New virtual tours highlight Black and Jewish history in Seattle’s Central District

Jun 16, 2021, 11:10 AM | Updated: Jun 17, 2021, 2:05 pm

The Washington State Jewish Historical Society just launched a virtual tour of Seattle’s Central District, where a thriving Sephardic Jewish community once lived, worked, and prayed.

“This neighborhood was the center of Jewish life from about the 1920s to the 1960s,” said Cynthia Flash Hemphill, a volunteer with Seattle Sephardic Network and the Jewish Historical Society.

Coincidentally, the Black Heritage Society of Washington State also launched a virtual tour of the Central District.

“This tour is for everyone, and Black history is everyone’s history,” said Black Heritage Society President Stephanie Johnson-Toliver.

When the two organizations learned of each other’s tours, they discovered some crossover. There are three locations that show up on both tours, including Washington Hall, a Seattle landmark built by the Danish Brotherhood in America in 1907. In the early 1900s, it was used by the Sephardic Jewish community.

“For both religious services and also for performances. They did original plays in Ladino, which is Judeo-Spanish,” Hemphill said.

Johnson-Toliver says Washington Hall has also been an arts hub for Seattle’s Black community for over 100 years.

“Ella Fitzgerald was there, Cab Calloway, all of them up to Jimi Hendrix all performed out of Washington Hall,” she said.

Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois spoke there, and even Ray Charles lived in the neighborhood for a little while.

“Ray Charles was here really early on, he performed at the YMCA that’s right off of 23rd Avenue, mostly during the ’40s,” Johnson-Toliver said.

Washington Hall has also sheltered immigrants from Denmark, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Brazil.

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In the 1960s, the Sephardic Jewish community moved to Seward Park, but the Central District was its original Seattle home; they had bakeries, a butcher shop, and synagogues there.

“The people who lived here during that time, they’ll talk about the Shabbat Stroll where you walked around the neighborhood, you knew everybody, you could go to anybody’s house for lunch,” Hemphill said. “It was a very contained little neighborhood where everybody was either related or knew each other.”

Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, and observant Jews don’t do things like drive cars, work, or cook meals from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Both tours can be taken virtually, from anywhere in the world, or you can do a walking tour like Hemphill and I did, using the online maps as a guide. When you arrive at a location, you can click on a video or audio clip to hear a story told by an elder who lived in the neighborhood.

“Now we’re going to what is currently the Tolliver Temple,” said Hemphill, guiding me down the street. “It’s a Black church but it used to be the Sephardic Bikur Holim, which is one of the synagogues.”

Sephardic Jews came from Spain and Turkey and Seattle has the third largest population in the country. The Tolliver Temple has been a Black church since the 1960s, but it still bears Jewish iconography.

“There are Stars of David on the top of all the windows and there are also Stars of David on the doors entering the building,” Hemphill pointed out.

Both tours also feature Garfield High School and the Douglass-Truth library.

“Ugh, yes, my heart, I absolutely love that library and that’s a really great and rich history, too,” Johnson-Toliver said.

She says, over the years, the library changed its catalog to reflect the neighborhood. It once had a large Yiddish language section, then became rich with Japanese language books, and it now contains the largest collection of African American literature on the West Coast.

The Central District is like an old house with layers and layers of culture, community, and history stacked on top of each other like sheets of wallpaper.

“We talk about the Central District being the home to African American community, it was also the home to the Jewish community, Danish community, Japanese, Chinese and Filipino communities. So it was really a diverse community, early.”

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New virtual tours highlight Black and Jewish history in Seattle’s Central District