Monday, June 23, 2014

Washington Hall and the beginning of Seattle's melting pot

The Squire Park neighborhood has one of those names you’d think was given by a savvy developer hoping to communicate open space and the good life.  In fact, however, it was named after Watson C. Squire, a respected Territorial Governor of Washington and a United States Senator after statehood.  Squire bought the land from the original Carson Boren land claim and filed a plat in 1890, the year after Seattle’s Great fire.  He had married well.  His wife, Ida, was the granddaughter of Eliphalet Remington who founded the gun company.  Watson had worked at the company as a lawyer.

Squire Park assembles along a section of Yesler Way, which a few decades earlier was also the famous Skid Road, where the logs from Seattle’s virginal forest were skidded by mule and horse down to Elliott Bay so they could be sawed up and shipped off to places on the west coast that were, remarkably, growing even faster than Seattle. 

Everyone figured there would be a boom after Seattle’s business district
burned down in 1889 and they were right.  The great clear cut formed by logging the Yesler forest provided an opportunity for developers to build streetcars that led to parks they had built on Lake Washington so they could attract people to their real estate via a good time, picnics, and even a little gambling.  It was all about these new, fun things like leisure time and money trickling down to a growing middle class.  Within twelve months of the completion of the Yesler Streetcar Line, nearly 1600 homes were built within three blocks of the line.  By 1896, another two lines were in place to the north of Yesler, homes popping up and hugging the new transportation links.  In 1900, they were selling lots for about $250-$500, ready to build.
Squire Park in 1910 with
Providence Hospital in the background
The real estate pages of the early Seattle Times exhibited the making of magic in Squire Park, the kind of magic that transformed the idea of residence from a place above the shoe and furniture stores in town to a real, single family house, possibly with a boarder, but no less a real house.  At the turn of the century, Squire Park’s homes seemed within reach, a powerful and necessary reality of residential real estate.  It had potential, which was the message from that nice Mr. J.W. Clise, who came to Seattle just after the big fire, saw potential in Squire Park and bought and sold houses and land there alongside Watson Squire and his son Philo.

William Grose, an African American Pioneer, also saw potential in the housing boom.  He had lost his waterfront hotel, restaurant and tavern in the big fire and decided to move
William Grose house, still standing, near
24th and Madison
back to a 12 acre farm he had purchased earlier from old Henry Yesler himself just south of Madison Street and east of 23rd Avenue, a bit North and East of Squire Park.  He led development there and in the 1890s it became known as the “Colored Colony,” home to many middle class blacks.  As Quintard Taylor, the University of Washington historian has written:

By the 1890s, the handful of African-American entrepreneurs were far more integrated into the city’s economy than their counterparts would be a century later.  Black businesses were located throughout the city and served a mostly white clientele.  For one brief moment in the 1890s, Seattle had more black attorneys than ministers.”

On the other side of the neighborhood, the southern end of Squire Park and a bit to the west, a large community of Japanese was also growing in size and economic influence.  It was called Japan Town.  Some 3500 people lived in and around Squire Park.  Masajiro Furuya, the Japanese banker and merchant, who partnered with two other Japanese businessmen to stage the Japanese exhibit at the World’s Fair, lived in what is now the Yesler Terrace Housing Project, just a couple of blocks from Washington Hall. 

Together, they helped contribute to the racial diversity we normally don’t equate with those times in Seattle. To this, add the Scandinavian arrival to Squire Park, and the construction of a building that served as a kind of settlement house for them and for everyone else in the neighborhood.  It serves the same purpose todeay.  

At the western end of Squire Park, a couple of blocks off Yesler on 14th, just down the street from the baseball park, home of the Clamdiggers, Siwashes, Chinooks, Turks and Giants, the Seattle team in the Northwest League, the Danish Brotherhood bought four lots and built a lodge in 1908.  The Danes were part of the great migration from Europe that resulted in more than 60,000,000 Europeans leaving their native countries in the 100 years between 1830 and 1930.  For parts of that 100 year span, the doors in America were wide open. 

More than a 1,000,000 Swedes, 800,000 Norwegians, 300,000 Danes and 230,000 Finns found their way to America seeking opportunity through such remarkable laws as the Homestead Act, a statute that brought the idea of land ownership into the immigrant vocabulary.   The Scandinavians were also running from events at home.  Norwegians sought to escape conscription in the Russian Army.  When Prussia took the province of Schleswig Holstein from Denmark, a third of its 150,000 residents left for America, having no desire to serve in the Prussian Army.

