The Origin of Seattle’s Ghetto

Black population of King County, 1960

Population data from 1960: African Americans in Seattle were concentrated around the Central Area.

Patrinell husband Benny Wright says that Seattle’s Central Area (also known as the Central District) used to be primarily a Jewish neighborhood. The term “ghetto” originally referred to an urban area where Jews lived. African Americans tended to settle in these areas in northern cities partly because housing was most affordable there, and also because they were excluded from other areas by the racist practice of “redlining”. Property agreements in the other Seattle neighborhoods commonly contained restrictions that barred the sale or rental of homes to non-whites and people of Jewish descent. Deeds on 935 Capitol Hill properties, for instance, stated that “no part of said premises shall ever be used or occupied by or sold conveyed, leased, rented, or given to negroes or any person or persons of negro blood.” During the late 1940s, the deeds of sale for properties in Clyde Hill near Bellevue stated specifically that “This property shall not be resold, leased, rented or occupied except to or by persons of the Aryan race.”

The University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project has compiled a large database of such racially restrictive covenants which includes copies of deeds from throughout Seattle and the Eastside.

63928 Seattle Archives copy
CORE-sponsored demonstration at realtor office of Picture Floor Plans, Inc, May 4, 1964. Photographed by the Seattle Police Department.

African Americans originally settled in two clusters around the intersection of Madison Avenue and 24th St, and around 24th and Jackson. The area in between filled in as military service and better job opportunities brought more African Americans to the Pacific Northwest from the South in the late 1950s and 60s. Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney recalled:

…When I first came, in Seattle, there were two sections, the Central Area, where black folks lived. One was 24, 25th off of Madison. The other was the 23rd, 24th, 25th off of Jackson. I was in the church parsonage the first few months when we came and then bought the house next to Pat [Wright] and moved in there. And we saw that gap between Jackson and Madison fill up. A lot of black people when they came here were moving to West Seattle and other places. The church had a bus that went around picking folks up, bringing them to church. Then they began filling in that area. When they filled in that area, we were able to do some things politically. Like Sam Smith was elected, that wouldn’t happen. [Sam Smith was the first black person to be elected to the Seattle City Council and the second black State Legislator from King County.]

African American jazz clubs and dance halls thrived in the Central District during the 1940-50s. Photographer Al Smith captured the vibrant nightlife at places like Birdland (at the intersection of Madison and 23rd) and the Black and Tan which was located in a basement of a Japanese-owned drug store on the corner of 12th St and Jackson. Soon after its founding in 1922, the Black and Tan became the most famous nightclub in the area. Popular entertainers such as Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Lena Horne, Ernestine Anderson, Ray Charles, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker had all performed there.


The Black and Tan at the corner of 12th and Jackson

Although secular music such as blues and jazz and the lifestyle surrounding it was often frowned upon among church-goers, musicians would discreetly play at clubs on Saturday nights and then play gospel music at church the next morning. Even Patrinell Wright had a brief career performing in nightclubs in both Seattle and Portland with a group called the Casanovas. (The group was named after a Central District apartment building of the same name.)

Image493 copy

Patrinell and Benny Wright

Music was a big part of life in the Central District and most kids learned it first at church. Children were often made to sing in church choirs whether they wanted to or not. Benny Wright remembers being put into the church choir:

…I remember when I joined True Vine [Baptist Church], Sister Reed just took me by the ear and put me in the choir. I couldn’t sing, but it didn’t matter. You got a chance to practice singing. Those who could of course practiced, not knowing they were going to be singers later. Some of them turned out well.

I was looking online the other day and I saw a friend of mine that I knew from way back in the 60s or late 50s even, Luther Rabb… Luther sang with War. He sang with Santana… His dad was a pastor. I just didn’t know he could do that. And of course you know Jimi Hendrix was around here.

Even now there still a number of successful Seattle singer/songwriters of popular music who had their start singing gospel — with Patrinell Wright and the Total Experience Gospel Choir.

Andrew Elizaga

Co-Director, Editor