UW News

April 7, 2005

New Web site shows Seattle’s civil rights history

Mention civil rights and most people will automatically think of cities like Montgomery, Ala., where the lunchroom sit-ins took place, or Atlanta, Ga., where Martin Luther King preached to thousands.

But civil rights has a history much closer to home, and which is celebrated by a UW effort called the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

That project will be officially launched with a celebration at 3 p.m. today in 1A Gowen.

“So often the subject of civil rights is taught as if it is a story that belongs in the South and concerns Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” said project director James Gregory. “We wanted to create the resources that would allow Seattleites — especially students in the schools — to understand that civil rights has a history here too.”

The heart of the project is a Web site, http://faculty.washington.edu/gregoryj/civilrights, that provides a wealth of information about the struggle for civil rights in Seattle, a struggle that was often intertwined with organized labor. For example, the site features Tyree Scott and the United Construction Workers Association, the organization he founded to integrate the Seattle building trades. Included are:

  • A history of the organization written by UW graduate student Trevor Griffey, who is also the project coordinator.
  • Streaming video excerpts of interviews with association members.
  • PDF versions of the newspaper the association produced.
  • A timeline of association activities.
  • Documents from the association’s files.

“This is the kind of thing the Web can do,” Gregory said. “It can deliver these fascinating documents, without everyone having to go look through the libraries.”

A casual look at the site reveals that Seattle was not always a bastion of tolerance. One portion is dedicated to “segregated Seattle” and illustrates the restrictive covenants that existed in many neighborhoods. Plans are to eventually have an interactive map of King County; visitors will be able to click on a neighborhood to see what kind of deed restrictions were enforceable in the past. Gregory says that language prohibiting the sale of houses to non-whites still exists on many deeds today, although court decisions have made them unenforceable.

The site also tells the fascinating story of the Seattle school boycott in 1966, when several thousand Central Area children attended “freedom schools” for two days to protest segregation in the schools. Included are reproductions of letters written by fourth-graders participating in the boycott. Those letters were a hit with a sixth grade class that used the site for a unit on civil rights, according to their teacher, who wrote to Gregory.

That is exactly the kind of use Gregory has in mind for project materials. He says that one of the priorities for next year is to develop — in consultation with area teachers — lesson plans based on information from the site, and then to promote the project more widely in the public schools.

This is the fifth Web site that Gregory has created on historical subjects. “When I did the first of these projects four years ago around the Seattle General Strike, I did it kind of as a lark,” he said. “Then I started hearing from teachers who said they were using this in their classroom. And I thought, this may matter. That encouraged me to do the others.”

The earlier four sites — which also included Communism in Washington State: History & Memory Project, The Labor Press Project and The Unions and Workers of UW — were financed by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. The current site received some funding from the Bridges center, but also from the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest and the Simpson Center for the Humanities. That allowed Gregory to hire Griffey half time for the year.

“I want to reach as wide an audience as possible with my research and writing,” Griffey said. “Lots of people have written about the history of various civil rights struggles in Seattle and Washington State. But most of the research is unpublished. This Web site provides an incredible opportunity to organize and publicize information that is mainly buried in obscure places.”

Gregory said that in addition to posting on the Web site, the group has been collecting materials from relevant organizations and working with the UW Libraries Special Collections to see that they are preserved.

“We are covering most of the 20th century, instead of just the period between 1954 and 1964,” Griffey added. “And we are including more than just African American history — particularly Asian American history, which is so important in the Northwest. As part of this, we are highlighting the ways in which multiracial coalition work was so integral to civil rights struggles throughout the century.”

Gregory summed it up: “We wanted to get all those stories together and make it possible for students and community members to pay attention to the rich history of our city.”

Today’s celebration will feature members of the United Construction Workers Association and also Fred and Dorothy Cordova, whose Filipino American National Historical Association has shared documents, photographs and interviews that appear on the project Web site. It is free and open to the public.