Sunday, February 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

African-American dreams helped shape this region

Special to The Times

Today marks the end of Black History Month, the annual commemoration of African-American life and history. Much of that commemoration has emphasized the history of black people nationally. There has been scant recognition of those of African ancestry whose lives and experiences touched this state. This is hardly new.

African-American history in Washington has long been conveniently tucked away in an anteroom of the state's collective memory. After all, black people have comprised a tiny minority of the population, less than 1 percent through 1950 and only 3.2 percent today. Their impact on Washington's history, however, has been much larger than those percentages would suggest.

The creation of the territory of Washington owes itself in part to a decision by one African American with a now familiar name, George W. Bush. This Bush, no relation to the current occupant of the White House, settled with his family in 1845 in what is now Thurston County. With four other families who came with them, they became the first farmers in the Puget Sound region.

While the other settlers had various reasons for locating north of the Columbia River, Bush sought to escape the racial discrimination that had developed against the handful of African-American settlers who preceded him to the Willamette Valley. Other settlers followed, initiating a steady march of U.S. citizens north of the Columbia. Congress responded to their petition for a separate government when it created Washington Territory in 1853.

George Bush became the most prosperous farmer in the Puget Sound region. His son, William Owen Bush, carried that legacy forward, representing Washington Territory in the National Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and later as a member of the first state Legislature in 1890. While Owen Bush was there, his accomplishments included the state's first civil-rights act and legislation establishing what is now Washington State University.

Twenty miles south, another African American with an equally famous name, George Washington, established the town of Centralia in 1872.

Despite a slow start, Washington's town grew to nearly 5,000 residents in 1891, its economy supported by lumber and shingle mills, small manufacturing plants and nearby coal mining.

Like most town promoters, Washington's prosperity rose (and fell) with the economic fortunes of his town. In 1891, the Centralia Daily News reported its founding citizen as worth $150,000. With the national Panic of 1893, Centralia's economy faltered and the town's population shrank to 1,300. Even as his own health was declining, Washington provided food for some of the remaining residents and extended the notes of those who had purchased property from him.

Another pioneer, William Grose, arrived in Seattle in 1860 and one year later opened Our House, a restaurant and boarding house, which he located right on the waterfront. Two decades later, Grose purchased land near 23rd Avenue and Madison Street, around which grew a middle-class black enclave on what was at the time the northeastern edge of the city.

According to some sources, Grose also staked a young shipbuilder, Robert Moran, who eventually built the first steel ships in the Puget Sound region. In an unusual reversal of economic roles, a local African-American businessman provided the venture capital for an industry that would drive the local economy, alongside timber and airplanes, for decades to come.

But the Grose example may be less unusual than contemporaries would imagine if we better understood the history of 19th-century Seattle.

By the 1890s, the handful of African-American entrepreneurs were far more integrated into the city's economy than their counterparts would be a century later. Black businesses were located throughout the city and served a mostly white clientele. For one brief moment in the 1890s, Seattle had more black attorneys than ministers.

Of course, most African-American newcomers to the city were neither business owners nor professionals. There were instead working-class people searching for freedom and a better life.

African-American history in Washington, when recognized at all, is often viewed as a separate legacy, an aberration in the larger story of pioneers from the rest of the United States and from Europe.

Yet, African-American dreams and aspirations have also shaped this land in profound ways we are only now beginning to understand. Local African-American history is a story of proud, strong, self-confident people such as George W. Bush, George Washington, William Grose and thousands of other women and men who made this state their home. But it is more than just their saga, it is a story that touches everyone in this state.

Quintard Taylor Jr. is the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt professor of American history at the University of Washington.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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