Madison is one of Seattle's most storied streets. From an ageless game trail, to an ancient Indian path, to a pioneering wagon road, to a major arterial, its evolution mirrored the development of the city itself. Stretching eastward from the shores of Elliott Bay, Madison becomes East Madison after crossing Broadway heading toward Lake Washington. In 1882 an African American settler bought land along the wagon road and began selling lots to fellow newcomers; in time an African American-oriented business strip arose near the midsection of East Madison. It included a butcher shop, barbershops, a theater, churches, cafes, taverns, pool halls, and a few fabled dancehalls where early local forms of jazz, R&B, and rock 'n' roll were forged, and where Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and Jimi Hendrix honed their craft. East Madison became the northern border between an ethnically diverse Central District and the mostly white neighborhoods of North Seattle. During its first century, the East Madison community created a proud cultural legacy, albeit one that by 2019 was reeling under the pressures of gentrification. With new apartment, condominium, retail, and restaurant complexes rising along East Madison, its face had changed dramatically. Only time will tell if its soul has survived.
The Big Rock
Soon after the first non-Native settlers reached the shores of Puget Sound in 1851, and near the site that would eventually grow into the village of Seattle, the Denny Party discovered a network of forest paths leading to various distant points. One in particular led east from Elliott Bay over a couple of wooded hills and down toward a great inland body of water that would soon be named Lake Washington. That path -- which had begun as a wild game trail for deer, bear, and cougar -- was subsequently well trod by generations of native Xatchua'bsh (or the "Lake People"). It led to an old seasonal Indian camp ("Xetl") that some settlers disdainfully dubbed "Fleaburg" (Denny, 407).
As the population of Seattle steadily grew, the old path became a community asset -- one that served as a "wooing ground" where young lovers "met at the big rock near the corner of what is now 10th and Madison" (Mumford, 1980). Madison -- one of the patriotic young town's presidentially named streets (along with Washington, Jefferson and Jackson) -- first appeared on the 1853 town plat document, a diagram that depicted streets heading from the waterfront only to 3rd Avenue. Eastward from there it remained a muddy trail for another decade and a half.
The Lake Washington Wagon Road
In 1864 the pioneering jurist Judge John J. McGilvra (1827-1903) purchased 420 acres abutting the lake at the eastern end of trail. He then built the Lake Washington Wagon Road parallel to the trail. Sophie Frye Bass, a granddaughter of town founder Arthur Denny, later recalled it as "a hilly, gravelly, bumpy road cut through dense forest and brush" (Bass, 58).
In 1867 McGilvra built a house from lumber cut at Henry Yesler's (1810-1892) sawmill on Elliott Bay and bestowed his property with the romantically pastoral name of Laurel Shade. For years, McGilvra and his wife lived in relative solitude -- having no neighbors until 1880 -- but his beach, McGilvra's Landing, did serve as a helpful launching point for many newcomers who would become pioneers settling across the lake in the future communities of Woodinville, Juanita, Kirkland, and Bellevue. In 1899, construction began on a public school (at 1617 38th Avenue E) that would later be named J. J. McGilvra Elementary.
Meanwhile, Yesler claimed the land just west of McGilvra's -- an area that comprises today's Madison Valley and East Madison neighborhoods -- and began selling lots to buyers, some who wanted a spot for a summer home, others who sought land for farming. Among them was African American pioneer William Grose (1835-1898), who'd arrived in 1860 and earned the nickname "Big Bill The Cook" by working the lunch counter at Rube Low's saloon. By 1876 Grose had opened his Our House restaurant on Yesler's Wharf, which was expanded to the three-story Our House hotel in 1883.
The Central District
In 1882 Yesler sold a 12-acre parcel (bounded by today's 24th and 27th avenues and Howell and Olive streets) to Grose for $1,000 in gold. Initially Grose lived downtown and used the land as his personal ranch, but after his hotel burned in the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, he moved the family to the ranch's cabin (probably near 24th Avenue) and he and his son George ran a farm there.
Before long, Grose began parceling out his land as residential lots to African American newcomers, and Seattle's "Central District" began to take shape as a racially mixed area. Upon his death, Grose's widow Sara settled into a home at 1729 24th Avenue. Today the William Grose Park at 1814 30th Avenue exists as a reminder of his role in developing the Central District.
