The Seattle Open Housing Campaign, 1959-1968
Seattle's African-American population increased dramatically between 1940 and 1960, making the community the City's largest minority group. As blacks moved north and west during and after World War II in search of employment, their numbers overtook those of Asian groups - the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos - which together historically formed Seattle's largest minority population. All of the City's minority groups experienced some form of discrimination, including geographic segregation, employment inequity, and housing discrimination. Until 1968, it was legal to discriminate against minorities in Seattle when renting apartments or selling real estate. The task of securing legislation to prohibit discrimination in housing began in the late 1950s. It turned out to be a decade-long struggle.
One method employed to shut out black families from white neighborhoods was enforcement of restrictive covenants. This and other acts of discrimination, such as realtors unofficially agreeing not to show houses in white neighborhoods to people of color, largely confined black residents to Seattle's Central Area. Although the African American community increased from 1% to 4.8% of Seattle's population between 1940 and 1960, by 1960 the Central District was home to 78% of the City's black population. In 1957, Garfield became the first high school in Seattle with more than a 50% nonwhite student body.
Restrictive covenants embedded in real estate deeds formed one effective method of keeping non-whites out of all-white neighborhoods. One such covenant in Windermere dating from 1929 stated:
3. No chickens or other fowl, or animals, except individual household pets, shall at any time be kept or maintained upon said property.
4. No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage or extraction, shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property, or any building thereon; except domestic servant or servants may be actually and in good faith employed by white occupants of such premises.
Citation: Deeds, Vol. 1450, page 348, April 1, 1929. King County Recorder's Office. Courtesy Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project
In 1949, a community group, the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, wrote to the City Council, commending them for not accepting a plat in Windermere with racial restrictions.
The Civic Unity Committee wrote to City Council on June 12, 1953, requesting the City not to accept plats with restrictive covenants.
Councilman Mitchell responded, agreeing with the policy request and stating that "the entire council is in agreement on this policy."
O'Meara v. Washington State Board Against Discrimination
Most real estate agents, operating under unwritten rules, would not show houses in all-white neighborhoods to people of color. On the rare occasion that a non-white buyer was shown a house in an all-white neighborhood, purchasing the house was difficult, as Robert Jones discovered.
In 1959, Robert L. Jones and his wife attempted to buy a house outside the Central Area. The owners, John O'Meara and his wife, refused to sell to the Jones family because of their color. Jones appealed to the Washington State Board Against Discrimination. The Board upheld the Jones' appeal and declared that the O'Mearas' refusal to sell the house to the Jones family because of their color was an unfair practice as defined in RCW 49.60.217.
The O'Mearas appealed the decision to King County Superior Court, where their decision not to sell to Jones was upheld. The case went to the Washington State Supreme Court (O'Meara v. Washington State Board Against Discrimination) which ruled on a 5 to 4 vote in favor of the O'Mearas.
The Court's majority, noting that the State law conveyed "the right to secure publicly assisted housing without discrimination," argued that the O'Mearas' FHA loan did not meet the definition of publicly assisted housing. The opinion further stated: "The personal characteristics of the home owner and would-be buyer are irrelevant to the constitutional protection of private property, which is absolute."
In February 1962, the United States Supreme Court denied a petition to review the case. Local events such as the Jones/O'Meara case, and awareness of the burgeoning national civil rights movement, inspired fair housing activists in Seattle to begin pushing for open housing legislation.
State Fair Housing Legislation
The national civil rights movement, along with events such as the Jones/O'Meara case, inspired fair housing activists in Seattle. Some small voluntary efforts to integrate neighborhoods were in place by the end of the 1950s. The Greater Seattle Housing Council was formed in 1956 to encourage dialogue between proponents of open housing and the real estate industry. Other groups, such as the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, urged the Seattle City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting racial discrimination in any type of housing. The Central Brokers' Association was formed in 1961 to find housing for minority group families in many parts of Seattle.
The State's Omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1957 was a narrowly defined attempt to end discrimination in housing, focusing only on purchases secured with government loans. Attempts at the state level to pass broad anti-discrimination in housing laws were vigorously opposed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by apartment building operators and real estate representatives. Those special interest groups charged that fair housing laws "would infringe on constitutional property rights, were dictatorial, confiscatory and would lead to evasion and disrespect for the law" (Seattle Times, 1961).
