By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
We amble down streets, passing buildings, passing vacant lots where buildings once stood. For the most part, we stick to our business, not giving surroundings much of a thought.
And according to Ashley Harrison, a partner in Seattle’s Black & Tan Hall community organization, that’s understandable. It’s just disappointing.
“What would it look like if we all knew the histories of the specific places we frequent?” asked Harrison. “The Louisa Hotel has a window decal naming all businesses known to have existed within its walls since it was built, which is so cool. History is often looked at in broad strokes, but reflecting on the specific history of the place where you live, or the particular spot where you are standing, can be powerful and profound.”
To educate the public on this history, Black & Tan Hall created the Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour. Named for the historical “Green Book” tour guide for Black motorists, this tour covers the Jackson Street corridor, with several crucial stops through the Chinatown-International District (CID). Tour-takers choose between using the Hall’s website for a guide or downloading an application.
Victor Green, a Black New York City postal worker, published the “Green Book,” properly known as “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” between 1936 and 1966. It offered a handy list of Black-owned and Black-friendly businesses, for Black motorists driving cross-country, with frank advice on how to safely cross virulently racist areas.
The Black & Tan Hall’s Jefferson Street project includes plenty of research derived from the Green Book, but also uncovered crucial history through the CID.
“Several Seattle sites in the Green Book were Asian American-owned,” Harrison explained. “During a segregated era, these businesses made an affirmative choice to welcome Black patronage, and some also advertised in the ‘Northwest Enterprise,’ a Black-owned newspaper. It also seems that Japanese-owned hotels/single room occupancy buildings played a particular role in housing Black residents in the CID.
“We reviewed census records from 10th and Jackson in 1920 [which] list Chinese, Japanese, Black, white, and interracial households in the same block. At that time, the neighboring Central District was also the geographic center of Seattle’s Jewish community.”
Neighborhood residents from different racial backgrounds also worked, socialized, and collaborated artistically together. Al Smith, a Black photographer in Seattle who documented his community over a 50-year span, was part of a camera club called the Kohga Club, the only non-Japanese member.
Filipinx musicians were closely connected to Seattle’s jazz scene, forming their own jazz bands and/or playing in integrated Black and Filipinx bands.
Adds Harrison, “An influential multiracial organizing coalition called the Jackson Street Community Council (JSCC) formed here in the 1950s. During our research process, we were excited to learn that the ‘Colored Waiters, Porters, and Cook’s Club, Inc.,, which was based at the [original] Black & Tan Club, was part of the JSCC in the late 1940s. This is a direct link between the historic, Black-owned, integrated club, and the neighborhood’s multiracial political advocacy during that era.”
World War II brought the forced internment of Japanese along the West Coast, which in turn provoked a housing shortage for Blacks in the area. With Japanese landlords off to the camps, the white landlords often refused housing to Blacks.
“The tour includes all the information we were able to uncover in historical records about the housing crisis generated by the incarceration of Japanese landlords renting rooms to Black tenants,” said Harrison. “We came across these articles fairly late in our research, and there likely is more information on this topic than we’ve found so far. Densho and the Wing Luke Museum are both great resources for readers who want to engage further with the history of Japanese incarceration.
“Our primary sources were digitized historical newspapers. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project has digitized thousands of U.S. newspapers, including Seattle publications in English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and more. It’s an extraordinary resource, without which we could not have completed this project during the pandemic, because libraries and archives were closed.”
The Black & Tan Hall defines itself as a values-driven cultural hub with a mission to sustain a thriving and equitable economy through arts and cultural programming. Its name derives from the many multiracial “black and tan” clubs which incubated the jazz scene across America, including Seattle’s actual “Black & Tan,” located at 12th and Jackson between 1922 and 1966.
The modern-day Black & Tan Hall’s plans for the future include opening up its headquarters at 5608 Rainier Avenue South in Hillman City, to house a restaurant plus a performing arts hall.
“Ideally, our tour will continue to bring people to the neighborhood to support the local businesses here today and learn about the neighborhood’s layered and important histories,” concluded Harrison.
“We hope the tour adds to ongoing conversations about the history and dynamism of these communities.”
For more information on the Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour, and to download tour apps, visit blackandtanhall.com/greenbooktour.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.