In the three years from 1889 to 1891 the Madison Street Cable Car line was laid from downtown's central business (and residential) district out to Lake Washington, where a number of wealthy families were building summer homes. The year 1890 saw the founding of John J. McGilvra's Madison Park Pavilion, which provided popular recreational activities ranging from garden strolling, to canoe rentals, to Sunday afternoon concerts in the outdoor bandshell that often featured performances by Theodore "Dad" H. Wagner's (1860-1933) band, as well as evening dances in the grand pavilion.
Meanwhile, the middle stretch of Madison -- rather than the western/downtown portion, or the swanky lakeside Madison Park neighborhood portion -- was evolving into the East Madison neighborhood. Among the early residents was Frank Anderson, who ran a dairy at 21st Avenue. Another was the infamous Madame Lou Graham (1861-1903), who'd come to Seattle in 1888 to operate a Wild West-era brothel at 3rd and Washington in Pioneer Square, and whose home was located at 2102 E Madison.
Also in 1888, an African American couple, Seaborn and Alazda Collins, bought a lot and built a house at 27th and E Madison. Seaborn helped start the Jones Street African American Ministry, which in 1891 evolved into the First African American Methodist Episcopal Church, where William Grose served as a trustee. One year prior, another group of African Americans began holding religious services in a small storefront at 14th Avenue and E Madison. They later moved into an eight-room house at 19th Avenue, where after much subsequent expansion, their Mount Zion Baptist Church (1634 19th Avenue) remains. In 1897, Zacharias and Irene Woodson arrived in Seattle and bought property; they later built the Woodson Apartments at 1820 24th Avenue E, which they ran well into the 1930s.
It was along East Madison -- from about 14th Avenue through about 30th Avenue, and onto side streets -- that a robust neighborhood and business district catering to the growing African American community would take root. Of the Madison Valley area, one prominent Seattle historian, Quintard Taylor, wrote that "African American neighbors referred to the area as 'The Hollow,'" while another historian, Esther Mumford, noted that other folks disparaged it as a "colored colony" or worse yet, "Coon Hollow" (Mumford, 1993, 114).
In 1918 Ed Johnson opened Johnson Fuel & Poultry at 2200 E Madison. He later recalled that: "Twenty-second Avenue was paved in 1910, the year I came here. Where we lived they called it the 'Hollow' … They kept cows and raised gardens … and it took four horses to pull a ton of coal up the street in a wagon. The sidewalks were four by twelve boards and the rest of it was just clay. You step off the board, why, you're lucky to get back on it" (Mumford, Calabash, 78).
In time East Madison came to serve as a cultural buffer zone, where the emerging Central District (to the west and south) met up with the more affluent Madison Park neighborhood (to the east), the Washington Park neighborhood (to the southeast), and the upscale 85-acre gated residential community of Broadmoor (to the north). Racially motivated real estate "red-line" practices would effectively enforce such divisions for many decades.
Beyond that, Seattle's city government responded to concerns of some residents and business interests by actively stifling further growth of the African American-oriented business district along East Madison. Using the levers of governing – regulations, permits, licenses, and inspections – efforts were made to stymie entrepreneurs. The black community persisted, however, and by World War I Seattle's middle-class African American families were established and had their own businesses, restaurants, and churches. For entertainment, there were concert-band picnics, dances at the "black" Elks Club on 18th Avenue E and the Renton Hill Club at 18th and E Madison, as well as a favored swimming spot at a beach near Madison Park.
The Madison Street Cable Car line included a powerhouse located between 21st and 22nd along E Madison, which drove the underground cables that ran two separate lines -- one up from downtown, and a second out through Madison Valley to Madison Park. This system served from 1889 until 1910, when electric streetcars replaced the latter section. The powerhouse was then relocated to a spot near 10th Avenue, and that became the new eastern terminus for the downtown run. In 1913 the line was restored to 14th Avenue. This left the middle section of E Madison -- from 14th to 22nd; the main black-oriented portion -- without public transport. Finally, in 1940 a motorbus system, and then a trolleybus system, replaced it, restoring the entire route.
