THE SEATTLE OPEN HOUSING CAMPAIGN, 1959-1968:
Housing Segregation and Open Housing Legislation
Seattle Municipal Archives
Seattle’s African-American population increased dramatically between 1940 and 1960, making the community the city’s largest minority group. As blacks moved north and west during and after World War II in search of employment, their numbers overtook those of Asian groups–the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino–which together historically formed Seattle’s largest minority population. All of the city’s minority groups experienced some form of discrimination, including geographic segregation, employment inequity, and housing discrimination. Until 1968, it was legal to discriminate against minorities in Seattle when renting apartments or selling real estate. The task of securing legislation to prohibit discrimination in housing began in the late 1950s. It turned out to be a decade long struggle.
One method employed to shut out black families from white neighborhoods was enforcement of restrictive covenants. This, and other acts of discrimination such as realtors unofficially agreeing to show houses in white neighborhoods to people of color, largely confined black residents to Seattle’s Central Area. Although the African American community increased from 1% to 4.8% of Seattle’s population between 1940 and 1960, by 1960 the Central District was home to 78% of the City’s black population. In 1957, Garfield became the first high school in Seattle with more than 50% nonwhite student body.
The attempt by Robert L. Jones, in April of 1959, to buy a house outside of the Central District helped focus a spotlight on racial discrimination and housing issues in Seattle. The Washington State legislature passed the Omnibus Civil Rights Act in 1957, outlawing housing discrimination in home sales while loans from a Federal or state agency remained unpaid or while there was commitment for such loans. In 1959, John O’Meara put his house up for sale. O’Meara financed his home through a private loan insured by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). He did not use a real estate broker but, rather, listed the house himself. Robert L. Jones and his wife visited the home on April 19 and on the 21st had their attorney leave a down payment of $1,000 and a signed earnest money receipt with an offering of all cash to seller on closing. The check on the earnest money receipt were returned to the Jones’ attorney. The Jones family filed a complaint with the Washington State Board Against Discrimination. The Board upheld the complaint that the O’Meara’s had refused to sell their home to the Jones’ because of their color.
In January 1960, the King County Superior Court ruled that state law unconstitutional, and upheld the O’Meara’s decision not to sell their house to the Jones family. In September 1961, the case went to the Supreme Court of Washington (O’Meara’s v. Washington State Board Against Discrimination). The Supreme Court ruled on a 5 to 4 vote in favor of the O’Meara’s, judging that the State law did not apply because an FHA loan was not considered “publicly assisted housing.”
The national civil rights movement, along with events such as the Jones/O’Meara case, inspired fair housing activists in Seattle. Some small voluntary efforts to integrate neighborhoods were in place by the end of the 1950s. The Greater Seattle Housing Council was formed in 1956 to encourage dialogue between proponents of open housing and the real estate industry. Other groups, such as the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, urged the Seattle City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting racial discrimination in any type of housing. The Central Brokers’ Association was formed in 1961 to find housing for minority group families in many parts of Seattle.
The State’s Omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1957was a narrowly defined attempt to end discrimination in housing, focusing only on purchases secured with government loans. Attempts at the state level to pass broad anti-discrimination in housing laws were vigorously opposed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by apartment building operators and real estate representatives. Those special interest groups charged that fair housing laws “would infringe on constitutional property rights, were dictatorial, confiscatory and would lead to evasion and disrespect for the law.” (Seattle Times, 1961). Among those advocating for the anti-discrimination housing bills introduced in 1961 at the state level was Joe Jones, a University of Washington football player. The Seattle Times reported that he, “after returning from the Rose Bowl game, was turned away at six apartment houses because he was a negro.” “These bills are necessary,”’ said Jones, a 22-year-old senior. I’ve experienced discrimination.'” University of Washington professor, Giovanni Costigan, also testified at the state hearings, calling for fair housing legislation with the statement that “there is only one race, the human race.”