Among those advocating for the anti-discrimination housing bills introduced in 1961 at the State level was Joe Jones, a University of Washington football player. The Seattle Times reported that he, "after returning from the Rose Bowl game, was turned away at six apartment houses because he was a negro. 'These bills are necessary,' said Jones, a 22-year-old senior. I've experienced discrimination.'" University of Washington professor Giovanni Costigan, also testified at the state hearings, advocating for fair housing legislation with the statement that "there is only one race, the human race."
The first state-level fair housing laws were enacted in 1959 by Colorado, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Oregon.
The NAACP Request
Another avenue followed to fight housing discrimination was changing the law at the local government level. By making it illegal to discriminate when selling or renting, proponents believed it would be more difficult to continue discriminatory practices. Changing the law, however, turned out to be a lengthy process.
Late in 1961, the Seattle branch of the NAACP proposed that the City pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing. A public hearing on the idea was held in December 1961. Proponents speaking for an ordinance included the Rev. Samuel McKinney, pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, and Garfield High School principal Frank Hanawalt; opponents included Richard W. Lenington, past president of the Seattle Real Estate Board, and Donald C. Haas, president of the Seattle Apartment Operators' Association. Seattle's Corporation Counsel, A. C. Van Soelen, stated that the proposed ordinance would have dubious legal validity and would be problematic to enforce. The City Council declined to take action.
The Citizen's Advisory Committee on Minority Housing
In July 1962, Mayor Gordon S. Clinton appointed the Citizen's Advisory Committee on Minority Housing. The Committee was chaired by Alfred J. Westberg, a former state legislator. Following a public hearing on October 19, 1962, at which representatives of many civic organizations testified that housing discrimination was widespread in Seattle, the Committee recommended passage of an open housing ordinance and creation of a Human Rights Commission.
The report of the Advisory Committee, submitted to the Mayor and City Council in December 1962, stated:
"Your committee has concluded that a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination in the sale or rental of housing accommodations on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin is an essential tool for the work of a city commission on human relations . . . Although a number of excellent privately-supported agencies in Seattle are carrying on a general education and public relations program, seeking the voluntary elimination of discrimination in housing and other fields, they lack an official standing."
Protest: Sit-in and Freedom March, 1963
The Mayor and City Council delayed action on the Advisory Committee recommendations for a year. In protest of the inaction, the Rev. Mance Jackson and Rev. Samuel McKinney organized a march on City Hall on July 1, 1963. A large sign-carrying crowd met on the Fifth Avenue Plaza at City Hall.
Four women sit on the floor in the Seattle City Council chamber during a civil-rights hearing while sit-in spokesman Eddie Givens, right, speaks about the composition of the city Human Rights Commission. Demonstrators were protesting the fact that though the Commission was created to address an open-housing law, only two of its 12 members were African American (Rev. Sam McKinney and John Allen). The girls were, from left: Delores Hall, 18; Jackie Ellis, 11; Infanta Spence, 20; and Susan Van Dong, 20. Councilmen were, from left, Charles M. Carroll, J.D. Braman and Paul Alexander. Courtesy: Bruce McKim/The Seattle Times
The City Council meeting held that day on open housing was attended by more than 300 people. At the end of the march and the meeting, about 35 young people from the Central District Youth Club occupied the Mayor's office for nearly 24 hours, participating in Seattle's first sit-in. The protestors stated, "As citizens of Seattle and members of the Central District Youth Club, we feel humiliated by the slow process of the City of Seattle to adopt open housing." The sit-in ended only after an hour-long conference between the Youth Club and the Rev. Mance Jackson, Rev. John Adams and the Rev. Samuel McKinney.
On August 28, 1963, Rev. Dr. John H. Adams, Chairman of the Central Area Committee on Civil Rights, organized a Freedom March and Rally concurrent with Martin Luther King's March in Washington, D.C. 1,000 demonstrators marched down Madison Street to the Federal Court House.
"An Open Hearing for Closed Minds"
An ordinance establishing the Seattle Human Rights Commission was passed on July 17, 1963, in part because of organized protests such as the one on July 1, and other acts of non-violent civil disobedience related to employment and housing discrimination issues. The Commission drafted an open housing ordinance later in 1963, providing for criminal penalties for acts of housing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin or creed. The Commission recommended that the ordinance contain an emergency clause which would put it into effect immediately upon passage, and prohibit the possibility that the ordinance could be referred to a vote by the public.