The old powerhouse lot at 22nd became an important site for the black community. The Gala Theater became the first entertainment venue to be based there (at 2203 E Madison) in the 1930s. Meanwhile, a multi-block strip of additional businesses, including the long-lived Mardi Gras Tavern (2045 E Madison), arose to cater to the black community. The neighborhood's most prominent African American businessmen, Lemuel Honeysuckle, began operating Honeysuckle Lunch (2030 E Madison) around 1933. He also became a pool-hall operator, opening M. C. Honeysuckle Billiards. Another notable business was a butcher shop in the Madison St. Market (2225 E Madison) run by Robert "Bumps" Blackwell (1918-1985). Blackwell would go on to front his own popular dance bands, discover and nurture many young musicians, and later forge an amazing career in the music business in Los Angeles.
Stompin' at the Savoy
In 1941 Honeysuckle revamped the Gala Theater as the Savoy Ballroom -- a nightspot presumably dubbed in tribute to the famed Harlem jazz club of the same name. Honeysuckle launched the Savoy by throwing Saturday-afternoon dances, and among his first bookings was a local high school-aged swing band called the Savoy Boys that featured a sax player, Billy Tolles, who went on work with Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan, Lucky Millinder, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Scott, and Ruth Brown.
Much fun was surely had by attendees, but the hall's alcohol-free environment limited the commercial viability of Honeysuckle's business. He was facing a city government that was successfully halting efforts by African American entrepreneurs to open new entertainment venues by systematically rejecting applications for licenses to open nightclubs -- or, "cabarets" as they were termed -- anywhere near the "borders" of the Central District. He struggled to make ends meet, but eventually sold the Savoy and it resurfaced briefly as the Eastside Hall.
Other businessmen skirted the restrictive liquor laws in the same time-proven manner that many others had throughout the Prohibition era: by operating illicit speakeasies. One of Seattle's most successful Prohibition era businessmen was an African American speakeasy owner named John H. "Doc" Hamilton (1891-1942), who lived in Madison Valley and made a fortune running nightspots and restaurants including the Barbecue Pit, just off E Madison at 908 12th Avenue.
The Washington Social Club
In 1944 Silas "Sy" Groves incorporated the Washington Educational and Social Club, a private membership organization more commonly called the Washington Social Club, at 2302 E Madison. At that time it was still generally illegal to sell cocktails, but such private clubs could pay for licenses allowing them to sell their clientele "set-ups" -- that is, patrons would bring their own liquor bottle with them, and the house would, for a fee, provide glasses and ice. Such clubs still needed to pay off the police to overlook that they stayed open too late, allowed underage patrons, and sold liquor for exorbitant fees.
Crowds as large as 250 were drawn to the Washington Social Club to drink, dance, and listen to members of Seattle's "Negro Musicians' Union," AFM Local 493, including the bands led by "Bumps" Blackwell, "Pops" Buford, and Al Hickey's Jive Bombers. Notable individual performers included an underage Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016), trumpeter Floyd Standifer (1929-2007), blues guitarist Clarence Williams, and ace pianist Gerald Wiggins (1922-2008), who lived at 23rd and E Madison.
The club also featured touring stars such as Cab Calloway, and national jazz icons such as Charlie "Bird" Parker, Lester Young, and Dexter Gordon. Club members had opportunities to hear blues and R&B stars including Bull Moose Jackson, Lowell Fulson, Pee Wee Crayton, Guitar Slim, Big Jay McNeely, Roy Milton, T-Bone Walker, Joe Liggins, Arthur Prysock, and B.B. King.
Dine and Dance
With the end of World War II in 1945, and the return home of now-worldly troops, there came a new demand for more entertainment and drinking opportunities in Seattle, including along the underserved black business strips of East Madison and Jackson streets. With pressure swelling from within the African American community, on February 19, 1946, The Seattle Times reported this welcome bit of news: "An unwritten but rigid policy of the city council, forbidding cabarets east of Eighth Avenue in the central portion of the city, was relaxed yesterday, to give Seattle's Negro community a dine-and-dance establishment at the Savoy Ballroom, 2203 E. Madison St., operators of which were granted a cafe-dance license."
Those operators, Edward Taryer and George Barnes – who'd bought the place from Lemuel Honeysuckle -- had succeeded in their quest. East Madison was becoming a blazing-hot destination for partiers and music lovers of all races. Yet all this activity began to draw unwanted attention. On October 8, 1948, the police raided the Washington Social Club, arresting 166 people in what is considered the "largest arrest ever made in a Seattle speakeasy" (de Barros, 165).
