2021 Find of the Month Archive

Pride proclamation

June 25 through July 1, 1977, was the first officially sanctioned Gay Pride Week in Seattle. The occasion was marked by a proclamation from Mayor Wes Uhlman which noted that "gay citizens have long been the object of misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination; and...these citizens have responded to such discrimination by organizing and asserting their humanity and their right to equality before the law." The proclamation urged Seattleites "to recognize and support the efforts of our city to make this community one which truly does treat all its citizens with a fair and equal hand."

Letters to the mayor were heavily tilted against his decision, with many letter writers citing their disappointment and disgust. To these "anti" correspondents, Uhlman sent polite replies noting that "the purpose of the proclamation was to emphasize the need to protect the human and civil rights of our city's gay citizens." He concluded many of these letters by saying, "I tend to believe that we will never agree on this very controversial issue. But as Mayor of Seattle, I will continue to support the rights of all our law-abiding citizens."

Not all correspondents criticized Uhlman’s decision. One writer professed him to be "a man of courage, but most of all a man who recognizes that gay people are persons." Another declared that he had taken "an enlightened stance and I applaud you for it." To those who wrote supportive letters, Uhlman sent replies thanking them for their backing and urging them to "do all you can to educate and enlighten the rest of our community on this very important matter, for it will be only through this process that we can hope to erase the myths and stereotypes which have existed for far too long."

Polio vaccination

S.P. Lehman, the Director of Public Health, wrote to City Council in January 1956 with good news: "The Federal Government has made available funds to the State of Washington which in turn are to be made available to Seattle and King County to conduct a Polio Immunization Program." Lehman included a proposed budget for the program that included medical and administrative staff, expenses such as syringes and postage, and equipment including two metal desks and a typewriter. He noted that "a certain amount of vaccine is now available and we are formulating an immunization program."

In June 1958, Lehman wrote again to City Council asking for additional money to continue with vaccinations. Public Health’s Well Child Clinics had been offering other immunizations, but he noted that the addition of the Salk polio vaccine to their offerings had substantially increased the number of children brought to the clinics. He added, "The increased demand for immunization for poliomyelitis, diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus and smallpox for preschool children is highly desirable from the standpoint of achieving adequate protection for this most highly susceptible portion of the population." The council’s Finance Committee approved an expenditure to supply the clinics for the rest of the year.

By 1962 the new Sabin oral vaccine was available, and Lehman was enthused about its possibilities. In a letter to City Council he noted that the oral vaccine was "more acceptable to the public so persons not immunized with Salk vaccine may be expected to take this," adding that "experts expect that the immunization produced by Sabin vaccine may eventually eradicate this disease." The goal of the program was to vaccinate 75% of King County’s population.

The number of polio cases in the United States dropped by 85-90% after widespread immunization. The Seattle World’s Fair celebrated the inventor of the original vaccine on Jonas Salk Day on June 4, 1962, with festivities including Governor Albert Rosellini, Mayor Gordon Clinton, and Salk himself.

Rent stabilization

Quinault Apartments, 1954

During World War II, federal restrictions were enacted to stabilize rents, starting with areas crucial to defense industries and eventually spreading to almost all cities. By the early 1950s, the federal government was beginning the process of winding down the restrictions, and Seattle was discussing whether to use municipal regulations to keep some kind of rent control on the books.

Renters wanted the limitations to stay in place, arguing that affordable housing was almost impossible to find, and that even with the constraints their rent had been going up significantly. One writer described the current situation this way:

1. Housing costs range from $80.00 a month up to $150.00, permitting no children or pets. 2. Housing at $35.00 a month for a place that would not pass city health sanitation requirements and not fit to rear your children in. 3. Buying a home that most people can not afford.

Quite a few tenants who wrote letters to the city council did not sign their names, saying they were afraid of retaliation from their landlords.

The congressman representing Seattle in Washington DC, Rep. Hugh Mitchell, encouraged the city council to keep restrictions in place. He expressed concern that Boeing and other defense industries would not be able to attract workers if Seattle’s housing market was too expensive, and noted that while a federal housing program had built many new apartments, most of them were too costly for lower income families.

Apartment owners, on the other hand, were ready for the regulations to expire. One writer contended that “local rent decontrol will simply rid the property owners of a lot of unnecessary red tape, give him his cherished American liberty, and the opportunity to sit down with his fellow men and make mutual agreements.” Another was less measured, claiming rent control was being advocated by “a ranting snarling mob of communists.”

In the end, the federal regulations were retired and the city opted not to create local laws to replace them.

Integrating the Fire Department

Seattle firefighters with truck

In 1954, Willie Richey applied to become the first Black firefighter in the Seattle Fire Department. He took the physical and mental examinations and passed both with high scores. His final hurdle to be hired was an oral interview, but the examiners voted 2-1 not to qualify him for employment. He appealed this decision to the Civil Service Commission (CSC) but the appeal was denied.

Mayor Pomeroy had previously appointed a Mayor’s Committee on Minority Employment to look into current City employment statistics and hiring practices, and to make recommendations for bringing more non-white citizens into the municipal workforce. The committee looked into the Richey case and felt that his perceived failure in the oral interview "might be due to discrimination," and pointed out that his case "arose in the context of a department which had never employed a non-white." They met with the CSC and asked that Richey's case be reconsidered with that background in mind, but the CSC denied the request.

