L-R: Panelists Joan Singler, Jean Durning, Bettylou Valentine, and Maid Adams spoke at a recent presentation at South Seattle Community College. They were pioneers in the civil rights organization CORE which fought for integration in Seattle between 1961-1968. They have authored a new book about their activities called "Seattle in Black and White: The Congress of Racial Equality and the Fight for Equal Opportunity", University of Washington Press.
New book presented by its authors at SSCC recalls Seattle's civil rights struggle
Authors pioneered CORE, Congress of Racial Equality; book touches on West Seattle
South Seattle Community College hosted a public presentation June 2 in the Olympic Hall Theater exploring the history of discrimination toward African Americans in Seattle and the robust Civil Rights Movement here in the 1960's. Four panelists were original members of CORE, Congress of Racial Equality from 1961 to 1968. Joan Singler, Jean Durning, Bettylou Valentine, and Maid Adams shared eyewitness accounts, struggles, marches, and successes toward integrating Seattle.
They explored problems of that era, like Seattle's real estate and rental organizations' refusal to do business with people of color outside the immediate Union St. and 23rd Av. neighborhood, the Safeway and A&P grocery stores there that only hired whites, but where African Africans shopped, and department stores, like Bon Marché, and elsewhere in the city that refused to hire blacks, and school segregation.
The presentation was sponsored by South’s Black Student Union, represented by Jonathan Habeeb-Ullah, and South's Continuing Education Department, represented by Laura Matson. The talk highlighted a new book about CORE in Seattle authored by the panelists called Seattle in Black and White: The Congress of Racial Equality and the Fight for Equal Opportunity, University of Washington Press.
West Seattle connection
West Seattle was just one of many segregated neighborhoods through the 1960's. But there were a few bright spots here mentioned in the book. High Point's housing development was somewhat integrated. Real estate agent Elliot Couden is mentioned as "the lone white realtor who had a West Seattle office and defied the rest of the real estate industry and worked with the Fair Housing Listing Service". That list was assembled by CORE to include those willing to sell property to African Americans. Also mentioned, Yale graduate Walt Hundley, a former director of CORE. Seattle Parks and Recreation re-named the High Point Playfield to Walt Hundley Playfield at 6920 34th Avenue S.W. He was the first African-American Superintendent for Seattle Parks, from 1977 to 1988 and the prime mover in acquiring the High Point site for the community center and playfield. He died in 2002. His son Evan is the popular president (principal equivalent) of Explorer West Middle School.
Joan Singler co-founded the Seattle chapter of CORE in1961. She served as CORE secretary and chaired its housing committee. She moved to San Francisco in 1965 and lead the San Francisco Women for Peace against Dow Chemical producers of napalm used in the Vietnam war. She return to Seattle and helped the United Farmworkers Union fight for better working conditions and wages, then with battered women and children at New Beginnings, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
"In writing the book, and in our presentation, we want to take you back to the 1960's and the language of the time," opened Singler. "So you will hear us use the word 'negro', then as times changed and language changed you will hear us use the word 'black' and then 'African American'. Non-violent passive resistance has proven to be a very powerful force for change," she continued, referring to CORE's philosophy. "Gandhi proved that in leading India's struggle for independence. Rosa Parks proved that refusing to give up that seat in the bus. Negro students in (Greensboro) North Carolina refused to leave a lunch counter before being served, and Freedom Riders from Birmingham trying to integrate waiting areas in bus stations across the South with the burning of the buses and horrendous beatings (…) The fight continued. James Farmer, the national director of CORE, and the Freedom Riders, were not ready to back down.
"While challenging segregation and bigotry in the South, CORE knew that it was time to challenge segregation and bigotry right here in Seattle," said Singler (…) Soon we were put to the test. Seattle CORE grew rapidly to a well-organized, trained cadre of negroes and whites willing to do something about discrimination in housing, schools, police brutality, and the area we felt was most important, employment."
She proudly projected posters on the screen from back in the day advertising CORE fundraisers, including a 1962 ad to see comedian and Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory, and jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie that she said filled the Moore Theater at up to $3 per seat, and author James Baldwin to follow, in 1963.
"We were under constant watch by the FBI and police department. We discovered this while researching our book. With recent access to FBI files, including my FBI file, we learned that two informers were recruited from our circle of (CORE) friends who reported on our meetings back to the FBI from 1961 to well after 1968. Just as slavery left a legacy of segregation, segregation has left a legacy we still must confront," said Single.
Bettylou Valentine is a former national board member of NAACP. She served as CORE secretary in 1964 helped organized the Campus Civil Rights Action Group. When the UW administration refused to allow an NAACP chapter on its campus, she and her husband moved to St. Louis and its Washington University Core chapter. The next two decades she was teaching and writing in South Africa, China, and Papua New Guinea. For 16 years she worked with a youth and family services organization in Seattle.