Germania Hall, Second and Senaca
U. W.  Collections
Early Scandinavian immigration was largely to the Midwest but people kept moving west across the northern tier of America.  Along the way, they formed associations to keep their culture and customs and ease the bumps and stumbles that came with their new lives in America.  In Omaha, early immigrants who had fought in the US Civil War and the Danish-Prussian War formed the Danish Brotherhood in 1882, just as Danish immigration was peaking.  Six years later, the Danish community in Seattle opened a chapter and began looking to build a permanent lodge.  By 1902 there were 185 members and they met in various lodges like the Carpenters’ Union Hall or Germania Hall, the great German Lodge located at 2nd and Seneca.

Officers of Danish Brotherhood
UW Collections
In June of 1908 they dedicated their lodge in Squire Park and named it after their new home state.  Besides the meeting and entertainment spaces, they built single rooms where new residents could stay while they looked for more permanent places. There were 450 members of the Brotherhood that year and an equivalent number attached to the Danish Sisterhood.   In recognition of the Seattle chapter’s accomplishments and robust growth, T. P.  Nielson, the lodge’s president, was voted in as national president of the Brotherhood in 1910.

UW Collections
The year 1910 was an extraordinary year in Seattle’s history and in the history of America’s immigration.  The world’s fair, the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exhibition, had closed at the end of 1909.  It left Seattle’s citizens with a feeling that they now lived in a new city, a place of international consequence.  In one sense, it certainly was.  In 1910, one in four of residents had been born in another country.

That year, Squire Park was becoming even more diverse.  Jews were settling into Squire Park, speaking German, Yiddish and Ladino, the Spanish-Judeo language of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain.  All of these Jewish groups used Washington Hall as a temporary synagogue while they built their permanent synagogues up the street.  Some of these Jewish residents began calling Squire Park another name -- “The Village” -- because it reminded them of the cohesive enclaves they had left behind in Poland, Germany, Rhodes and Turkey. 

Even though Chinese people in Seattle had been pushed out under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and by vigilante action the Exclusion Act inspired, 900 or so remained in Seattle in 1910, most living nearby the Hall.  Ironically, Watson Squire was territorial governor when those terrible events occurred.  In Tacoma, hundreds of Chinese were herded onto a ship and sent to San Francisco.   

Hazel Dixon stands by a Packard in 1914.  Behind her is
her house built by pioneer William Grose, her husband's
African American Heritige Society
Around the time of statehood, African Americans lived in all of Seattle’s 14 wards, but, in 1910, nearly all 3,200 lived in the Central District and Squire Park. 

Yesler Way and the Squire Park Neighborhood looked and sounded a lot like Seattle today, many cultures and languages populating the streets – nearly 12,000 Blacks, Jews, Chinese and Japanese congregating near Washington Hall.  Soon they would be joined by several thousand Filipinos whose country had become a territory of the United States after the Spanish-American War, meaning that citizens of the Philippines would be able to travel more freely to the US because they weren’t considered aliens. Though only 17 Filipinos lived in Seattle in 1910, they were poised to become the newest and largest group of people to move in close by Washington Hall.  Seattle was 97% white in 1910, but in the little melting pot of Squire Park, it was almost okay to look and sound a bit different.    

In the several decades after it was built, Washington Hall became identified as much with the adjacent residents as it was with people hailing from Denmark.  The managers of the hall happily rented it for dances, potlucks, plays in many languages, marriages, concerts.  It was the center of so many communities that one set of faces streaming out into the sunshine with their smiles and laughter would run into another set of faces, somber as they entered, prepared to eulogize a leader or listen to a speaker with an important topic. 

1910 was also important to this community because for the first time, the national government began a major, systematic accounting of the immigration policies of the past.  It came in the form of the Dillingham Commission, a joint committee of Congress that spent four years studying immigration policy and government action between 1820 and 1910.

Vermont Senator William
Appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, the commission would have called itself progressive in its political thinking, but most political thinking in those days had racial and cultural blind spots.  The Progressive liked to think that progress in the country was linked to the perceived strength of the new immigrants, concepts like “good stock” or people who were “socially ready for assimilation.”  In other words, their bias was to northern Europeans over those from southern Europe and to white people over yellow, brown or black, or those from Eastern Europe.  Their goal was assimilation and they believed that only certain people were able to assimilate.  At the same time, the diverse Squire Park residents worked hard to assimilate, but worked as well to keep their cultures, religions and languages intact.

The commission did its work over four years and its volumes of background and recommendations formed the rationale for many future changes in immigration law.   By 1917 and twice in the twenties, big years for immigration reform, literacy tests for all people over 16 were in place. The law defined as undesirable people with certain illnesses or mental defects.  South Asia immigrants were barred from immigrating along with many others from across the Pacific.  While not in statute, a “gentleman’s agreement” between the government of Japan and the United States made it illegal for Japanese to emigrate to the United States.  The quotas then in place favored northern Europeans and reduced significantly southern and eastern Europe immigration. 

