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Jimi Hendrix’s little-known connection between Seattle and Vancouver, BC

Connections between Black communities in Seattle and Vancouver, BC include the family of Jimi Hendrix; his maternal grandparents, Ross and Nora Hendrix, lived in Vancouver, BC, and his father Al was born there. (Public Domain)

A neighborhood in downtown Vancouver, B.C. was wiped off the map more than 50 years ago for a freeway project, but a group there is working to keep its legacy alive and to help rebuild a new community in its place.

And part of that community legacy has a deep connection to one of Seattle’s most famous residents.

Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. are similar cities in many ways. Both have struggled to manage growth and address problems of homelessness, as well as long histories of systemic racism.

In Seattle, redlining and other practices restricted where people of color could rent or buy homes, creating a large de facto Black neighborhood in the Central Area. The same was true in Vancouver, where the Black population was proportionately smaller than Seattle – generally comprising about 1%.

Members of Vancouver’s Black community lived almost exclusively in a place called Hogan’s Alley, a several square block area in the Strathcona section of the city. Unlike Seattle’s Central Area, Hogan’s Alley was demolished around 1970 to make way for two elevated roadways known as the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

Those viaducts, which were part of a freeway project that was never fully completed, are now slated to be torn down.

In the past few years, there has been a lot of community interest about what will go in their place once the viaducts are gone. In June, Black Lives Matter demonstrators blocked traffic on the viaducts to call attention to the fate of the long-ago residents of Hogan’s Alley and to Vancouver’s somewhat hidden Black history.

Stephanie Allen is a founding board member and current board member of a community organization called the Hogan’s Alley Society.

“We’re a not-for-profit organization that was formed in response to a real need to look at redressing the displacement of a Black community that happened in Vancouver,” Allen said. “And we kind of came together at a time when the City of Vancouver was looking at redeveloping an area of downtown, and a big component of that redevelopment is the removal of a bit of a segment of highway called the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.”

A half-century ago, those viaducts were built right over what used to be a several-block long neighborhood called Hogan’s Alley, scattering residences and businesses to the wind.

“The Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts were built during urban renewal, which we know happened across a lot of North American cities and that had devastating impacts on a lot of racialized and Black communities, as it did here in Vancouver,” Allen said.

Allen says Vancouver’s Black community grew in Hogan’s Alley more than a hundred years ago because it was near the railroad terminus – the current Vancouver railroad station is just a few blocks away. For many Black people in Canada and the United States, working for the railroad was one of the only well-paying jobs available.

Allen’s description of racism in Canada echoes much of the American Pacific Northwest, but it has its own specific realities.

“The first-hand accounts are very similar,” Allen said, of descriptions of racism in Canada in the not-too-distant past. “People wouldn’t call you the n-word outright to your face, but they wouldn’t allow you to live in their neighborhoods or they wouldn’t rent places to you. There’s a Canadian anti-Black racism that doesn’t really show up in the in the legal structures and the formality of it like we’ve seen in the Southern states, but it is in this empowerment exclusion from aspects of the formal society, and in an unwillingness to accept that there are these kinds of racial inequalities that show up in Canada.”

“It’s a color-blindness that Canadians use,” she continued. “We absolutely use our veneer of politeness to hide some of the more structural and systemic racism that really has its most violent impacts on Indigenous and Black communities.”

Part of that racism fueled urban renewal efforts that targeted voiceless communities, such as where Black and Indigenous people lived. And because the destruction was so complete, it’s almost as if when the neighborhood disappeared, the history of Hogan’s Alley pretty much disappeared, too. Other than a handful of books and countless personal memories, that history was practically invisible for most of the past 50 years.

Part of the reason why the disappearance could seem so complete is the numbers.

Stephanie Allen says while Seattle and Vancouver have similarities, the Black community in Vancouver has always been smaller, likely because of a Canadian law that was passed in 1911.

“Our then-prime minister, who was Wilfrid Laurier, his cabinet passed an order to ban Black migrants from coming to Canada,” Allen said. “And while it was overturned not long after, there was a very institutionalized immigration policy in Canada that kept Black migration from coming here. It was very intentional.”

“So I think what happened, too, is that that stunted the growth of the community as well,” she added.

Though the Black community was small, there’s at least one deep connection between Hogan’s Alley and Seattle, and that’s the family of legendary guitarist and rock legend Jimi Hendrix.

Jimi’s father Al was born in Vancouver, and came to Seattle in 1940 to find work. Seattle –Washington Hall, specifically, at a Fats Waller concert – is also where Al Hendrix met Lucille Jeter, who would later become Jimi’s mom.