The Human Rights Commission, seated around a City Hall conference table, discussed means of promoting the proposed open housing law.
Clockwise from left: Mrs. Victor Fleming, Y. Philip Hayasaka, Alfred J. Westberg, chairman, Howard P. Pruzan, Johnny Allen (partly hidden), William B. Laney, The Rev. Lincoln P. Eng, William S. Leekenby, Elliott N. Couden (partly hidden), Rabbi Raphael H. Levine, The Rev. Edmund J. Boyle and Mrs. Kirkby D. Walker. Members Chester W. Ramage and the Rev. Samuel B. McKinney were absent. October 20, 1963.
Courtesy: The Seattle Times. Photograph by Richard S. Heyza.
At a City Council Committee of the Whole meeting on October 25, 1963, the decision was made to refer the issue to the voters and place the ordinance on the ballot. The decision was made after a heated seven-hour public hearing. Black civil rights leaders walked out after Rev. John H. Adams, chairman of the Central Area Committee on Civil Rights, told Council that prejudice and bigotry were "moral problems of the white community."
Council member Paul J. Alexander successfully proposed dropping the emergency clause provision. Council member J.D. Braman voiced his support for removing the clause and told the ministers who spoke of conscience that his conscience was his own affair. (Braman would go on to become Mayor of Seattle the following year.) Only Council members Charles M Carroll and Wing Luke, who were strong advocates of open housing, voted against the final version of the ordinance, protesting the removal of the emergency clause.
The People Vote
Opponents of the legislation, who called it "Forced Housing legislation," included the Seattle Real Estate Board, Apartment Owners' Association, and many private home owners. Harold W. Cooper, president of the Seattle Real Estate Board, said the proposed open-housing law would put sweeping controls on the "thoughts and actions of individual citizens." Those in favor of the legislation included religious coalitions and civil rights and community organizations.
Seattle was not alone in this struggle. In 1964 the New York Times reported that fair housing initiatives were underway in Michigan, Illinois, and California, as well as Washington. Real estate interests were the primary opponents of the measures in each of these states.
Those opposing the open housing legislation advertised heavily, with slogans referencing personal freedom and forced housing. The advertisements urged voters to examine human rights and property rights and to vote "no" in order not to lose family freedom. The names of City Council members Paul Alexander, Floyd Miller, Mike Mitchell and Myrtle Edwards appeared in some of the newspaper ads in opposition to the ordinance.
Proponents of the open housing legislation sponsored marches, rallies, and educational meetings. A rally two days before the vote was held at Westlake Plaza with over 1,500 attending. Those endorsing the ordinance at the rally included the Council of Planning Affiliates, representing health and welfare agencies; Puget Sound Cooperative League, made up of Group Health cooperatives; King County Schools, and many church and community groups.
The open housing legislation went before the voters on March 10, 1964 and was defeated by more than a two-to-one margin - 115,627 opposed to 54,448 in favor.
Years of Ferment: 1964-1967
The local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was one of the community groups actively working against discrimination in housing. CORE formed a Housing Committee in May 1963 and launched an investigation of the charges of discrimination by the real estate industry. In 1964, after writing the Mayor about its concerns, CORE sponsored a protest consisting of picketing and a sit-in at the Lake City and Aurora offices of Picture Floor Plans, Inc., because the company discriminated against non-white buyers. It was owned by the president of the Seattle Real Estate Board. A court-ordered injunction terminated the protests and those working against discrimination in housing turned away from direct action as a method of achieving their goal.
Attitudes slowly changed between 1964 and 1968, partially due to voluntary efforts such as the Fair Housing Listing Service and Operation Equality. The Fair Housing Listing Service, created by Sidney Gerber in 1962, worked with 24 organizations and brought together blacks wanting to move out of the Central District and white homeowners willing to sell to minorities. Operation Equality was a three-year program run by the Seattle Urban League to assist minorities in finding housing. The Seattle Real Estate Board issued a Statement of Principle in June 1965, stating that it was the policy of the Board that members should show all listings without discrimination.
