conversation that would eventually lead to major reforms in Seattle’s juvenile justice system.
“Under juvenile law, young people have a right to be diverted away from the court for the first two times that they’re arrested for misdemeanors,” Satterberg said to Wheeler, citing a juvenile court document he had read earlier that day.
The court had been running a juvenile diversion program for decades, but hundreds of Children of Color weren’t being served.
“It was because they sent out a letter in English [only] in the mail with official language on official stationery. And they were charging $250 for a family to get into this diversion program,” Satterberg said. And even for those youths whose families could scrounge up the money to pay the court, they would confront a diversion program staffed with “a panel of stern-looking adults who [might] make a person write a book report or something to atone for their misconduct,” Satterberg added.
Wheeler hadn’t grown up in an environment where sternness was the go-to choice for disciplining children. He recounted that his father always sought to help him understand what he had done wrong and how he could correct his behavior in the future through a framework of compassion.
“What if, when you walked in [to the courtroom], it was somebody who grew up in the neighborhood where you grew up, somebody who knew you, or was a coach or someone you saw at the Boys and Girls Club?” Satterberg recalled Wheeler saying. “Someone with a connection to the community. And what if they started off by telling you that they loved you?”
“That would be awkward for folks to do,” Satterberg said. “And it would be awkward for the prosecutor to do. But it would be perfect for the community to do.”
It was from that conversation that CHOOSE 180 was born. Launched in 2011 by Wheeler with the support of parents, youth, and other community members, CHOOSE 180 is a diversion program that serves teens ages 13–17 and young adults ages 18–24 who’ve committed misdemeanor crimes. It also runs a felony intervention program that serves youth who’ve committed a felony crime. Upon successful completion of the CHOOSE 180 program, the youth’s misdemeanor case will be dismissed and youth with felonies may have an opportunity to reduce or dismiss their case. CHOOSE 180’s vision statement says it wants to replace the school-to-prison pipeline with community support that will help young people reach their goals.
It sounds like the ethos Wheeler’s father modeled for him.
Whenever Wheeler found himself in trouble as a kid, his dad would ask, “Did you hurt anybody? Do you [understand] what you just did?”
Wheeler trailed off for a moment and then continued, “He wanted you to be alerted to how you treated somebody. It was really important that you understand that you’re not better. That there’s nobody better than you. There’s somebody very, very different. … And sometimes people are going through something [difficult in their life].”
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
📸 Featured Image: Portrait of Doug Wheeler unveiled during a Sept. 18, 2021, community celebration at Choose 180’s Burien, Washington, offices. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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