A History of Housing in the Central District

History of Housing Justice in Seattle's Central District
Aerial view of the Central District, looking east to Madrona and Lake Washington

A History of Housing in the Central District

How did the Central District of Seattle (CD) become the center of the Black experience in the Puget Sound area, and why has it now largely dissolved? What lessons can the history of the CD teach real estate agents about our role in the communities we serve?
This is the first of a three-part series about the history of housing and the Black community in the Central District.
In this first installment, we’ll discuss the formation of the CD as the heart of the Black community in Seattle, and its roots in racial segregation. In the second, we’ll cover the powerful and nationally influential housing activism movement birthed in the CD in the 1960s, and the CD reaching its peak Black population in the 1970s. In the third installment, we’ll take a look at the devastating loss of Black wealth during the housing crash of the Great Recession and subsequent displacement of most of the CD’s Black residents.
We believe that the stories and struggles of the Black community in the CD are important for real estate agents to know and understand, no matter our race or how long we’ve lived in the city. The Central District is not only one of our most significant and historic neighborhoods, but one that was shaped in part by discriminatory housing policies that constrained the opportunities of Black Seattleites — policies that were widely supported by the local real estate industry.

Part 1
The Central District, also sometimes referred to as the Central Area, is a neighborhood of four square miles in the geographic center of Seattle. It was synonymous with the city’s Black community for almost a century. Recent transplants to Seattle, however, may find that on the surface, the CD’s character and boundaries now blur together with neighboring areas like Madrona and Capitol Hill. In recent years, many of the long-established Black families of the CD have dispersed to the southern suburbs and beyond, while too many of the CD’s churches, Black-owned businesses, and cultural traditions are consigned to memory.
The story of the past 100 years in the CD is not only one of Black pride, entrepreneurship, and community — but also of discrimination, redlining, activism, and displacement.

Early history of the CD
In 1882, William Grose, one of the most famous men in Seattle — and its second Black resident — bought 12 wooded acres in central Seattle for $1,000 in gold coin from another famous pioneer, Henry Yesler. Grose established a farm and eventually logged and platted the acreage. Over the next 20 years, the area that Grose settled became a stable, middle-class community. His farmhouse at 24th Ave and Howell St still stands, and is now the oldest building to be continuously occupied by a Black person in Washington state, according to historian Esther Mumford.

At the same time, a second center of Black community developed in the Yesler-Jackson area at the south end of downtown, with a more transient and low-wage population of workers. The area was known for its entertainment industry, including a vibrant jazz music scene. As these two distinct Black communities grew, they eventually merged into one neighborhood, known as the Central District, or Central Area. Early Black residents began to organize to defend their rights and interests. Branches of the NAACP, National Urban League, and the Universal Negro Improvement League were formed there in the 1910s.

By the early 1900s, the CD had also become the home of Seattle’s Jewish community, including many significant synagogues. The next few decades brought Japanese settlers, particularly to the blocks between 14th and 18th Avenues and Yesler Way and Jackson Street. Japanese-founded parks and cultural institutions, such as the Seattle Buddhist Temple, still remain today. One unfortunate legacy of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a permanently diminished Japanese population in the CD. Jackson Street in 1935 was one of the most diverse areas that has ever existed in Seattle. The population was 68% Asian, 24% Black, and 8% white.

Restrictive Covenants
Black residents were not just increasingly drawn to the CD for its culture and community, but confined there due to segregation. Beginning in the 1920s, politicians, homeowners, and the real estate industry collaborated to implement racially restrictive covenants in many Seattle neighborhoods. A restrictive covenant legally prohibits a homeowner from selling to members of the groups listed in the covenant, if that covenant is included on the property’s deed or plat map. Covenants became a popular tool of segregation in the U.S. after a 1917 Supreme Court ruling found city segregation ordinances violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

As Seattle developed from the 1920s through the 40s, most of the newly-built neighborhoods included racially restrictive covenants that prevented non-white and sometimes Jewish families from purchasing or even renting homes in these areas. Some of the covenants were very specific; the Broadmoor neighborhood of north-central Seattle specified that homes could not be “occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race.”

Land developers, including Seattle icon William Boeing, and real estate companies wrote most of the region’s racially restrictive covenants. It was an unfortunately simple matter to place restrictive covenants on a title before the properties were sold to individual owners. Infamously, a group of neighbors organized their own campaign to exclude Black residents from Capitol Hill, a long-established neighborhood which adjoins the Central District. The covenant, eventually signed by over 900 individual homeowners during the 1920s, specified that their properties would never be “used or occupied by or sold, conveyed, leased, rented or given to Negroes, or any person or persons of the Negro blood.” Other neighborhoods where covenants were implemented property-by-property included Queen Anne and Madison Park (adjacent to Broadmoor).

