Photo depicting all the presenters of the State of Africatown gathered on a stage in front of a projected screen that reads, "State of Africatown: Celebrating a Decade of Realizing the Vision of Black Seattle 2023."

The Future of Black Seattle: Organizers and Community Members Meet for 2023 State of Africatown

by Lauryn Bray

This past Saturday, Feb. 25, community organizers and members, elected officials, and Black Seattle residents gathered together at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute to join Africatown Community Land Trust (ACLT) in “celebrating a decade of realizing the vision of Black Seattle.” Hosted by TraeAnna Holiday, 2023’s State of Africatown celebration held space for over 15 speakers to present the ways in which they are invested in making their community thrive. Although the speakers came from an array of backgrounds, representing different fields of work, including health care, education, and philanthropy, through their songs and stories, each of them spoke to a collective vision and commitment to protecting, promoting, and preserving the potential of Seattle’s Black communities. 

The event’s first speaker was Tim Lennon, executive director of Langston Seattle, the nonprofit organization producing Black art and culture events for the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Lennon spoke about the organization’s mission, its programs, and the upcoming Seattle Black Film Festival in April. 

“Langston’s vision is to strengthen and advance our community through Black arts and culture. Our mission is to cultivate Black brilliance, and we do that every day, in all kinds of ways, from the Central District to International,” said Lennon. 

According to the ACLT website, The African American & African Diaspora Gathering: State of Africatown started as “a listening session for elected officials and policymakers to hear innovators and leaders share their strategic ideas for Seattle’s Black community.” The event was collaboratively founded in 2013 by the Honorable Dawn Mason and ACLT President and CEO K. Wyking Garrett. Mason, who is the current chair of the board of directors for King County Equity Now, is also a veteran community leader and former representative in the Washington State Legislature. She has been awarded ACLT’s Elder of Distinction four years in a row.

“Consistency is important, and this is our 10th year since the first time we gathered for State of Africatown. This is a testimony to our ability to grow and sustain the Black population in King County,” said Holiday on behalf of Mason, who was not in attendance.

Following the delivery of Mason’s words, the audience was welcomed to participate in a libation ritual. A libation ritual consists of the pouring of a liquid as an offering to a deity, spirit, or to the ancestors. As Brother Palfani poured the libation, the audience was asked to call out the names of our ancestors.

Josephine Howell sang the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” before Evelyn Allen, president and executive director of Equity Alliance of Washington, was invited to present the 2023 Elder of Distinction award to Aaliyah Messiah. Messiah is a program director at POCAAN, a BIPOC social service agency with roots in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. Since its founding, POCAAN has grown and expanded its services with the understanding that related issues, such as substance abuse, incarceration, homelessness, sexually transmitted diseases, racism, sexism, and homophobia, also contribute to community marginalization and health disparities. Messiah spoke to how her work reciprocates the support she has received.

“I want to thank my family for loving and supporting me continuously, and all my extended family and my community. Just continuously, the love and support that I receive — there’s no reason I wouldn’t give it back,” said Messiah. “Love is all giving and it just comes from your heart, so if I’m standing, sitting, or waiting, I always show love.”

Evelyn Allen (right) presenting the 2023 Elder of Distinction award to Aaliyah Messiah (left). (Photo: Susan Fried)

Teroshua Thomas was next to be invited to the stage, where she spoke about the Africatown Center for Education & Innovation and The Cherish Academy preschool. Thomas also asked for help with planning the 10th annual Black Graduation, which is also held at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in June. To highlight the innovative brilliance of Seattle’s young Black business owners, Thomas played a commercial from It’s Never 2 Early 2 Create & Innovate, a collective of young Black-owned businesses and Black entrepreneurs. The commercial was produced by Olu Productions, a young Black-owned production company founded by Olu Dixon. Following the viewing, Thomas invited some of the young business owners, including Brothers Snack Shop and HI Designs, to grace the stage as the audience applauded. 

Next, Holiday welcomed therapist and social worker Ashley McGirt-Adair, with Therapy Fund Foundation, an organization that offers free mental health services to Black Washingtonians, to present on the work it is doing to address the disparities that prevent Black people from having access to mental health services. 

“At the Therapy Fund Foundation, we are working to create health equity that addresses structural barriers that lead to poor outcomes to Black community members’ mental health,” said McGirt-Adair. “Each and every one of us has mental health, and 1 in 5 of us experiences a mental illness. Nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services. Additionally, Black community members seek mental health services at half the rate of white Americans. Through the work that we are doing at the Therapy Fund Foundation, we are working to change those numbers.”

The Therapy Fund Foundation works with a network of clinicians within Washington State, and it is looking to expand across the nation. The organization is currently working to bring free mental health services to Black Californians, starting in San Diego. 

Jeron “Bookie” Gates, founder and president of Baseball Beyond Borders, spoke on the deep history of racial inequity that surrounds the sport, and the work Baseball Beyond Borders does to ensure young Black baseball players have a pathway to success. 