But when it comes to Vancouver, BC, Jimi isn’t the only “star” of the Hendrix family.

Stephanie Allen says that the mother of Al Hendrix – Jimi’s grandma – Nora Hendrix was a community leader in Vancouver in her own right. She was born in Tennessee in 1883, and arrived in Vancouver in 1911 – before the exclusion law was passed – after spending time in Chicago and then traveling Seattle.

In Seattle, Nora and her husband Ross were performers at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the world’s fair held on the University of Washington campus.

Nora Hendrix is featured in a 1977 oral history collection called “Opening Doors in Vancouver’s East End” in which she describes her life in Hogan’s Alley.

Allen says that Nora Hendrix worked at several of the iconic restaurants in the neighborhood – most of which were owned and operated by Black women — and she’s considered a founder of the AME Fountain Chapel Church, the first Black church in Vancouver and an important community gathering place. Nora Hendrix was on the board of directors of the church; in this capacity, she helped recruit preachers, and she was a member of the church choir her entire life.

Stephanie Allen says that Nora Hendrix was such a pillar of the community, Hogan’s Alley Society and another Vancouver non-profit named a 52-unit supported housing complex after her.

“It’s been a real heartwarming story that even though she had this really famous grandson who did come here and spend some time with his grandmother, she really is our hero here in Vancouver because of what a significant member and contributor to the community that she was,” Allen said.

And that famous grandson – Jimi Hendrix – helped put his hometown of Seattle on the map decades ago.

Seattle-based writer and historian Charles R. Cross, author of the landmark Hendrix biography Roomful of Mirrors, says that though he doesn’t think it should be over-emphasized, Jimi did have a special connection to Vancouver, B.C.

And a lot of that was because of Nora Hendrix – who coined Jimi’s family nickname of “Buster,” by the way.

“He ended up going to Vancouver and staying with his grandmother” in 1962, Cross said. “That says a lot about the adult Jimi Hendrix, that he would pick his grandmother over [spending time with] his dad [in Seattle].”

“Jimi ended up in a band in Vancouver for a while called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers – talk about a hometown sounding name,” Cross said. “Jimi was the rhythm guitar player, so he wasn’t the lead guitar player of that band. The lead guitar player – ‘Jeopardy’ question one day, maybe – was Tommy Chong of the later stoner duo Cheech & Chong.”

Charles R. Cross says that it was a car trip by Jimi and his family from Seattle to Vancouver in 1968 – when Jimi was at the height of his fame and had skipped riding the band bus to head to a performance at the Pacific Coliseum – that led to a troubling racist episode in Skagit County.

“He stops with the family in Mount Vernon, of all places, at essentially a Denny’s, and they’re going to eat lunch and they were not served,” Cross said. “I mean, it almost makes me want to cry, frankly, to tell you that story, because Seattle presents itself in many ways as if it’s a more progressive place.”

“The idea that at that point in 1968, that any restaurant in Washington state would not serve a family because they were Black just makes me sick to my stomach,” Cross said.

Charles says that eventually a kid in the restaurant recognized the famous musician and asked Jimi for an autograph. Finally, Cross says, the staff grudgingly gave the Hendrix family menus.

If Jimi felt more welcome in Vancouver, perhaps it was because of how he had been treated in his hometown.

“We essentially ran Jimi Hendrix out of town because he was Black, so he had mixed feelings about Seattle,” says Charles R. Cross, pointing to dubious arrests of Hendrix that led him to leave town by choosing to join the Army rather than go to jail.

“He was proud to have been from here,” Cross said. “But there was a part of Seattle at that point that [because of] his race still put many barriers up to what life was. It didn’t put barriers up to who Jimi was as a creative person, but it put barriers up to how he could sustain himself and survive as a human being with dignity in a world where a Denny’s in Mount Vernon is not going to serve him.”

In Vancouver, Stephanie Allen and her group want to do more than just share the history of Hogan’s Alley — they want to restore the community, and get more units of affordable housing built where Hogan’s Alley once stood.

As they continue to work to restore the legacy of that lost neighborhood, the Canadian federal government has been supportive, but the City of Vancouver has not been as forthcoming as yet.

They haven’t shared any updates with us lately, so we’re not clear when the actual highway structures will eventually fall,” Allen said. “We’re just hopeful that they would work with us in negotiating through all the preambling parts of this and setting the terms and conditions, so that when those highway structures do fall and when this redevelopment can take place that we’re well positioned to move it forward.”

And while the Hogan’s Alley Society works to put that long-ago neighborhood back on the map, future historians might note that it was a grandmother and grandson who helped put their respective communities there on those maps in the first place.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Ralph Bevins for research assistance with this story.

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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