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Stanley Ann Dunham, mother of Barack Obama, graduates from Mercer Island High School in 1960.

HistoryLink.org Essay 8897 : Printer-Friendly Format

In 1960, Stanley Ann Dunham graduates from Mercer Island High School. Although much has been made of the Midwestern upbringing of President Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham also lived in the Seattle area for five years when she was a teenager.  She and her family arrived in Seattle in 1955 and relocated to Mercer Island in 1956. In 1960 Dunham graduates from Mercer Island High School and moves to Hawaii. She will move back to Seattle with her new baby (Barack) the following year, but then return to Hawaii in 1962. In 2009 her son, Barack Hussein Obama  (b. 1961) will become the 44th president of the United States.

Coming to Washington

Stanley Ann Dunham was born in Wichita, Kansas. on November 29, 1942, the only child of Stanley Dunham (1918-1992) and Madelyn Payne Dunham (1922-2008). Her father wanted a boy so badly that he named her Stanley, causing her considerable bemused frustration during her youth.  During Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, much ado was made of Dunham’s Kansas upbringing -- but her family left Kansas at some point after World War II ended in 1945 and lived in California and Texas before moving to Seattle in 1955, probably as Dunham approached her 13th birthday.   

Although a Seattle Times article reports that the family rented an apartment in the Columbia City neighborhood of Seattle, records also show that the family lived in the Wedgwood Estates apartment complex, in one of four units at 7529 39th Avenue NE, during their first year in Washington state. Stanley Ann Dunham attended 8th grade at Eckstein Middle School in the Wedgwood neighborhood. 

In 1956 the family learned of a new high school opening on Mercer Island, then a considerably more rural community (the city itself would not incorporate until 1960), and moved to the island, renting unit 219 of the Shorewood Apartments at 3206 E  Lexington Way. Stanley Dunham worked as a salesman at Standard-Grunbaum Furniture in downtown Seattle initially, though by 1957 he was working at Doces Majestic Furniture in Seattle. Madelyn found work as an escrow officer in Bellevue.  

Mercer Island

Young Stanley Ann must have at first found herself a stranger in a strange land in the quiet, politically conservative, almost lily-white Mercer Island of the 1950s.  She was smart and curious, intellectually mature beyond her years, and had a sharp wit augmented with a comfortable sense of self-assuredness. Many of Dunham’s classmates at first viewed her as “different,” but in an endearing sort of way.  Not a beatnik but with the same pointed questions and arguments against the staid 1950s culture that beatniks of the era espoused, Dunham enjoyed going to coffeehouses in Seattle’s University District to talk about jazz and the value of learning from other cultures. She also took in foreign films at the Ridgemont Theatre on Greenwood Avenue N near Green Lake in Seattle.  

But Dunham also found her niche on Mercer Island. She went to some of the sock hops, sleepovers, and boys’ basketball games of the day. But her real home was with the intellectual crowd at the high school, and the crowd’s cerebral fires were stoked in a particular hallway of Mercer Island High School known as “anarchy alley.”  There two teachers gave their students assignments that regularly put their parents in an uproar and led to protests against these teachers called “mothers’ marches.” English teacher Val Foubert assigned edgy texts such as “Atlas Shrugged,” “The Organization Man,” and Margaret Mead’s writings on homosexuality. But he was almost tame compared to the school’s philosophy teacher, Jim Wichterman.  Wichterman had his class read “The Communist Manifesto,” and questioned the existence of God in his classes. 

“People have asked me what was the incubus of her [Dunham’s] growth,” commented her friend and classmate Iona Stenhouse.  “I don’t think it was Mercer Island other than to form a contrarian view.  Civil rights and feminism just didn’t exist yet on Mercer Island in the late ‘50s. But we did have teachers who tried to expand our thinking, and this possibly became a foundation for Stanley’s growth.  She was very inquisitive and bright, and it doesn’t surprise me that she [later] reveled in living overseas” (Iona Stenhouse interview).

Added Maxine Box, Dunham’s best friend in high school: “When she was younger she was comfortable in the setting of Mercer Island, [but] I think when she moved to Hawaii it opened new worlds for her.  When she had the baby at 18, it must have been really hard, but I think once she realized she could handle it, she felt that she could handle anything” (Maxine Box interview).