In 1949 Washington's liquor laws were liberalized to allow for the sale of cocktails, yet the WSC remained under continual threat of police raids, "in part because of attempts to shift profits from newly legalized alcohol by the drink from black neighborhoods to downtown clubs" (Cleary). With the town's newspapers and police dogging the WSC, legal troubles mounted, and in 1950 the place was formally abated. Despite Groves' complaints that it was targeted because it was a black-owned business, his club was shuttered in 1951.
Famous Names From the Neighborhood
The Mardi Gras Tavern was presenting the best local jazz weekly, and also served as the site where, legend holds, Seattle's famed African American dancer/choreographer Syvilla Fort (1917-1975) got her start as a "jazz dancer" (Taylor, 149). Another star to emerge from the East Madison neighborhood was the pianist/composer Patti Bown (1931-2006), who was inspired early on by the seductive sounds emanating from the Mardi Gras: "When I walked home from school, I passed the pool parlor and the Mardi Gras and they always had jazz playing. My mother was saying 'No!' but the music was sensuous and it said 'Yes'" (de Barros, 112).
In the 1940s many new establishments lined the strip including Miss P. P. Jones Beauty Shop (2221 E Madison), George Hayes Barber Shop (2227), Howard Brown Barber Shop (2315), and Smith Billiards (2330). Venues that held dances included the Polish Hall at 18th and E Madison, the Shrine at 23rd, and the new YMCA East Madison Branch (at 23rd and Olive), giving the community another space to congregate -- especially at a long-lived series of free Friday night dances, including those featuring the "patriarch of early Seattle jazz," pianist Oscar Holden Sr. (1887-1969) (de Barros, 13).
In 1947 the Jones family moved to Seattle. Mr. Jones was a barber, and his namesake son, Quincy Jones Jr., was a budding trumpeter who within weeks was recruited to join drummer Charles Taylor's teenage band (which also included saxophonist Oscar Holden Jr., and his pianist sister Grace Holden). Bumps Blackwell quickly discovered the band, began serving as its manager, and persuaded the Savoy to reopen for dancing; the young band began playing there every Sunday. Quincy Jones would enjoy a long career as a famous Hollywood-based composer, arranger, and producer.
In March 1948 a blind black teenaged pianist named R. C. Robinson (1930-2004) arrived in Seattle and took the town by storm. Music fans and fellow musicians embraced the talented newcomer. Ms. Georgia Kemp (who was the cook at the "Black" Elks Club) let him move into her home/rooming house at 20th and E Madison. He went on to perform at the Savoy, the East Madison YMCA, and the Washington Social Club. He formed the Maxin Trio, which hosted its own show on the city's first television station, KRSC, and cut Seattle's first blues record in 1949. Under the stage name Ray Charles, he would go on to phenomenal success as a recording star known as the "Genius of Soul."
The Fab Fifties
In the early 1950s newcomers to the neighborhood brought new ideas and energy. An African American pharmacist named Russell Gideon opened a shop and 21st and E Madison and began serving as president of the East Madison Commercial Club (at 2051). The African American community had already participated in an International Festival in the Chinatown neighborhood for the previous couple of summers, but in August 1952 the community focused instead on producing its own first annual "East Madison-East Union Mardi Gras Festival," which included a parade, Louisiana-style Creole cuisine, a public BBQ, and a street dance at 21st Avenue.
The decade saw new businesses open on East Madison, including the Little Record Mart (2037), Eastside Recreation (2102), Fabulous Hamburgers (2201), Jack's Pool Hall (2211), Wilson's Beauty Salon (2221), Esquire Barber Shop (2227), Trilby's Grill (2310a), Martin's B-B-Q Pit (2313), Ted Williams Radio & Electronics (2326), Madison Street Launderette (2330), and Dot's Beauty Salon (2332). In 1955, the Local 541 Ship Scalers -- a labor union with 90 percent black membership -- moved its meeting hall from downtown to 2313 E Madison. That same year Wilmer Morgan, owner of the Mardi Gras Grill (at 2045-47 E Madison) -- where jazz and R&B acts drew steady crowds -- bought Eastside Hall, and in August 1955 reopened it as the Birdland Supper Club.