In January 1965, the first African American Judge, Charles Z. Smith, was appointed to the Seattle Municipal Court. Some outcries emerged from the community, but Mayor Braman responded in support of the appointment, stating that he "will have a substantial effect in resolving a very real problem that exists not only in Seattle but throughout the nation."
The Human Rights Commission remained active during this period, working to introduce non-discriminatory employment clauses in the City's public works contracts in June 1965. A six-week course to increase consciousness about racial discrimination was introduced for supervisory employees in the City. On June 1, 1965, Mayor Braman issued an Executive Order relating to fair practices, reaffirming the City's policy to protect the rights of all citizens and affording all persons equal treatment.
Despite efforts by the Human Rights Commission to improve inter-racial relationships, many in the Seattle community were afraid racial tensions were increasing, not decreasing. The American Civil Liberties Union requested a public hearing in January 1965 to review the need for a Police Review Board in response to claims of brutality by the police. City Council denied the request but did agree to review the use of force by the police. In June 1965 an off-duty police officer shot Robert L. Reese, an African American, in the International District.
As a result of this incident, police training methods were questioned and a Community Relations Unit was established. Race relations training was stepped up as part of police training.
Oct. 24, 1964
The Hon. Mayor, City of Seattle:
After much thought, I am compelled to write in protest [sic] your appointment of a Negro as Judge in Seattle. I base my objection solely on the basis of race for the simple reason I personally do not believe any Negro is worthy or qualified to judge members of the white race. Much as we hear about open housing and white people's opposition on the grounds of a decline in property values, the real opposition is in the fact they want to keep themselves and their children removed from negro influence, even though they hesitate to say so publicly. A good part of your vote for mayor came by your stand against open housing. You will notice that barring Negro Bloc voting districts, no negro can get elected to any office in these United States. If they get a public office it's generally through the back door, by appointment. The last election should convince the integrationists beyond doubt, that white people by a large majority reject integration. (IE) (California Prop 14) (Akron Ohio) (Detroit) (Seattle) (Tacoma). Anywhere it has been on the ballot, it has been defeated except in Maryland where the Negro pushed it through, and in despite of dire warnings, threats, etc. from church, press and other media.
I therefore respectfully submit this letter to you in protest against the appointment of a negro judge in the City of Seattle.
Courtesy: C.H. Birney to Mayor Braman, October 24, 1964. Folder "Municipal Courts - Judge Replacement, 1964," Box 30. Seattle Office of the Mayor Records, 5210-01. Seattle Municipal Archives.
Open Housing, 1968
On the national stage, the publicity engendered by the Civil Rights movement and the outrage at the violence perpetrated against marchers and voting rights activists helped focus attention on inequality in Seattle. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in public places and in schools. Outrage was palpable over the scenes of state police brutality against demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965. On August 6, 1965, the President signed the Voting Rights Act.
On the other hand, some national events served to fuel fear of increased racial tension in Seattle. Race riots in Los Angeles in 1965 and in Detroit and Newark in 1967 encouraged the Seattle Police Department to plan for possible riots in Seattle.
Mrs. Pearl Warren, director of the Indian Center, addressed City Council during a hearing on the open housing ordinance, April 19, 1968. The ordinance passed unanimously. Council members were seated at right, and about 200 persons were in the Council Chambers.
Courtesy: Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times.
Slowly changing attitudes towards segregation in housing as well as increasing fear that racial tensions could explode in Seattle served to trigger passage of an open housing ordinance in 1968.
On April 19, 1968, three weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the City Council unanimously passed Ordinance 96619 "defining and prohibiting unfair housing practices in the sale and offering for sale and in the rental and offering for rent and in the financing of housing accommodations, and defining offenses and prescribing penalties, and declaring an emergency therefore." The ordinance had been sponsored by six of the nine Council members, but the chief architect was first-term Council member Sam Smith, the first African American to sit on the Council. Smith had previously been a tireless advocate for open housing and fair employment while serving as the first African American member of the Washington State Legislature.
The open housing legislation passed in 1968 was amended in 1975 to include prohibitions against discrimination based on sex, marital status, sexual orientation, and political ideology; and in 1979 to include age and parental status. In 1986, creed, and disability were added as prohibitions on discrimination, and in 1999 gender identity was added. Seattle did not pass legislation regarding employment discrimination based on age, sex, race, creed, color or national origin until 1972.