Philip Burton of Seattle's NAACP, acting as attorney for Richey, wrote to the CSC to again request a reconsideration, pointing out that despite state, municipal, and departmental policies against discrimination, "there is not now, nor has there ever been a Negro fireman in the City of Seattle." He contrasted this with other City departments, as well as with the fire departments of other cities, and said that the non-integrated condition of the department was important context for Richey’s case. Burton also noted that while the two interviewers who rated Richey unfavorably thought he talked too much, he may have been overcompensating for what he believed was an inherent disadvantage based on his skin color, and that he was likely attempting to prove himself to a perhaps skeptical audience. Burton requested a rehearing by the CSC, emphasizing Richey's high scores on the examinations and pointing out that "the first Negro to be hired is always the most difficult case."

The CSC again denied the request, stating that "no new facts or evidence were presented" to justify reopening the case. This led the Seattle branch of the NAACP to charge the CSC with "a serious lack of understanding and sensitivity concerning the problem of Negro employment in municipal jobs... They have succeeded in perpetuating a 'white-only' Fire Department, and discouraging other Negro applicants from even trying to get employment."

The Mayor's Committee felt the episode showed that the CSC "has displayed a lack of understanding of the problems confronting non-whites who seek employment in the Fire Department, thus perpetuating a racially exclusive condition." It found that while the Fire Chief said he desired a racially integrated workforce, the department "has not assumed affirmative responsibility" to achieve that goal. It also pointed out that cases like Richey’s contributed to a widespread belief that "qualified non-whites will not be hired as firemen" and therefore discouraged others to apply.

It was not until 1959 that the department hired Claude Harris as its first Black firefighter. Harris became Fire Chief in 1985 and served in that role until 1997.

Defying Prohibition

Prohibition police dry squad

Bootlegging and illegal drinking thrived in Seattle during Prohibition, at times through the collusion of elected officials and police. One citizen, Charles L. Maxfield, wrote to the City Council in early 1925 regarding "the intolerable situation with regard to bootlegging, graft and holdups in our city and the relation of the Mayor therto [sic]":

Two days ago I was in a business house in Western Avenue. The proprietor told me the following story. First, that the Ideal Billard [sic] Hall on Western Avenue is a regular bootlegging establishment and that booze is sold there practically as free as in the days of the saloon. Second, that this matter has been reported to the police many times but without any adequate action. Third, that the policemen on the beat and the sargent [sic] from the station go into this place frequently and must know what is going on. Fourth, he also stated that there was little use of reporting it to the policemen because no action would be taken.

It is my judgment that this is fairly indicative of the condition in our city today. It is my judgment that many of the policemen who would gladly do their duty do not do so because they know that when it is carried higher up the same will not be appreciated and that it will do no good. We must have a mayor who does not use his office for personal aggrandizement; who will not promote graft; who will not encourage and protect bootlegging; who will suppress highway robbery, gambling and dens of vice. We must have a mayor who believes in the enforcement of laws in reality and not in merely talking about them. There should be moral fibre in the whole executive department of our city administration.

You who are in the Council of our city must know where the trouble lies and I again request that you give serious consideration to the matter of removing the present mayor and putting in his place one who will represent ideals of decency and honor and give us an administration of a cleaner and nobler character.

Mayor Brown was not removed from office, but he was defeated at the next election by Bertha Knight Landes, who ran on a platform of clean government.

Living on the tide flats

tide flats

SMA's General Files include an 1884 letter to city leaders from George and Catherine Hill asking to be allowed to remain in their home. The Hills owned two houses on the tide flats at the foot of University Street, one with four rooms that they rented out, and the second with two rooms where they lived with their children. Catherine had lived on this property for seven years, and George had joined her there after they were married. They noted that the area was "unimproved and unused" and that their occupancy was "neither a nuisance to the public nor an obstruction to the highway."

They had learned that the city, "doubtless at the instance of some evil disposed persons, and laboring under a mistakement of the facts, and misinterpretation of the law," had ordered their houses to be razed. The Hills had been told to vacate their property, and the city marshal was directed to forcibly remove them if they refused.

The letter stated that Catherine was "greatly afflicted with the Rheumatism and much of the time helpless and under medical care." George was a longshoreman but "unable to earn much at his uncertain and unsteady trade, even when he can get employment and is able to work at it." Both were around sixty years old, and their main source of income was the rent on the larger house. If they were evicted, they said George would be forced to leave town to find work, and that without his care, Catherine would need to seek support from the city or county.

The Hills reminded city officials that "your Petitioners are citizens, Tax-payers, and bona fide residents of said City, and claim the same right to live in peace and the same opportunity to support and take care of themselves, as best they can, that is guaranteed to other well disposed citizens and inhabitants thereof." They asked to be "left undisturbed in the peaceful possession and quiet enjoyment of their humble home and little property."

The letter was written on March 21 but was not filed with City Council until April 3. Whatever caused the delay, it was costly to the Hills; when the Committee on Streets reported back to the Council on April 4, they noted that "said buildings have all been removed."