The end run around all these restrictions to immigration from the Pacific was the territorial status of the Philippines.  Philippine people had few restrictions to entry.  They were not aliens and needed no passport to come to America.  Also, the signals sent to Filipino men and women were decidedly mixed about opportunities in the United States.  Fighting a bloody revolution by Filipinos who wanted independence immediately, the Governor General of the territory, William Howard Taft, put his own progressive values to work winning the hearts and minds of young Filipino people. 

Seeking a pro-American elite in the country, many young people were invited to a program in the United States that placed young Filipinos in American colleges.  The University of Washington was a popular destination for these children, largely from educated upper classes of Philippine society who had the educational preparation that would help them succeed in US universities.  Taft also championed land reform and educational access to other, less fortunate people in the Philippines.  For example, under Taft’s leadership, the US purchased large plots of land from the Philippine Catholic Church which were redistributed to people in rural areas.

Carlos Bulosan
One person who observed these actions while growing up on a Philippine farm harbored a hopeful view of America.  He was Carlos Bulosan, a 17 year who was plenty smart but also burdened with a bumpkin’s naiveté.  When he arrived in Seattle, in 1930, he had no idea of the Dickensian horrors he would find after he got off the boat.  Two days after arriving, Bulosan told the hotel clerk at the hotel where he was staying that he didn’t think he could pay his tab in full.  The clerk had a way to fix that.  He sold Carlos to two tough nut Filipino labor contractors who, in no time, had Bulosan on a boat to Alaska where he would work in the salmon canneries for next to nothing.

A gifted writer, though he did not yet know it, he worked along the west coast at hard and low paying jobs through The Great Depression, finally getting sick in California where he was hospitalized with tuberculosis.  Then, for a few years, he wrote about his immigrant perceptions of America, marveling at how the country could be so cruel and at the same time so kind, revealing at one time so much opportunity and so little, so much compassion, so much hate. He became a labor organizer, but died at 42. America is in the Heart is a book that needs reading if you are interested in understanding any immigrant experience.

In the thirties, Seattle did not have the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws that existed in other parts of the country, but there was a Jim Crow culture that effectively determined where different races would work, live, eat and play.  There were two musician unions in town, a white union which played in the theaters and lounges in the downtown where the money was good and a black union that played in the clubs along Jackson Street and the bars in Squire Park and the Central District.  Big touring bands like Duke Ellington played Washington Hall but could really play any hall in town.  But a great regional band like Edythe Turnham's Knights of Syncopation hung out on Jackson Street or played Washington Hall.  It took some time to open the doors of the Trianon or the Ice Arena.

Edythe Turnham and her Knights of Syncopation
University of Washington Collectoins
After, they would look for a place to play for fun and they would head for the cool joints along Jackson and Yesler Streets.  The pianist Overton Berry once had a black night club that became popular with these musicians.  It was exciting, the big names and great players of the American Negro musical world, but Overton’s stage was so small that the musicians had to find a seat in the audience which is where they played, delighting and sometimes surprising the patrons.

The segregated music scene ended in 1958 under pressure from the Century 21 World's Fair leadership, who did not their portrayal of the 21st Century marred by segregation.  In fact, Overton Berry was hired to bring more black musicians to the fair grounds.  In the closing scene of "It Happened at the World's Fair," for example, where the band marches through playing Elvis' highly forgettable "Happy Endings," Berry and others were drafted to carry instruments because the sharp eyes of the fair organizers saw too few African Americans in the band.

Once the Jewish immigrants in Squire Park had built their synagogues and didn’t need Washington Hall as a temporary place of worship, they continued renting it for
UW Collections
touring speakers and singers who served these smaller, special communities around the country with old world, ethnic  music, frequently in Yiddish, German and Ladino. 
Especially well-known among Sephardic residents was the drama produced by Morris Eskenazy and Leon Behar, both known as great wits, playwrights and actors. Productions of Ladino drama continued into the 1950s.  

Young Filipinos Dance at Washington Hall
in the 40s
UW Collections
A feature of immigrant life is loneliness.  Men frequently outnumbered women, especially at the beginning of an immigration wave.  Filipinos used the hall for dances and mixers, recruiting girls from all over the farming and fishing communities across the region.  Japanese would work on their loneliness by spending time at Mr.  Furuya’s farm and country home on Bainbridge Island where workers and students were welcome.  One of Furuya’s two daughters was a highly accomplished violinist and likely would have played at Washington Hall, though I have not yet found a record of it.

