More than just a high school, Garfield has a legacy of acceptance and breaking through racial barriers.
by Phil Manzano
Garfield High School will mark the centennial of its founding Saturday, Aug. 27, commemorating a school whose values of diversity and acceptance have shaped generations of students as well as the culture of Seattle and beyond.
Garfield is more than just a high school — it is a pillar of the Central District, one that not only broke down racial barriers throughout its history, but spurred many on to greatness.
Garfield alumnus Carver Gayton remembers two teachers who made an impact on his life, one who made him keenly aware of racism at a young age, and another — at Garfield — who inspired him to break through.
An early brush with racism was when a first-grade teacher whispered into the ear of the only Black child in the class, “I just don’t trust you.” Gayton didn’t know what the word “trust” meant and asked his mother when he got home. He knew what he heard wasn’t good. That day he realized he was different because of the color of his skin.
While attending Garfield High School, Gayton’s English teacher Marian Eskenazi pulled him aside and told him he was not working up to his academic potential. She urged him to reach for more.
“Carver, I’m going to stay on you,” he remembers her saying. “You aren’t working to your capabilities. And I’m going to make sure that you do. You have to work harder.” That day Gayton realized he was able to achieve more than he thought.
One teacher demeaned him, Garfield’s Eskenazi esteemed him. One set limits, Eskenazi tore those limits down.
“Mrs. Eskenazi said, ‘I have high expectations of you, and you have the capability of doing it,’” he remembers.
Gayton went from C’s and B’s to A’s and B’s and onward to a career as a Garfield High School teacher, the first Black FBI agent from the state of Washington, Boeing executive, founding executive director emeritus of the Northwest African American Museum, appointed commissioner of the Employment Security Department by Gov. Gary Locke, in addition to writing two books about his great grandfather Lewis G. Clarke, a formerly enslaved person and noted 19th-century abolitionist.
Founded in 1920 in temporary buildings as East High School, the renamed James A. Garfield High School opened in 1923 in its Jacobean-style brick building at 400 23rd Ave. in the heart of the Central District and the city’s Black community.
At the centennial celebration, Mayor Bruce Harrell, class of 1976 and its valedictorian, will host the formal ceremonies beginning at 1 p.m. in the Garfield gym. Other events honoring staff and teachers, exhibits, and class reunions will occur during the day. Food trucks and entertainment will also be available during the free event that is open to the public. Details can be found at the official Garfield High School website, including a virtual greeting from its most famous alumnus, Quincy Jones. According to Lynne Jaffe, class of 1958 and chair of the centennial, organizers are planning for a possible 2,000 to 4,000 attendees.
It’s difficult to capture all of Garfield history. It’s a storied high school known for its stellar academic, music, and athletics programs and whose graduates are woven into the fabric of Seattle life. There are numerous events and milestones in Garfield’s history as well as prominent alums who’ve left a mark on the city and beyond.
Most will likely know of iconic American musician, composer, and music producer Jones, class of 1950, who is the honorary chairman of the Garfield High School Centennial. Most will know that guitarist Jimi Hendrix attended Garfield before going to Woodstock to establish his legendary rock and roll status.
And a cursory Google check yields plenty more standout alumni: jazz and blues singer Ernestine Anderson; Seattle hip-hop artist Macklemore (Ben Haggerty); Garfield basketball coach and former NBA and University of Washington collegiate star Brandon Roy; and MSNBC TV host and journalist Ari Melber, whose commentary and reportage includes hip-hop references gleaned from his days at Garfield and in South Seattle.
The through line that made Garfield unique among Seattle high schools was its diverse student body of white, Black, Jewish, and Asian students even during the era of segregation.
Melber talks about that environment in a 2021 Youtube video produced by and featuring prominent Garfield alumni.
“It was 1994 and there was a lot going on in the country, kind of like there is now,” Melber says. “But there was a lot of different people with different experiences there. And I remember soaking it up like a sponge, and loving it, and finding the intellectual and cultural exchanges to be really interesting. I love that, it’s formative and it really informed the work I do now.
“People who watch the news, watch our program, will come up and say, ‘Why did you relate, what 21 Savage said, what Lauryn Hill said, to this story?’ I get that question sometimes and to me, it’s like we grew up in a school, in a cultural vibe, where that was standard, in the same way that it’s the Quincy Jones auditorium, so, you know all of that to me was very much stuff that I just saw going on around me and tapped into.”
Diversity was walked, not just talked, according to alums.
“We were just living that, we weren’t talking about diversity,” said Dana Keene, class of 1983, who found herself as the only white teen on the junior varsity cheerleader squad. “It was like it wasn’t overanalyzed, we just did it.”
Picture this: “A skinny white boy showing up at Garfield, walking into the lunchroom for the first time,” says South End nonprofit leader Curtis Brown, who was more into athletics than academics. As he awkwardly scanned the room, a Black student called out to him to join their table.
Brown, a freshman, was stunned. The student inviting him to sit down was Joyce Walker whom Brown recognized as one of the school’s premiere athletic stars.
“I’ve never forgotten that,” Brown said, “that’s Garfield right there.”
Walker doesn’t remember the incident with Brown, but it reflected something her father taught her as a young girl. “My daddy gave me that. He said, ‘Joyce, there’s never no strangers, only people you haven’t met yet.’”
