RACHEL BELLE

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
Dancing at Seattle's YMCA in 1942. (Meredith Mathews YMCA image, photo courtesy of MOHAI Collections) The Central District's 24th Ave Market. (Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections/Washington State Jewish Historical Society)

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.

Seattle’s QueenCare is teaching young Black women how to be entrepreneurs

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.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.” Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

Rachel Belle

Rachel Belle...
Rachel Belle

Belle: This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later

After 20 years in news radio, I'm leaving my post at KIRO Newsradio to focus on making my podcast "Your Last Meal" full-time!
3 months ago
emily post etiquette...
Rachel Belle

Emily Post’s “Etiquette” goes modern: Advice on pronouns, hugging

In 1922, Emily Post published her very first etiquette book. Since then, 18 editions have been published by five generations of Posts.
3 months ago
Friluftsliv...
Rachel Belle

Combat winter blues with friluftsliv, the Nordic tradition of being outside

Friluftsliv is part of the culture in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, places that are darker and colder than Seattle in winter.
3 months ago
small talk...
Rachel Belle

Most Americans hate small talk, but Seattleites continue talking about weather

Out of 1,000 people surveyed, 71% said they prefer silence to small talk and 89% of Gen Z use their phones to avoid making small talk.
3 months ago
(Igordoon Primus/Unsplash)...
Rachel Belle

Seattle sperm bank in desperate need of Black donors

Only 2% of American sperm donors are Black men, which is causing a lot of heartache for women specifically looking for a Black donor. 
3 months ago
Photo courtesy of Rosie Grant...
Rachel Belle

Woman cooking recipes engraved on gravestones says they’re all ‘to die for’

You know that recipe your family requests at every holiday, potluck and birthday party? What if you had it engraved on your tombstone?
3 months ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
New virtual tours highlight Black and Jewish history in Seattle’s Central District