"Seattle in 1959 was a segregated city without a single 'colored only' sign, and yet the following was true," said Valentine." If you were white you lived in an all white neighborhood, rode buses and taxis ridden by white men. In supermarkets and department stores you were waited on by a white clerk. Your packages, newspaper, and milk were delivered by a white driver.
"If negro, you worked odd jobs or as a janitor, maid, dishwasher. There were some exceptions, professionals who largely served the negro community as doctors and lawyers or federal government workers, or Boeing workers. You lived in the Central area which remained the same sized tract even when the (black) population doubled. CORE began its work to educate the community. 'Don't shop where you can't work' was one of our slogans to attempt to get living wages for negroes.
"Our first supermarket direct action was against the Safeway store at 23rd and Union," said Valentine. "Within two days of picketing, Safeway sent in its regional director to promise action. But it was not until 16 months later that Safeway finally hired 28 negroes in its stores across the city.
"The A&P, our first contact was in 1962 when they had one negro employee throughout the Northwest. A year later they had two. It took two years later until they were up to nine negro employees citywide. CORE planned a 'shop-in'. CORE recruited many supporters, black, white, old, young, to take shopping carts and fill them around the store with small, non-perishable items like baby bottles, shoe polish, things that were time-consuming to re-shelve. They'd go through the checkout process. the cashier had to hand-enter each item, and figure how munch to charge if an item was three for 89 cents, At that point the shopper would ask the store about hiring policy then decide he or she didn't want to 'buy discrimination'. A&P finally hired negro employees in all 15 stores."
Maid Adams joined CORE in 1962, coordinated the negation teams for grocery and departmental store integration, and helped published and distribute a CORE book on the African American Northwest Pioneer George Washington Bush who settled on what now is known as Bush Prairie, near Olympia. Adams also volunteered with the United Farm Workers Union.
"The Seattle School boycott and Bridge Schools were the most controversial CORE project," said Adams. "CORE, the NAACP and Urban League tried for years to work with the Seattle School District to integrate but got no cooperation. The District said "It wasn't a problem'. The only way to get their attention was a citywide school boycott, two days of 'freedom schools', March 31 and April 1, 1966. It was not popular or well understood. Fourteen sites mainly in the Central area, churches and community centers taught 1st grade through high school. Two-thirds were black. More than 3,000 attended the first day and 4,000 the next. They were taught negro history, science, music, and art by volunteers black and white, including concert master Henry Siegl."
Siegl was one of Seattle's most prominent violinists and longtime concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
"Absenteeism in some Central schools was over 50-percent these two days," said Adams. "It was a peaceful, creative protest that taught valuable lessons and history neglected (by the school district). We sent a clear message to the school board."
Jean Durning led CORE's campaign to integrate the Bon Marché under Rev. Mance Jackson. In 1981 she served as Northwest Director, Wilderness Society.
"Seattle housing discrimination takes up two chapters of our book," said Durning. "Realtors mailed postcards to white homeowners saying you have a right to select your neighbors. The Apartment Owners Association wrote that passage of or (anti-discrimination) bill will compel you to rent to non-white persons who could be prostitutes, criminals, and otherwise dangerous to your other tenants. We did testing. White and black couples with similar economic assets would meet with realtors and receive drastically different treatment. We planned on one particular weekend to urge African American couples to just look at open houses, do window shopping. The Seattle real estate community reacted with ads that this project was planned by a nationally organized group of outsiders. Actually, it was Joan and four others. Nearly all real estate ads were pulled out of the newspapers after that weekend. Most open houses were cancelled."
During the Q&A, a young lady asked why only females were represented on the panel. Valentine said, "Women live longer. That's just the reality. Most of the men active with CORE are no longer with us."
SSCC Professor Allen D. Stowers
SSCC tenured sociology and anthropology professor, Allen D. Stowers, attended. He told the West Seattle Herald after the program that his mother moved her kids to Seattle from Arkansas because being African American she thought they would have more opportunities here.
"We first lived in the Central District, the only place we could live," he recalled. She was told there might be an opening in West Seattle. She asked, 'Where's that?' It was the High Point project built in WWII from barracks. There were just a few African American families there. High Point Elementary School was well-integrated, then everyone in High Point went to Louisa Boren once it was built, 7th to 9th (grades). I went to Denny, then to Boren one year, then Chief Sealth. Blacks and whites got along because we were all poor, big families. We played together. As we got older my 12 brothers and sisters and I finally saw the wisdom in what my mom did. Every last one of us went to college."
He said he appreciated that the book has been published
"Someone needed to do this for Seattle and I'm glad these ladies did it," Stowers said. "It demonstrates the coalition, the white community, Jewish community, Asian community who helped us when we first got here in the late 50's."