Big Surprises  

Dunham hoped to attend the University of Washington after her graduation from high school in June 1960, and had also been accepted at the University of Chicago. But by the time she graduated, her father, not known for staying put, had found another job in Hawaii. She didn’t want to go, but her father insisted, and the day after graduation, Dunham left Mercer Island. In the autumn she enrolled in the University of Hawaii, and soon met Barack Obama (1936-1982), a Kenyan, in a Russian-language class. Obama’s magnetic personality attracted Dunham, and in February 1961 the two got married, not telling their friends until afterward.  By this time Dunham was nearly three months pregnant; it is something of a mystery whether the pregnancy or true love brought on the marriage.  On August 4, 1961, Barack Hussein Obama was born in Honolulu.

News of the marriage and baby shocked Dunham’s friends. She had not had a steady boyfriend in high school and had not seemed interested in children, even declining to babysit though nearly all of her girlfriends did. It was a surprise, too, that Dunham married an African man, though the surprise to some was not so much that he was black but that he simply was not white.  Explained Stenhouse, “You have to know Mercer Island in the late ‘50s.  Bland doesn’t begin to describe it.  [So Dunham’s marriage] surprised us only in the same sense as if she had married a Chinese.  We just didn’t have access to others” (interview).

Soon after Barack was born, Dunham and her new son moved to Seattle. They lived in Apartment 2 of the Villa Ria Apartments at 516 13th Avenue E on Capitol Hill, and she enrolled at the University of Washington. But their stay was fairly short -- about a year -- and in 1962 they returned to Hawaii. By this time the senior Barack Obama had left Hawaii to continue his education at Harvard, with eventual plans to return to his native Kenya with his family. Dunham felt otherwise and filed for divorce in 1964. 

Finding Herself 

In 1967 she married Lolo Soetoro, and they had a daughter, Maya, in 1970. Shortly after the marriage, the family moved to Indonesia for several years, but in the 1970s Dunham began shuttling back and forth between Indonesia and Hawaii, leaving young Barack to be raised by her parents in Hawaii. Her marriage to Soetoro ended in divorce in 1980. But it was during her years in Indonesia that Dunham seems to have found herself, and in her later years she pursued her Ph.D. (completing her dissertation in 1992) and worked in Indonesia to build the microfinance program in the country, enabling small, credit-poor entrepreneurs to get loans.  

In the mid-1990s Dunham was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer. She spent her final months in Hawaii, and died there on November 7, 1995. In November 2008, her son, Barack Obama, was elected as the first African American president of the United States.

Sources:
Amanda Ripley, “The Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” TIME, April 9, 2008, website accessed January 1, 2009 (http://www.time.com/);  Tim Jones, “Barack Obama:  Mother Not Just A Girl From Kansas,” Chicagotribune.com, March 27, 2007, website accessed January 1, 2009 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/);  Jonathan Martin, “Obama’s Mother Known Here As ‘Uncommon,’” The Seattle Times,  April 8, 2008, website accessed January 1, 2009 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/);  Patti Payne, “Obama’s Mother Went To Mercer Island High School; Rossi Recalls WSJ,” Puget Sound Business Journal,  January 11, 2008, website accessed January 1, 2009 (http://masshightech.bizjornals.com/seattle);  Charlotte LeFevre, “Barack Obama:  From Capitol Hill to Capitol Hill,” CapitolHillTimes.com, January 9, 2009, website accessed January 10, 2009 (http://www.capitolhilltimes.com/); Phil Dougherty interview of Maxine Box, February 5, 2009, Seattle, Washington; Phil Dougherty interview of Susan Blake, January 18, 2009, Seattle Washington;  Phil Dougherty interview of Tony Nugent, January 13, 2009, Seattle, Washington;  Phil Dougherty interview of Iona Stenhouse, January 13, 2009, Seattle, Washington; Tony Nugent emails to Phil Dougherty, January 19, January 23, January 31, and February 2, 2009, in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington.
This essay was updated on February 7, 2009.


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Stanley Dunham, Mercer Island High School yearbook, 1960
Courtesy Mercer Island High School Yearbook


Stanley Dunham, Mercer Island High School yearbook picture, 1957
Courtesy Tony Nugent


Barack Obama's residence (windows above the handwritten word "Frank") for a brief time in the early 1960s, 516 13th Avenue E, Capitol Hill, Seattle, 1937
Courtesy Puget Sound Regional Archives via Tony Nugent


Anna Obama residence listed in Seattle Reverse Directory, 1961-1962
Courtesy Tony Nugent


Barack Hussein Obama (b. 1961)
Courtesy The White House


 
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