Photo depicting the exterior roof and sign of the Dr. James & Janie Washington Cultural Center.

A New Partnership to Preserve Seattle’s Black Historical Landmarks

by Sarah Goh


Historic Seattle has launched their annual spring advocacy campaign, and this year the organization is focusing on addressing inequities in landmarking. 

Their first step will be a partnership with the Black Heritage Society of Washington State (BHS), which will center on landmarking significant Black history sites and building advocacy skills within the Black community. 

“Historic Seattle’s mission is saving meaningful places to foster lively communities,” Historic Seattle director of philanthropy and engagement Naomi West says. “One of the ways we are looking to expand that work is by ensuring equal representation in landmarking and that has brought us to this partnership.”

Since 1973, Seattle has designated more than 400 landmarks to be protected by the City. Only 2% have significant ties to Black history. 

A few designated Seattle landmark sites with connections to Black history or heritage include the Douglass-Truth Branch of the Seattle Public Library, the Dr. James and Janie Washington home, and the Cayton-Revels House

By partnering with BHS, Historic Seattle hopes to decrease the disparity in landmark representation. President of BHS Stephanie Johnson-Toliver says this partnership is a natural fit with the goals BHS currently holds. 

“In 1977, Black Heritage Society first started out by collecting and managing memorabilia and artifacts for Black people statewide,” Johnson-Toliver says. “We’ve amassed this huge collection of Black people’s histories since the late 1800s.”

Recently, the BHS board has made the push to be a part of preservation advocacy with this history in mind. Johnson-Toliver is especially looking forward to the partnership’s goal of skill-building workshops. 

“In our community, there are people who are just not comfortable, or are intimidated by, the landmark process of bringing nominations forward,” Johnson-Toliver says.

Landmarking bestows a number of benefits to landowners, such as tax breaks, access to grants, and a value of recognition. The paperwork for this process, however, is extensive and deters people from applying. 

“I think that’s some of the reason why our legacy isn’t being brought forward,” Johnson-Toliver says. 

The partnership will be putting together a team, led by Black Heritage Society, to create workshops that build a skill set for bringing landmark nominations forward. They will make sure that Black community members have access to resources that will help them navigate the bureaucratic process of nominating a landmark. 

More broadly, the partnership will investigate why nominations are sometimes stalled, overlooked, or simply not even brought before the board for evaluation. 

“We want to demystify the landmark nomination process,” Johnson-Toliver says. “We are firm believers of democratizing preservation where we make it accessible for everyone.” 

The partnership is currently working to raise $35,000 to support this work. The money will go toward creating three landmark nominations, producing skill-building workshops, and encouraging advocates within the Black community to pursue landmarking.  

“[Landmarking] is something that benefits all people,” West says. “Every community has history and it’s a matter of ensuring that every community’s history is represented.”

Tax-deductible donations can be made online via HistoricSeattle.org/Give.


Sarah Goh is a Singaporean American journalist who graduated from the University of Washington with a dual-degree in biology and journalism. At the intersection of community, science, and humanities, she hopes to elevate marginalized voices and explore the overlooked and unexpected through her writing. Find her at sarahsgoh.com or on Twitter @sarahsgoh.

📸 Featured Image: 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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