Not only were African Americans largely prohibited from living outside the Central District, but after the Great Depression, mortgage banks and the federal government made homes in the CD much less valuable through a practice called “redlining,” which greatly reduced Black wealth.
According to scholar Catherine Silva, “By the end of the 1920s, a ring of deed restrictions meant that people of color had few options. The older areas of the Central District and Chinatown were nearly the only ‘open neighborhoods’ in Seattle. African Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans and some of the region’s Jewish population shared a ghetto” in the Central District.
Rampant foreclosures during and after the Depression had left lenders fearful, and loan originations low. The federal government hoped to encourage banks to loan money to would-be home buyers by developing maps that would show where their mortgages were most and least likely to be paid in full. In the late 1930s, the government began a project to evaluate mortgage risks in cities across the country. It rated neighborhoods as “best,” “still desirable,” “definitely declining,” and “hazardous.” Neighborhoods deemed financially risky for lenders were marked in red on the maps — hence the term “redlining.”

In Seattle, the CD was described as containing homes that were “generally old and obsolete, in need of extensive repairs.” (It was, after all, one of oldest neighborhoods in the city.)

The CD had officially been redlined.

Afterwards, Black homeowners found it much more difficult to get loans to purchase or refinance a home — or to get a loan to pay for improvements or repairs to their property.
By 1940, the Black homeownership rate in Seattle was 29%, second in the nation only to Los Angeles at 30%. But that rate represented a decline in Black homeownership from the 1930s, as African Americans in the CD had lost their homes to foreclosure during the Depression at a significantly higher rate than whites, and redlining had made it more difficult for Black residents in the CD to refinance or repurchase their homes.

As historian Doug Honig observed, redlining “was a classic formula that prevented Blacks from accumulating generational wealth by limiting their ability to own homes in the neighborhood where they could live.” It also led to the deterioration of many homes and home values, as owners were unable to access their home equity to pay for improvements. Image source: Historylink
Wartime Migration
African Americans first began to arrive in Seattle in large numbers in the 1940s, as part of the Second Great Migration. Tens of thousands of Black Americans migrated to West Coast cities during this time to seek work in the defense industry — and to escape the intense discrimination they still faced in the South. By 1942, a major increase in wartime production had exhausted the Pacific Northwest’s local labor pools for aviation, shipbuilding, and munitions, and the federal government began recruiting workers in the South for plants in the northwest. In just ten years, Seattle’s Black population grew 300%, to almost 16,000 residents by 1950.
In already-established Black enclaves at Jackson Street, Madison Hill, and Cherry Street, newly-arrived Black residents from the South found themselves with few other options for housing in the city. They doubled or tripled up in homes that were already among the oldest in the city. Activists began to call attention to the worsening conditions in the Central District, with the Communist newspaper New World writing in 1948 that “Seattle Is Blighted by Restrictive Covenants,” and calling the CD and Chinatown “Seattle’s Ghetto.”
By 1948, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling had outlawed restrictive covenants. But according to University of Washington professor Quintard Taylor, resistance by homeowners and real estate agents continued to prevent most Black residents from living outside the Central District for decades to come. One example comes from longtime King County Council member Larry Gossett, who recalled that when his father wanted to buy a house in West Seattle in 1956, a real estate agent told him that she would be “run out” if she tried to help the Gossett family purchase the home.

Headline and graphic from the New World local newspaper, 1948: “Seattle Is Blighted By Restrictive Covenants” 

As the 1960s began, Seattle remained highly segregated. Many real estate agents defended the status quo, based on the belief that integration in housing would hurt property values. When an ordinance against housing discrimination was proposed in Seattle in the 1960s, the real estate industry opposed it as “forced housing,” “dictatorial, confiscatory, and would lead to evasion and disrespect for the law.” (The Seattle Times, 1961, quoted in “The Seattle Open Housing Campaign, 1959-1968.”)

But change was just around the corner, as city leaders and the real estate industry were about to learn that the Black community and the Central District were a much more powerful force than they had imagined.

Geographic distribution of the Black population of Seattle in 1960, from Historylink.

2500 1666 Corrie Watterson, Dorothy Driver
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