“Baseball Beyond Borders was formed on the pain of displacement, out of the passion for play, and out of the purpose for preserving the cultural legacy that Andrew ‘Rube’ Foster created,” said Gates. 

Gates said he is working on creating an Africatown baseball league. In the meantime, he advocated for the support and celebration of Black baseball by preserving the cultural legacy through museums and landmarks, and by donating to organizations that are dedicated to this work. 

Following Gates, LaCretiah Claytor and Robert Baker, board members of Acts on Stage, announced to the audience the theater company’s upcoming shows and projects. They informed the audience of Renaissance 20, an after school performing arts program for kids ages eight to 18 years old, and of their Spring production of Pipeline. Pipeline is set to premiere on March 31 and run until April 9. 

Finally, K. Wyking Garrett was invited to the stage where he spoke on the legacy of the State of Africatown and the intention behind the annual gathering.

“There’s a saying that ‘Where there’s no vision, the people perish,’ but what we can see is that where there is vision, the people persist. And that’s what Africatown has represented: proof that despite the problems that we face, the solutions are among us — the medicine is within us,” said Garrett. “As you have seen just today, powerful initiatives to address the issues in our community. This has been a listening post for elected officials to hear directly from the changemakers so the policies can come from the grassroots up, and not from the top down.”

Keanna Rose Pickett of The Postman speaks at the 2023 State of Africatown. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Mayor Bruce Harrell also spoke, followed by Keanna Rose Pickett, owner and COO of The Postman. Pickett spoke about what the organization has done, what it is currently doing, and what employees imagine it doing in the future.

“We opened our doors Aug. 1, 2018, [and] since then, we’ve served over 10,304 customers, with an average of four visits per customer. We were listed by the Puget Sound Business Journal as No. 9 Black-owned company ranked by revenue. The number of jobs we have created and people we’ve employed since opening is 19,” said Pickett. 

Pickett also spoke on the philanthropic work born out of the murder of her late husband, D’Vonne Pickett Jr., who was shot and killed on the 1100 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Way on Oct. 19, 2022. 

“Since [D’Vonne] was murdered, we were able to give donations through Seattle Kraken to support Community Passageways, BUILD 206, and CD Panthers. We also have an endowment that we are fundraising for with Seattle University,” announced Pickett.

The last formal speaker of the ceremony was Devonte Parson, executive director and founder of Pro Se Potential, an organization that works with young People of Color throughout Seattle and South King County by helping them with mentorship and resource navigation. Parson moved the audience with his story, as he spoke about his experience being incarcerated as a teenager and an adult. After the death of his father, Parson was sent to Seattle’s Central District to live with his grandmother because his mother could not handle raising him and his older brother. Parson himself was in and out of juvenile detention centers when his grandmother was arrested for something she had done 25 years prior. After his grandmother was arrested, Parson fell even deeper into the streets.

When Parson was 23 years old, he was arrested and charged with eight counts of attempted murder, one count of drive-by shooting, and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm, and was facing 144 years in prison. He was caught on camera shooting, but instead of taking a plea deal like his lawyer suggested, he fired his lawyer, went pro se, and beat the case. Parson served six years in prison before he was released. 

“My main goal is to provide [for] the community. For the individuals that are in the community that need assistance and for the young people who are coming out [of] the system. To be that hope for them, to be that mentorship, to be that navigation,” explained Parson.

Rapper and entertainer Skye Dior performed her original song “Wade,” followed by a recitation of the poem “Hey Black Child” by Useni Eugene Perkins. Dior’s music is upbeat, inspirational, catchy, and uplifting, and the 10-year-old has a stage presence that captivated the entire audience. 

Africatown Community Land Trust President and CEO K. Wyking Garrett. (Photo: Susan Fried)

The ceremony concluded with a speech from Jacqueline Smith Armstrong, board vice chair of ACLT, who presented K. Wyking Garrett with an award. Smith Armstrong also shared a story with the room about the Colman School occupation of 1985, when 40 activists entered the building through a window previously broken by vandals to protest the building’s destruction in preparation for the expansion of Interstate 90. Their entrance into the building marked the beginning of an eight-year occupancy, making their protest the longest act of civil disobedience in U.S. history. The protest was led by Omari Tahir-Garrett, K. Wyking Garrett’s father. 

As Garrett accepted the award, he quoted rapper 2 Chainz and said, “I just want to make my father proud.”

Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 02/28/2023 to correct Josephine Howell’s name.

Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.

📸 Featured Image: Presenters at State of Africatown 2023. From left to right: Aaliyah Messiah, Brother Palfani, Devonte Parson, Jeron “Bookie” Gates, Keanna Rose Pickett, Ashley McGirt-Adair, EvelynAllen, Robert Baker, LaCretiah Claytor, Teroshua Thomas, and host Trae Holiday. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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