People often use the term “gentrified” to describe Seattle’s Central District. The word often slips off the tongue shrouded in a combination of pride, sadness and longing for days past. While gentrification is occurring all over Seattle, the transformation of the Central District is particularly noteworthy because of its history as a majority Black neighborhood. As developers tear down older single-family homes to make way for new and modern dwellings, the landscape of the neighborhood looks less and less familiar to Inye Wokoma, an artist and longtime resident of the Central District. Gone are the days where he would randomly run into family members on the street.
“It’s very easy to imagine there never having been a cohesive and vibrant [Black] community here,” Wokoma said. “You can walk up and down the streets where Black people lived, the only place in the city we were allowed to live for a long time. Places where we did everything. We built businesses, had churches, social events and not have any sense that we were ever here.”
In his latest exhibition at Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), Wokoma explores those changes and identity by bringing together family artifacts, photographs and written stories about his family. “An Elegant Utility” is Wokoma’s personal narrative, which begins with his grandfather Franklin Joseph Green. Green moved to Seattle after World War II. He was one of eight siblings raised in rural Arkansas; five made the Central District their home.
“My grandfather had a sixth grade education, family sharecroppers and domestics and factory laborers,” Wokoma said. “When you’re looking at what people were able to do with very little. What they were able to do with their own determination. Their own natural intelligence. They were very community oriented.”
After leaving the military, Green worked in the shipyard and later started his own contracting business. Green purchased his first home, a two-story duplex, at 913 24th Ave. in 1947 through an owner-financed agreement with Thomas and Elizabeth Grace, a Jewish couple. The ledger Green used to record all of his payments is a part of the show. Wokoma’s mother passed it down to him a few years ago.
“I know that it was an item that was an important piece of family history,” Wokoma said. “Specifically from her point of view in thinking about our family’s origins.”
Over the years his grandparents went on to buy up to six more homes, renting to family for below market value, creating a niche community of support.
Wokoma bought his grandparents’ home in 2005.
One of the tasks of taking over the property was cleaning out Green’s free-standing, two-port garage that he used as a workshop. Wokoma had to decide what items were worth keeping and those that were not.
“That began to trigger for me a lot of recollections of things that I experienced directly, things that I had heard, things I knew,” Wokoma said.
Many of the items he found make up the display. A 1974 issue of the now discontinued Sepia magazine with Cicely Tyson on the cover is in a glass case along with an issue of Ebony and Life magazines.
Carpentry and plumbing tools are on display as well as a large set of keys Green was known to carry. A row of church fans on the wall reflects Green’s devotion to Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where he also served as a deacon. A family tree resembles an octopus with its tentacles effortlessly waving, rather than a static structure with outstretched limbs; each circle represents the ever expanding Green family.
“It’s a way of reconnecting, reflecting on what was. Maybe understanding where your personal story fits in the larger historical narrative,” Wokoma said. “That would be my biggest hope for folks who lived in the CD is that they would see this and be inspired to look at their own stories as being historically relevant. As something that could help tell our collective story.”
Wokoma’s family story mirrors that of many of other Black people living in the Seattle area. University of Washington Professor Quintard Taylor wrote a book about the history of the Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era.
While people think of the Central District as a Black community, Taylor said it didn’t begin that way.
“Many of the Jewish residents were there, many of the White or Anglo residents were in the area,” Taylor said. “It was a real ethnic mix, but for the other groups they could and eventually did leave. For Black folks this was the last stop at least until the 1970s.”
Restrictive covenants and redlining kept Black people confined to the Central District and out of other neighborhoods in Seattle. Taylor said the area now known as the Central District was actually three communities that came together because of racial restrictions. It was lower Jackson Street, Jackson and 23rd Avenue, and a middle class area at the intersection of 23rd Avenue and Madison.
“The Central District was evolving as a Black community even before World War II, but when World War II came and the Great Migration increased the Black population from 3,000 to about 15,000 in four years. Then the CD became known culturally as the Black area,” Taylor said. “It had the Black stores, it had the Black nightclubs, it had the population.”
Black people came to the area seeking reprieve from an oppressive South and for jobs at the shipyard and Boeing. In the 1970s, anti-discrimination legislation gave the Black community and other groups mobilization to live in other areas.
Taylor said they began moving out of the Central District and into areas like Rainier Valley, Renton and other suburbs. Taylor said by 2003 the situation reversed, more Black people lived in the suburbs compared to the entire city of Seattle.
“That’s how widespread the dispersal, if you want to call it that, of African-Americans was,” Taylor said. “Of course, gentrification was part of that because gentrification pushed people out of the CD. But also I think a lot of people voluntarily left the CD to move to other places.”
Wokoma has had a front seat of the Central District’s transformation over the years. While he misses what the community used to be he’s not pining for the past. His extended family gets together at least once a year and he plans on staying put as the community evolves.
“I want to be with my people, I want to be around my people but I want my people to thrive. I want my people to be able to realize the things that they envision for themselves,” Wokoma said. “What I want more is for that history to have not been interrupted. To be able to know that the efforts and vision that defined who we were and had and will continue to have continuity and move into the future.”