In the early 1970s, a young assistant professor in Washington State University’s new Black Studies program launched a project to write a history of Blacks in the Pacific Northwest.
The Black population of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana was—and still is—small. And some aspects of the Black experience in the Pacific Northwest had been examined. But Quintard Taylor Jr. said he couldn’t find a comprehensive look at how Black communities grew, which was surprising to him and, at first, frustrating. “Then I realized it was an opportunity for me to provide that comprehensive history,” says Taylor, who went on to become a noted historian and retired from the University of Washington as the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History. He also founded Blackpast.org, a web-based reference center.
Taylor’s “A History of Blacks in the Pacific Northwest” was published as his doctoral thesis at the University of Minnesota in 1977, including some highlights here. It’s based on his research and on interviews with more than 40 descendants of Black settlers and pioneers in the Northwest.
Taylor wrote in his introduction, “It would be tempting to say that Blacks represented such a small figure in the total pre-1940 population of the region that they were of no historical significance. Yet the opposite occurred.” There were Black fur traders, Black cowboys, Black homesteaders, and Black soldiers. There were miners and shipbuilders and newspaper publishers and businesspeople.
The project molded his perspective. “It tempered my idea about where Black history is found,” he says. “Black history is wherever Black people are.”
SAILORS, SERVANTS, AND SETTLERS
Maritime expeditions brought Black sailors and servants to the Pacific Northwest from the mid-1700s to early 1800s. York, the only Black member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, was an integral member of the expedition.
From the early to mid-1800s, Black fur trappers and traders were the first permanent Black settlers, and many forged ties with Native Americans.
James Beckwourth, born a slave in Virginia, became a famous mountain man and lived in Idaho and Montana.
Free Black people began migrating to the Pacific Northwest for many reasons, including that the region offered greater personal freedom than in the slave states of the South or even the free states of the East. Their most common occupation was farmer and farm laborer.
George Bush, sometimes called George Washington Bush, and his family were among the first party of settlers to enter what would become Washington Territory, arriving in 1845. He became a successful farmer and his land south of Olympia is still known as Bush Prairie.
George Washington left Illinois after the state passed a law requiring all free Blacks to post a bond of $1,000 for good behavior. He homesteaded in Lewis County in 1851 and founded the city of Centralia on his homestead in 1872.
Other Black people came as slaves in fact if not in name, listed as “servants” because the Oregon Territory—which included what’s now Washington—outlawed slavery. In 1858 a representative in the Oregon territorial legislature said he knew of Black people in four counties who were slaves before their arrival and didn’t know they could claim freedom in the Pacific Northwest.
STATE BY STATE
Idaho’s Black population was the smallest in the Pacific Northwest until the 1960s, when it surpassed Montana’s. Blacks faced early hostility and exclusionary legislation, and as a mining and agricultural state, had few urban areas to attract a larger Black population.
Montana’s Black community grew rapidly after the territory was formed in 1864, peaked in the early 1900s, then declined. At the turn of the twentieth century, Black Montanans were active in the political, social, and economic life of the state, but those communities waned as the population fell.
Oregon has the oldest Black community in the Pacific Northwest, but it also passed more anti-Black legislation than any other state in the region. The Black population has been concentrated in Portland.
Washington’s Black population grew slowly until the 1880s, then ramped up due to the job opportunities in Seattle. Washington did not have anti-Black laws, unlike the other three states in the region, and was the only state among the four to pass a civil rights law before 1950. Washington’s “liberal” reputation also likely influenced Black population growth.
Pacific Northwest Black Population
|Walla Walla, Washington
The Black Population of Pacific Northwest States, 2022
Source: 2022 American Community Survey, US Census
Between the Civil War and World War I, Blacks in the Pacific Northwest were successful business owners, miners, laborers, farmers, and cowboys. The largest group were men and women who worked in private clubs, wealthy homes, hotels, and restaurants. The people who held these desirable jobs often were community leaders.
But as more people moved to the region, there was increasing competition—and discrimination. It manifested as “the denial of capital to Black businessmen or farmers, the swindling of illiterate Black miners by scheming businessmen and promoters, the exploitation of Black workers and soldiers as strikebreakers, and the constant racial slurs and stereotyping of virtually all Blacks by the general population,” Taylor wrote.
William Rhodes was one of the first Black miners in Idaho, arriving in 1860. Rhodes Creek near Pierce, Idaho, and Rhodes Peak in the Bitterroot Range are named after him.
George Fletcher was a cowboy who won first prize in the Pendleton Roundup in 1911. He enlisted in World War I and served overseas in a cavalry unit.
Sarah Bickford owned and operated the water utility in Virginia City, Montana—probably the first Black woman in the United States to own a utility company.
World War II brought many new jobs to the Pacific Northwest in shipbuilding and aircraft plants and on military bases. By 1948, the average income for a Black family in Seattle was $3,314, which was 53 percent higher than the national average. Labor unions weren’t always welcoming, however. Black workers sometimes experienced segregated lunchrooms and restrooms, and unfair practices like being forced to pay union dues even though they weren’t allowed to join the union. This influx of Black workers also sparked more segregation in public spaces like restaurants, theaters and motels.
Seattle-area employment in 1945
As Black communities grew in the Pacific Northwest, Black newspapers flourished. Some were hyper-local, others regional, but without exception they promoted Black rights and exposed injustices.
The Seattle Standard was the first Black newspaper, founded in 1892 by Brittain Oxendine, a former member of the North Carolina legislature.