The lesson was further deepened by, as Walker refers to him, “Mr. Frank Ahearn,” the school’s beloved history teacher and basketball coach.
“‘You’re probably the best basketball player on this campus now,’” she remembers him telling her one day in the late ʼ70s. “‘But here’s what I want from you: I want you to be first in all the drills. I don’t want you to take plays off. And I want you to make sure that the 11 players on your team feel as important as you.’”
Walker, class of 1980, went on from Garfield to an international career among that group of women players who helped lay the foundation of women’s basketball. She was a high school All-American, played Division 1 basketball at Louisiana State University, where many of her national collegiate records set 40 years ago still stand. After a pro career playing internationally, she was the second woman selected to play on the all-male Harlem Globetrotters.
Today, Walker passes the ball to the next generation as a teacher at Glacier Middle School in SeaTac and through her nonprofit ReJoyce Academy.
Those lessons of acceptance of differences played out in the ʼ50s and ʼ60s as Seattle and the country emerged from segregation.
“Blues music and jazz, all that was banned from the mainstream radio and TV networks nationwide,” said Barney Hilliard, who played saxophone in high school and went on to form a band led by fellow student and pianist Dave Lewis. “So, in order for us to learn the music of our culture, we would go to the local record shop on Madison Street, and we would buy the records that we wanted to listen to and then we would learn the music from those records and then we would start playing those songs.”
James Brown, The Coasters, and Sam Cooke, for example, were artists whose songs were banned from mainstream radio but that the band played. But “the key to all of this is that thanks to Ray Johnston, the band director at Garfield, we were able to use the music room to practice our music after school. And this was in 1953 and 1954.”
As they practiced, students around campus started listening and dancing to their music. Their popularity grew, and the band began getting booked at high school dances around the city playing banned music and subtly eroding segregation.
“As a result of our Garfield heritage, the teen dances were integrated, racially integrated,” says Hilliard who continued playing music but also went on to earn a University of Washington law degree and career in business and civil service. “Whereas the rest of the music world, as far as the music, musicians, unions and the music, hotels and the music, concert halls, they were all segregated in the 1950s.”
“We had great pride in knowing that we were diverse and so that diversity gave us a frame of reference so that we were never playing music from a perspective of being segregated,” Hilliard says. “We were always playing integrated parties, integrated dances wherever we went. And that all came out of Garfield.”
From there, the Dave Lewis Combo went on to play larger venues and was prominent in the effort to merge and integrate what had been segregated Black and white musician unions.
When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his one and only visit to Seattle in November 1961, it included an extended stop at Garfield High School. Sen. Barack Obama visited Garfield in 2006, two years before he was elected the 44th president of the United States.
Garfield’s roots in diversity and activism came through its alumni as well. Counted among its alumni are Aki Kurose, a noted Seattle social justice pioneer whose family was among thousands of Japanese Americans sent to concentration camps during World War II. Credited with starting Head Start programs in Seattle, a South End middle school was renamed in her honor.
“If you were a Bulldog, you were a Bulldog, no matter what color you were,” says Seattle activist Eddie Rye Jr.
“We always had a multiracial mix of folks and, matter of fact, they used to call my mother and father’s house the United Nations House because the doors were never locked, and you would see people from everywhere in that house: whites, Jews, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, African.”
That kind of background led Rye to work alongside activists of different colors and backgrounds in a common struggle. For instance, he was among the leaders in 1972 occupying the empty Beacon Hill School, which became El Centro De La Raza.
In many ways, Garfield is a microcosm of what diversity can look like in Seattle, a striving for inclusion even while imperfect.
“It’s a school that’s trying to fulfill the American dream,” Carver Gayton says. “That’s the continuous effort … it hasn’t been perfect.”
He says his friend Quincy Jones has told him that Garfield was a place where he grew in confidence knowing that he could learn and teach white students who come from more privileged backgrounds.
Jones told him, “‘What made me, you know, have confidence in myself is I could sit down in class with this kid, who is from a very wealthy family, very bright and Scandinavian. And I’m just sitting next to him and I could hang. I can be with that person and learn from him and he can learn from me.’”
“But I think like what Quincy talked about,” says Gayton, “is that true integration where you know you could offer something. The learning of what kind of society we’re about is in that classroom if you do it in a way that focuses on teaching and learning on all levels.”
Garfield High School Centennial Celebration
Where: 400 23rd Ave., Seattle, WA
When: Saturday, Aug. 27, from 9:30 a.m. to 5 pm
Who: Honorary chair, Quincy Jones; host, Mayor Bruce Harrell
Highlights: Music by noted alumni, students, decade reunions, historical and student displays, community partner presentations, food trucks.
Cost: Free and open to to the public
- Current and Former Staff Reception in the Library: 10–11 a.m.
- Entertainment all around: Schedule to be announced.
- Food Trucks Open in the Performance Center Driveway: 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
- Formal Program in the Gym: 1 p.m. (doors open at 12:30 p.m.)
- Decade Reunions from 9:30–11 a.m. and 2:30–4 p.m.
Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism, and most recently was the news editor for the Emerald.
📸 Featured Image: Garfield High School celebrates its centennial Saturday, Aug. 27. The high school has been influential in shaping the diverse cultures of the Central District, and greater Seattle. (Photo: Jaidev Vella)
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