Northwest African American Museum

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 4/21/2008
  • Essay 8602
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The Pacific Northwest African American Museum, located in the old Colman School, at 2300 Massachusetts St. in Seattle, opened on March 8, 2008, with an estimated 3,000 visitors.  The surrounding neighborhood was swarming with cars and hundreds of people on foot converged from all directions.  Elected officials who took part in the opening included Governor Christine Gregoire, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, U. S. Representative Jim McDermott, Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955), King County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948), and King County Councilman Larry Gossett (b. 1945).  It was a happy day for the African American community, which had dreamed of a museum for more than two decades.
In 1981, the Community Exchange, a multi-racial coalition, proposed an African American museum to Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939).  Three years later, a task force was formed to establish such a museum and included community members Omari Tahir Garrett, Mona Bailey, Esther Mumford, Ann Gerber, P. Razz Garrison, and Janice Cate.  In November 1985, disillusioned by the tardiness of the task force in finding a museum location, a group of African Americans moved into the vacant Colman School after it was closed when nearby Interstate 90 was expanded.

(Just weeks before, the Black Heritage Society had petitioned Walt Hundley (1929-2002), Superintendent of Parks and Recreation, for use of a room in the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center for a small museum.  He instead offered the small shelter house built by the WPA on the Colman playfield. The society decided against accepting this.)

Years of Building Occupation

The core group of activists occupying the building, which included Earl Debman, Omari Tahir-Garrett, Michael Greenwood, and Charlie James, stayed for more than eight years. The Seattle School District, not wanting a confrontation, told them they were trespassing but made no effort to dislodge them.  This has been said to be the longest act of civil disobedience in the country. 

During those years the group, known as the Citizens Support Committee for the African American Heritage Museum/Cultural Center, used several rooms in the building for displays of books, artifacts, and art work and sponsored community activities including a forum on Aids and Racism.  The individual members of the group sacrificed much to keep their dream of a museum and cultural center alive. The building was cold and it cost them $500 a month to keep the gas-fired generator running.  A bucket of water was used for bathing or they went to homes of friends for showers.  Neighbors brought in plates of food and a few dollars were collected from black churches.  
Difficulty and Controversy

In 1993, the occupation ended when the City of Seattle agreed to fund the museum.  Then came much discussion and disagreement between two groups, the activists and the more traditional leaders, who purported to represent the museum effort.  Robert Flowers, Vice President of Washington Mutual, and James Fearne, an official with the Seattle Office of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, both chaired the museum board at different times between 1993 and 2000.  It was fostered under the guidance of Denice Hunt (1948-1997), liaison to Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943).  By 2000, Fearne said, "It's been a really difficult thing to work with.  There have been lawsuits, there have been fist fights.  There has been so much difficulty and controversy about a museum at this site.  Maybe it's better to regroup and look someplace else than keep fighting these battles" ( Ervin). 

In 2003, The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, under the leadership of James Kelly, the executive director, bought the building from the Seattle School District for $800,000 for a museum and 36 units of affordable rental housing to be known as the Urban League Village.
Colman School Building

Colman School was built in 1909, and named in 1918, for James Murray Colman (1832-1906), a native of Scotland who came to Seattle in 1869.  He was a Seattle engineer who helped develop the waterfront and built Colman Dock terminal for Washington State Ferries.  The three-story red brick building sitting on 2.2 acres was designed in the Jacobean style and contained 17 classrooms.  Anna B. Kane was principal of the school from 1912 until 1940.  It was one of the longest terms of any principal in the district. 

In the 1960s Colman School became one of the seven Central Area schools designated by the Seattle Urban League as having a disproportionate number of minority students.  Colman closed as an elementary school in 1979.  From 1979 to 1985, Summit K-12 alternative school was located in the building.
Village and Museum
The overall cost of this project was $22.6 million, which includes $8.1 million for the museum construction.  The two upper floors of the renovated building are the Urban League Village, 36 units for families of moderate means where rents are 50 percent to 60 percent of the area median income.  There are studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments with rents ranging from $635 for a studio and $965 for a two bedroom unit.
The 19,000-square-foot ground floor houses the museum with three galleries, a genealogy research area, an artist's work space, a workroom, office space, a gift shop, and a cafe operated by St. Cloud's Restaurant. There is an acknowledgment, at the entrance, of the sacrifices made by the activists and credit given to their vision that made the museum a reality.  It is unfortunate that some of the core activists refuse to enter the museum because they do not see their handprints there and that Wyking Kwame Garrett, the son of Omari Tahir-Garrett, was arrested after creating a disturbance at the opening of the museum. 
Journey Gallery

The first exhibit encountered is in the Journey Gallery, which runs the length of a long corridor and traces the history of African Americans in the Northwest from 1790 to the present.  The exhibit was professionally designed by the Portland firm, Formations.  Life-sized cutouts of former Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943), King County Councilman Larry Gossett and King County Executive Ron Sims are the first to greet visitors inside the gallery.  Scattered throughout the line of displays are photographs and brief narratives of little-known African Americans in the Northwest:  Victoria Freeman, Longview resident who desegregated the schools; Manima Wilson, first African American to graduate from the University of Washington; Mifflin Gibbs, first black elected official in Victoria, B.C.; Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake, traveled along the Oregon Trail to become the earliest African American to settle in the region. 