The Seattle Republican was the most successful Black newspaper of the early era. Edited and published by former slave and businessman Horace Cayton Sr., it became one of the largest newspapers in the state. The Republican had both Black and White readers, but a front-page story of a lynching in Mississippi “was a complete bombshell” that brought “government men” to Cayton’s house, his son later said. The paper folded three months later.
John H. Ryan began publishing the Tacoma Forum in 1903, filling it with mostly state and local political news. His wife Ella wrote forceful editorials calling out discrimination against Blacks.
Spokane briefly had multiple Black newspapers, including the Spokane Forum, published by Rev. J. Gordon McPherson, and the Spokane Citizen, published by Charles Barrow. Adolphus D. Griffin edited the Spokane Northwest Echo before moving to Portland to start that city’s first Black newspaper.
The Portland New Age was published by Adolphus D. Griffin, who was active in both civil rights and business organizations.
The Advocate was formed by 10 waiters who worked at the Portland Hotel in 1903. Its masthead said: “Don’t ask for your rights, take them.”
The Helena Colored Citizen was the second Black newspaper in the Pacific Northwest. It began publishing in 1894, bankrolled by Montana’s “copper king” William A. Clark. It devoted a lot of coverage to the fight over the location of the state capital—Clark favored Helena—and it closed after voters chose that city. But the paper also called out racism and discrimination in the state in its short lifespan.
The Butte New Age was a staunch supporter of Clark, and it also defended the Black population against racial slurs and biased reporting in the city’s White newspapers.
The Montana Plaindealer was edited in Helena and “did not miss an opportunity to criticize either Republicans or Democrats who attempted to restrict the rights of Montana Blacks.”
Taylor does not mention any Black newspapers in Idaho, nor does the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” website include any references to Black newspapers in that state.
LAW AND POLITICS
Oregon voters passed “exclusion laws” to prevent Black settlers, and although they were overridden by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing equal protection, they weren’t repealed for another 60 years.
Oregon, Idaho, and Montana all passed laws to prevent Whites from marrying Blacks and other people of color. Such anti-miscegenation laws were on the books in Idaho and Oregon for nearly 100 years before being repealed in the 1950s; Montana’s law passed in 1909. Washington Territory briefly banned interracial marriage but the law was repealed before statehood.
Before World War I, politicians pursued Black voters, but did little for them in return. Newspaper editor J.B. Bass of the Montana Plaindealer said in 1907 that politicians “have said by their actions, not words, ‘You may vote for us; you may take off your coats and work for us; but when it comes to the emoluments of office, we have none of that for you.’”
Blacks in the Pacific Northwest came together to fight specific injustices. In Portland, the Black community hired a White attorney and sued when the city said Black children couldn’t attend public schools. In Helena, Black residents protested a school segregation law for 10 years before it was reversed in an election that brought heavy turnout of Black voters.
Taylor said of Black communities in the Pacific Northwest at the time, “Given their limited size and resources they waged a surprisingly aggressive campaign to obtain or defend their civil rights.”
Political activity only increased. The Black community in Portland introduced a bill in the state legislature in 1919 to demand equal access to hotels and theaters. They blocked a proposed city ordinance that would have segregated restaurants and dance halls. By 1922 there were branches of the NAACP throughout the region.
The big influx of Black people to the Pacific Northwest in the 1940s brought more Black influence in larger cities and the strengthening of civil rights organizations and fair employment legislation in multiple states. By the 1950s, Black communities were pushing for broader civil rights legislation to end discrimination in restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues.
The 1960s brought more direct action, including boycotts and picketing at businesses that still had discriminatory hiring practices, and sit-ins to protest housing discrimination. Conflicts took place in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and Portland during the late 1960s, including a Black Panther Party rally that resulted in seven injured police officers and the arrest of 100 people. But with the conflict came advances: new organizations that provided job training and the first Black-owned bank.
Owen Bush, son of George Washington Bush, grew wheat and experimented with different strains. His wheat took first place at the National Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. He was also the first Black legislator in the new state of Washington in 1889 and was instrumental in establishing Washington Agricultural College (later WSU).
The first Blacks to arrive in the Pacific Northwest settled throughout the region. Even smaller cities and towns—like Butte, Helena, Roslyn, and Spokane—had sizeable Black populations.
Gradually, though, the Black population in the Pacific Northwest became concentrated in Seattle and Portland, and Black residential districts arose. In Seattle, businessman William Grose built a house on land he received in payment for a debt and sold off parcels to other Black families. A small community developed that eventually became the Central District. The development of Portland’s Black neighborhood was more organic, with churches and businesses coalescing east of the Willamette River in Albina and Williams Avenue.
This shift in settlement patterns created community—but also segregation. In the 1920s, cities adopted racially based restrictions on real estate sales in many areas, essentially trapping Black residents in Black neighborhoods.
World War II, with its defense-related jobs, brought waves of new Black residents to Seattle and Portland. From 1940 to 1950, the Black population in the Pacific Northwest increased 280 percent. One result: severe overcrowding in Black residential areas. By 1944 more than 7,000 Black people were occupying the same buildings that housed 3,700 Black Seattleites in 1940. “Newcomers found themselves doubling and even tripling up in houses that were already the oldest in the city,” Taylor wrote. The US Supreme Court outlawed restrictive covenants in 1948.
One bright spot: Seattle was the only city in the Pacific Northwest and one of the few in the country that didn’t segregate its public housing projects, thanks to the insistence of Jesse Epstein, director of the Seattle Housing Authority.
William Grose opened the second hotel in Seattle, in 1861, called Our House and eventually became one of the most successful businessmen in early Seattle.
Population of Seattle’s Central District
|SHARE OF POPULATION LIVING IN CENTRAL DISTRICT CENSUS TRACTS