Black Heritage Society and the past, present, and future of African-Americans in the Northwest

Jun 10, 2020, 10:23 AM

Black Heritage Society of Washington State...

On Sunday, June 15, 1963, a group of over 1,000 black and white protesters marched from Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central District to Westlake Park in an anti-discrimination demonstration through downtown Seattle. (MOHAI)


Seattle has a long history of segregation and racial discrimination, and the Black Heritage Society of Washington State has been documenting that history for years. KIRO Radio checked in with the group to find out how they’re responding to the pandemic, and to the unrest following the death of George Floyd.

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver is president of the BHS. Her family has been in Seattle for more than 100 years, and she’s been active in the community for decades.

The Black Heritage Society was founded in Seattle in 1977. They produce programs and exhibits in partnership with local museums and libraries, and have been collecting artifacts and photos and oral histories. The group maintains an office and stores its artifacts and maintains its archives at the Museum of History & Industry’s Research Center in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood.

Johnson-Toliver invited longtime local activist Elmer Dixon to join in a phone conversation with KIRO Radio earlier this week about Seattle’s African-American history, past, present and future.

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver says that the Black Heritage Society sometimes has difficulty documenting personal stories about challenging times for African-Americans in the past. But now, she says, something is different.

“Early generations of black people were pretty much silent about their experiences. It’s very limited in my family, and I hear that from other families as well,” Johnson-Toliver said, perhaps because “they wanted to just suppress those memories, or they didn’t even know what those experiences were.”

“But you know,” Johnson-Toliver said, “that was then, and this is now.”

Even before the unrest, African-Americans have been suffering disproportionately when it comes to COVID-19, so the BHS all-volunteer team, says Johnson-Toliver, has been working diligently during the months of pandemic, as well as in the past few weeks, to collect stories and artifacts in order to thoroughly document this time for future historians.

Did this earlier collective reticence about past degradations lead to a dearth of documented personal stories of segregation and racism that then fueled a myth of Seattle having always being something of a non-racist utopia?

Elmer Dixon and his brother Aaron Dixon co-founded the Seattle chapter of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s.

Elmer Dixon says that any “utopian myth” of Seattle when it comes to racism is just that: A myth.

When we first moved here from Chicago in 1957, my mother went to apply for a job that she had seen in the newspapers. She called first. She called and asked if the position was open and they said, ‘Yes, that position is open, please come in for the interview.’ When she walked in the office and they saw her brown skin, they said ‘What are you doing here?’ And she said ‘I’m here [because] I called about the job and you said it was available.’ They said ‘No, that job is gone.’ Being a smart woman, she went to a phone booth and called back up and said ‘I’m just inquiring about the job that’s in the paper’ and they said ‘Oh, yes, please come in.’ See, because they had an idea of what they thought of black person sounded like. My mother went to teacher’s college in Chicago – very intelligent woman, as most black people are. But there’s this underlying sense of superiority that has always existed in Seattle. And so while you may feel like Seattle was this utopia, underneath the surface there’s a lot of racism that’s in this part of the country as well.

It may be that the myth still fuels a kind of disconnect, even for people who think they’re progressive. In the demonstrations of the past two weeks, Elmer Dixon has been encouraged by diverse groups of young protesters he has seen and heard calling for change.

But Dixon still sees misunderstanding.

I know that there’s a level of privilege in the Northwest, in Seattle, Bellevue, where people kind of live in a bubble, who have this progressive air about themselves. But they also benefit from their privilege, not only as being white, but from their income level. And there’s a huge disparity, not only in Seattle, but across the country in the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ that really has begun to surface through this pandemic, and people that can’t afford to pay their rents or feed their families. And so that has given rise to the fact that we’re in the same boat.

And in this same boat, Dixon says, “black people are at the bottom along with Native Americans and Latinos, [but] whites are also beginning to understand that we have some common cause.”

This “common cause” is what seems the most different this time around, the sense that the majority of people in the country – and not solely African-Americans – have passed a tipping point that goes beyond the scope, scale, reach, and even the ambitions of previous demonstrations.

Also different, says Elmer Dixon, is the level of organization of some of the demonstrators.

Dixon says that 50 years ago, the Black Panthers had clear policy goals and a 10-point program that informed all of the group’s actions. He acknowledges that he’s been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement in the past because, he says, they didn’t have the same clarity.

Dixon says that this has changed, too.

I’m encouraged today because I see in this current movement that they have created this four or five-point program of what their demands are and the changes that they are seeking. And I think that’s the thing that needs to happen. They need to be clear about what they’re asking for, what they’re demanding for, and they’re not going to turn back until they see these things happen. The [Seattle] mayor is on the spot. The [Seattle] City Council is on the spot. And they need to keep the pressure there. The [Seattle] police chief is on the spot. Carmen Best is a good friend of mine. I like Carmen. She needs to be part of this change as well. And so they’re demanding this, and they come this time ready, and I’m encouraged now because I see that that they’ve got their points in order, they’ve got their focus, and they just need to keep that focus and keep moving forward.

Bottom line, Elmer Dixon says President Trump has laid bare the racism that was always present in the United States, and this, Dixon says, has helped give rise first to the moment, and now to a movement, of change now underway.

The arrival of Trump and his ushering into the White House was a blessing in disguise, because he brought out the true nature of many racists in this country who are now exposed. And it’s given rise to this new movement of people who are standing up against the type of racist rhetoric that comes out of his mouth. I never thought I would see liberation in my lifetime, and I probably won’t. I’m 70 years old, but at least I know that there are a strong group of young people –  black, white, brown, yellow, red – that are fighting better, continuing the fight.

Elmer Dixon and Stephanie Johnson-Toliver have both seen a lot of history in the decades that they’ve been paying attention. That history includes segregation, racism and cycles of protest in Seattle as well as the rest of the United States.

And like Elmer Dixon, Stephanie Johnson-Toliver is also inspired by what she has seen in the past few weeks

“I, too, am so encouraged and inspired by seeing people take to the streets again,” Johnson-Toliver said. “It almost makes me smile. I mean, as traumatic as all of this has been, I’m sitting here some days and I’m smiling. I’m standing in my house in front of the TV with my fist raised in the air.”

“I’m just like ‘Yes,’ you know?” Johnson-Toliver said. “Finally!”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Black Heritage Society and the past, present, and future of African-Americans in the Northwest