Interesting artifacts include the window and door from the old Mount Zion Baptist Church built in the early 1920s; the flight jacket worn by Tuskeegee airman and Seattleite William Holloman, the first African American helicopter pilot in the air force; the hat worn by Jimi Hendrix in a 1968 concert.  There are videos and interactive displays that enhance the exhibit experience.
Creating a World

The first exhibition in the Northwest Gallery, entitled Making a Life/Creating a World, features the work of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) and James Washington Jr. (1911-2000), both outstanding Seattle artists.  The exhibit attempts not only to show their art but also to help us understand their lives.  This larger room in the museum has a stunning 108 x 216 inch panel by Lawrence entitled Games on loan from the 4Culture and King County Arts Collection and which had been installed in the Kingdome stadium. His five history paintings of the George Washington Bush Series commemorates the life of one of the state's first African American settlers.

The other half of the gallery exhibit contains the paintings and sculpture of James Washington Jr., including, among a dozen other sculptures, Tribute to Mark Tobey loaned from the Becky and Jack Benaroya Collection.  Several of his paintings are of local scenes.  This temporary exhibit will be followed by changing exhibits that amplify the experiences in the Journey Gallery.  In the near future, East by Northwest, stories and experiences of recent African immigrants in the Northwest, will be featured.
Legacy Gallery

The Legacy Gallery is 2,340 square feet in area and will host meetings, special events, and traveling exhibitions. It includes an artist's workspace.

The artist's workspace is presently being used by artist in residence Daniel Minter, a sculptor from Maine who is residing in James Washington's home and will give public talks at the museum.
Museum Staff
Carver Gayton, 69, executive director of the museum, was a former Boeing executive, FBI agent, a state employment security commissioner and a UW football star.  He is a member of a prominent African American family and whose grandfather, John Thomas Gayton (1868-1954), arrived in Seattle in 1889. He was hired by James Kelly shortly after the building was purchased.  Through Gayton's efforts contributions for the museum have come from such sources as Microsoft, Safeco, Boeing, Key Bank, Washington Mutual, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Foundation.
Barbara Earl Thomas, 59, is the deputy director/curator whose vision has shaped the museum's contents.  She is a Seattle native, an artist and writer with advanced degrees from the University of Washington.  She has been program director for the Seattle Arts Commission and director of Seattle's Bumbershoot festival as well as marketing manager for the Elliot Bay Book Co.
Brian Carter, 28, is the education director and a native of Yakima.  With a degree from Stanford he went on to earn a master's degree in museum studies from the University of Washington.  He traveled throughout the Northwest gathering material about African Americans to be used in the museum exhibits.  His efforts are evident in the items gleaned from historical societies and museums from the Northwest states and from British Columbia.

Sources:  "African American Task Force Formed," The Medium, February 13, 1985; Tyrone Beason, "African American Museum Plan Still Alive," The Seattle Times, November 30, 1995; Chris Bennett and Connie Cameron, "If Not Us, Who," The Medium, December 4, 1985;  Jack Broom, "Faces and Voices," The  Seattle Times,  Special Reprint, March 2, 2008;  Jack Broom, "Dreams of Museum Wouldn't Die," The Seattle Times, January 20, 2008; Connie Cameron, "Takeover at Colman," The Medium, December 5, 1985;  Keith Ervin, "African American Museum May be Doomed by Feud," The Seattle Times, July 4, 2000; Sheila Farr, "Kindred Spirits," The Seattle Times, March 2, 2008; Alex Fryer, "African American Museum Up Against Oct. 31 Deadline," Ibid., September 12, 1999; Alex Fryer, "African American Museum Faces Deadline," Ibid., October 28, 1999;  Susan Gilmore, "A New Look at the Past," Ibid.,  March 9, 2008; Trevor Griffey, "A Dream Fulfilled," Colors Northwest, March 2008;  Mary Henry interview with Barbara Thomas, April 2008, Seattle; Charlie James, "The Complete History of Seattle's Newest Museum," The Seattle Times, March 20, 2008; Jerry Large, "An Exhibit of Rancor at Museum,"  Ibid., March 13, 2008;  Nancy Stone-Nilson, "Black Heritage Museum in Making," Northwest Ethnic News, April 1986; "Nine Months Later, Occupiers Await Delivery on Promise," The Voice, August 1986; Nile Thompson and Carolyn J. Marr, Building for Learning, Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000 (Seattle: Seattle Public Schools, 2002).

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