I have had close relatives living in Seattle’s Central Area for 73 years, and for 62 years I have lived in the neighborhood. The Central Area is often referred to as the Central District (CD) by many of its longtime African American residents. This beloved community has been the historic and cultural hub for Black people in this city since about 1952. The boundaries of the CD are, south to north, Judkins Street to Madison, and, west to east, 14th to 34th Avenue.
When I graduated from the 6th grade at Horace Mann School in 1957, the school’s student body was 97.6% Black. When I was a sophomore at Garfield High School in 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Seattle to speak on the topic of open housing, a concept that most of us Black students had never heard of. But when we learned that the already great Martin Luther King Jr. was not being allowed to speak anywhere else but at Garfield, we students of color became very upset. And we listened to him very intently.
Martin Luther King Jr. told us that the Central Area was the home community of about 88% of Black Seattle residents and that there was nothing innately wrong with living in an all Black neighborhood, but every family ought to have a choice about where they lived. Because of neighborhood covenants, many communities in Seattle prohibited whites from selling homes to Black people. Redline covenants kept Black people confined to certain neighborhoods. I mark Dr. King’s speech that day as the beginning of the civil rights and Black empowerment movement in Seattle.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Black music and educational, social, and civil rights groups flourished in the Central Area. Jimi Hendrix was an 11th-grader when I was at Garfield. He and Sammy Drain were already recognized music stars. Tiny Tony, the Brown brothers, Ronnie and Gary Hammon, and a myriad of other great entertainers were blowing up the music scene all over our community. Quincy Jones and Ray Charles had already moved from Seattle to greener pastures, like Los Angeles.
Black churches sprouted up all over the CD. Reverend McKinney of Mount Zion Baptist Church and Edwin Pratt of the Seattle Urban League organized the Central Area Civil Rights Committee in 1963 and led demonstrations advocating for housing and school integration in Seattle. They led boycotts of stores, like Safeway, that would not hire Black workers. Many people came together as members of several neighborhood community councils, like those of Mann, Minor, and Madrona, and that union featured the creation of the first strong multiracial coalition of community activists. In the early '60s, they put together the first proposal for funding of an antipoverty program west of the Mississippi River: the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP). It hired and trained many very successful community organizers and provided CAMP-funded employment as well as health, housing, weatherization, and youth programs that dramatically reduced poverty among Black Central Area residents. Between 1964 and 1980, poverty in the CD was cut in half—50% to 25%.
The 1960s and 1970s also saw the coming of the Black Power organizations, like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Black Student Union, and the Black Panther Party. All of these groups played important roles in improving the economic, social, educational, and political fortunes of Black folks living in the CD.
Then in the 1980s and 1990s, a new unstoppable threat to the Black community in Seattle occurred: hundreds of white families started moving onto the valuable real estate in the Central District. Why? They found the area ideally located close to downtown, and the homes, because they had been lived in by Black families for 30 years, were cheaper. In the past, Central District residents, like my pops, could never get a home improvement loan to fix up our big ghetto house because as a Black man in a predominantly white city he, and all other Blacks, were redlined by banks. When whites moved in, the property values went up—again, a scenario made possible because of the traditional denial of loans to all Black borrowers. Blacks were then forced to move out of their own neighborhood because they could not afford to stay due to rising property taxes or for the need of other basic services.
This process is called gentrification. And it has happened in large urban communities across the country.
Today, the Central Area is 70% white and less than 20% Black. The neighborhood's Black population is projected to continue decreasing, and by 2025, the average home in the “hood” will cost between $650,000 and $1,000,000. Without significant government intervention, this is not a solvable problem.