A Music Mecca
The action at Birdland and the Mardi Gras made the area an attraction for early fans of rude jazz, blues, and soul music. In 1956 Seattle's own rockin' R&B pioneers, Billy Tolles and the Vibrators, gigged at Birdland, but in 1957 Wilmer Morgan hired a teen band, the Dave Lewis Combo, as the new house band. Morgan invited Bumps Blackwell – who had been living in Los Angeles since 1950 while helping make stars out of Little Richard and Sam Cooke -- to come and audition the band for a possible record deal.
Then, when Blackwell and Cooke came through Seattle, Cooke sat in with Dave Holden's combo at the Mardi Gras, singing a few tunes including his big hit, "You Send Me." Meanwhile, Blackwell listened to Lewis' combo play some popular hits and gave the band some great advice: You guys sound good, but you need to write your own songs. Lewis understood and went on to compose a string of tunes that became local radio hits and cornerstones of the canon that came to define Northwest Rock.
Birdland, in particular, came to serve as an incubator for the subsequent original "Northwest Sound," initially by presenting inspiring R&B stars such as Amos Milburn, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, James Brown, and Big Jay McNeely. McNeely also played a youth-oriented matinee at the East Madison Street YMCA that was attended by a teenaged guitarist named Jimmy Hendrix (1942-1970). But, Birdland would also give African American groups such as Joe Boot and the Fabulous Winds, the Barons, Ron Holden and the Playboys, the Gallahads, and the Boss Five chances to perform. In 1959 and 1960, both of Jimmy Hendrix' early bands, the Velvetones and the Rocking Kings, gigged at Birdland.
Years went by and Seattle saw continuous change. The inhabitants of the Central District fought social injustice throughout the Civil Rights era and weathered the economic effects of the Boeing Bust of the early 1970s, when many thousands of workers fled town. As real estate values crashed, and countless businesses folded, the East Madison neighborhood suffered.
But it never gave up. In 1968 African American businesswoman DeCharlene Williams (1943-2018) bought a building at 2108 E Madison, and her hair salon became a pillar of the community. Williams had a keen sense of history and an indomitable spirit. Over the following decades she served on the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration committee and the mayor's Small Business Task Force. Williams co-founded the Central Area Chamber of Commerce and the Central Area Youth Association (CAYA). She ran for public office, and led the organizing of the now-annual Juneteenth celebrations. Alas, in 2016 one writer pointed out that Williams' "businesses appear to be about all that's left of what used to be a center of Seattle's Black economy and community along the East Madison corridor" (Brothers).
The East Madison area had continued sliding into general decline. The days of the strip being a nightlife entertainment mecca were over: Birdland had been shuttered back in 1964, and the Mardi Gras Grill lost its influence as '70s disco music largely drew people downtown to upscale clubs. A handful of businesses -- Deano's Grocery and Club Chocolate City (at 2026 E Madison) and The Twilight Exit bar (at 2051 E Madison) in particular – became trouble-magnets as hangouts for 1980s drug dealers.
When the 1990s brought unprecedented tech-related wealth to much of the growing metropolis, it came late to the Central District. Then as the twenty-first century dawned, new pressures came to the area's neighborhoods. Gentrification was unleashed, real estate values soared, new construction multiplied, and many longtime residents felt squeezed out. The New York Times noted: "The once bustling and self-sufficient neighborhood ... has changed dramatically. Gentrification, the decline of affordable housing, the influx of young, mostly white tech workers, and the continued legacy of racism and segregation have transformed a predominantly black neighborhood into a mostly white one: In 1970, the black population of the Central District was 73 percent. By 2014, it had dwindled to less than 20 percent" (Berger).
By 2019 the old business strip at the heart of East Madison -- where the Savoy/Birdland site now hosted a Starbucks, and the Mardi Gras location held the upscale Session Apartments, with their solar panels, rooftop lounge, and dog walk -- would simply be unrecognizable to many neighborhood oldtimers. But the spirit of the neighborhood has not been vanquished. In September 2019 community efforts commenced to revive a long-dormant neighborhood tradition: the free "Friday Night at the Y" R&B dances held at the old Meredith Matthews East Madison YMCA. It seems safe to surmise that Oscar Holden, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Dave Lewis, and Jimi Hendrix would be pleased with that bit of news.