After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese residents rented the hall to organize their own civil defense procedures to both show their patriotism and contribute to
the community’s defense.  It didn't work.  On Tuesday, May 5, 1942, Washington Hall became the center of the continued Japanese evacuation of Western Washington.  The announcement was made by the west coast military command that the remaining Japanese in Seattle – the pre-war population was 7,000 in Seattle and 10,000 in Washington state -- would have to register at Washington Hall on Wednesday and Thursday and be transported by bus to Camp Harmony at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.  They arrived on May 11 and would later be sent to Minidoka, Idaho in August.  Other Seattle Japanese would be sent by train to Pinedale, a camp near Sacramento and then on to Manzinar.  Japanese living in Kent were told to register while a decision had not yet been made about when Japanese living in Auburn would be register.  These events would bring the number of Japanese evacuated to 55,000.  When it was finished, 110,000 Japanese living in the west had been interned. 

LA Times
Among the registrants were Japanese farmers in the Kent Valley.  About 150 Japanese-owned farms and dairies operated there.  An official assured residents of the state that because ownership of the farms was being transferred to Filipino and white farmers, no loss of produce was expected. 

There is a constant echo in today’s newspapers emanating from the American tragedy of Japanese internment.  The published obituaries of Japanese people today follow a mostly similar format.  The lead paragraph tells the story of a full life and loving character.  The second paragraph almost always mentions their internment for three years from 1942 to 1945 and where they were imprisoned.  The third paragraph, for the males, usually mentions military service in the European Theater.

World War II, in fact, changed the face of Squire Park for more people than the Japanese.  Few Japanese returned to Squire Park, their numbers in Seattle today are about the same as in 1942.  The great African American diaspora, accelerated by the wartime industries in the Northwest, brought many African American people to Squire Park and the Central District.  In fact, the movement of African Americans was comparable to the Oregon, California and Santa Fe trails in the covered wagon days, about 1.6 million people finding their way across the country.  By 1960, the migration topped 3,000,000 people.
Housing covenants conspired to keep black people in Squire Park and the Central District, though federal wartime housing opened new opportunities to the south of Squire Park, in the Rainier Valley.  In 1970, the Central District and Squire Park had become 72% African American, the earlier populations moving on to somewhere else.  Synagogues were repurposed as clinics and arts centers.  Today, however, the white population in the Central District is about 60% and African Americans total about 30%.  The African American population has shifted mainly south and southeast, frequently to the King County suburbs there. 

Jews tended to move out of Squire Park and into Southeast Seattle neighborhoods like Mount Baker, Seward Park and across Lake Washington into neighborhoods like Bellevue and Mercer Island.   

With racial and religious covenants illegal, the choices of later waves of immigrants were not confined to Squire Park and the Central Area.  Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders tended to choose the southern part of of Seattle as well as close in suburban towns like Tukwila, Renton and Kent as their first home, though many chose to go east of Lake Washington to suburbs there.  Today, the suburb of Bellevue, on the east side of Lake Washington, has the highest population of foreign born in Washington state, 30%.

The Danish Brotherhood gave up on Washington Hall during the seventies.  It was expensive to maintain, no longer centrally located to their membership and the neighborhood had changed so much.  They sold it to a Black Masonic organization, The Worshipful Sons of Haiti, in 1973.  It not only provided a home to the black Masons, but also to waves of avant garde performers whose first priority in choosing a performance venue was the cost of the hall. 

As another wave of change washed around the building, King County’s Arts and Cultural Agency, 4Culture and Historic Seattle purchased the building in 2009 and Historic Seattle, which holds the mortgage, is leading an effort to rehabilitate the building and create a place in the community as vital and necessary as when it was first built. 

In addition to acquisition of the property and stabilization of the building's basics, historic Seattle has fixed the building’s roof and is now raising money for a seismic retrofit, American’s With Disability Act compliance and finishes finishing of the interior spaces.  It’s about a $10,000,000 project.

The emergence of Seattle University, which moved back to the neighborhood in the 1930s, along with the appearance of a thriving restaurant culture, have helped make the neighborhood in 2014 as hot as it was in 1900.  The rebuilding of Yesler Terrace into a mixed income home for 5,000 people is a stimulant on the way.  The existing housing is, by Seattle standards, affordable and the commutes to downtown or to the nearby health care complex are minimal.

Carl Sandburg saw, correctly, that the magic of cities is in their constant and restless re-imagining:   

"The city is made, forgotten, and made again,
     trucks hauling it away, haul it back."

Every change, however, brings an abiding need -- a place at the center that somehow figures out how to bring people together.  That's Washington Hall's role and it somehow must figure out how to do it all over again.

Lovely Historylink Piece About Washington Hall
The Baker Building and Massajiro Furuya
History of Sephardic Theater at Washington Hall
Central District History
Harvard University collection on immigration from 1789 to 1930


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