Another avenue followed to fight housing discrimination was changing the law at the local government level. By changing the law to make it illegal to discriminate when selling or renting, proponents believed it would be more difficult to continue discriminatory practices. Changing the law, however, turned out to be a lengthy process.
In late 1961, the Seattle branch of the NAACP proposed that the city pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing. A public hearing on the idea was held in December, 1961. Proponents speaking for an ordinance included the Rev. Samuel McKinney, pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, and Garfield High School principal Frank Hanawalt; opponents included Richard W. Lenington, past president of the Seattle Real Estate Board, and Donald C. Haas, president of the Seattle Apartment Operators’ Association. Seattle’s Corporation Counsel, A. C. Van Soelen, stated that the proposed ordinance would have dubious legal validity and would be problematic to enforce. The City Council declined to take action.
In July 1962, Mayor Gordon S. Clinton appointed the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Minority Housing. The Committee was chaired by Alfred J. Westberg a former state legislator. Following a public hearing on October 19, 1962, at which representatives of many civic organizations testified that housing discrimination was widespread in Seattle, the Committee recommended passage of an open housing ordinance and creation of a Human Rights Commission. The report of the Advisory Committee, submitted to the Mayor and City Council in December 1962, stated:
“Your committee has concluded that a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination in the sale or rental of housing accommodations on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin is an essential tool for the work of a city commission on human relations….Although a number of excellent privately-supported agencies in Seattle are carrying on a general education and public relations program, seeking the voluntary elimination of discrimination in housing and other fields, they lack an official standing.”
The Mayor and City Council delayed action on the Advisory Committee recommendations for a year. In protest of the inaction, the Rev. Mance Jackson and Rev. Samuel McKinney organized a July 1, 1963 march on City Hall. A large sign-carrying crowd met on the Fifth Avenue Plaza at City Hall. The City Council meeting held that day on open housing was attended by more than 300 people. At the end of the march and the meeting, about 35 young people from the Central District Youth Club occupied the Mayor’s office for nearly 24 hours, participating in Seattle’s first sit-in. The protestors stated, “As citizens of Seattle and members of the Central District Youth Club, we feel humiliated by the slow process of the City of Seattle to adopt open housing.” The sit-in ended only after an hour-long conference between the Youth Club and the Rev. Mance Jackson, Rev. John Adams and the Rev. Samuel McKinney.
An ordinance establishing the Seattle Human Rights Commission was passed two weeks later, in part because of organized protests such as the one on July 1, and other acts of non-violent civil disobedience related to employment and housing discrimination issues. The Commission drafted an open housing ordinance later in 1963, providing for criminal penalties for acts of housing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin or creed. The Commission recommended that the ordinance contain an emergency clause which would put it into effect immediately upon passage, and prohibit the possibility that the ordinance could be referred to a vote by the public.
At a City Council Committee of the Whole meeting on October 25, 1963, the decision was made to refer the issue to the voters and place the ordinance on the ballot. The decision was made after a heated seven-hour public hearing. Black civil rights leaders walked out after Rev. John H. Adams, chairman of the Central Area Committee on Civil Rights, told Council that prejudice and bigotry were “moral problems of the white community.” Council member Paul J. Alexander successfully proposed dropping the emergency clause provision. Council member J. D. Braman voiced his support for removing the clause and told the ministers who spoke of conscience by declaring that his conscience was his own affair. (Braman would go on to become Mayor of Seattle the following year.) Only Council members Charles M. Carroll and Wing Luke, who were strong advocates of open housing, voted against the final version of the ordinance, protesting the removal of the emergency clause.
Opponents of the legislation, who called it “Forced Housing legislation,” included the Seattle Real Estate Board, Apartment Owners’ Association, and many private home owners. Harold W. Cooper, president of the Seattle Real Estate Board, said the proposed open-housing law would put sweeping controls on the “thoughts and actions of individual citizens”. Those in favor of the legislation included religious coalitions and civil rights and community organizations. Seattle was not alone in this struggle. In 1964 the New York Times reported that fair housing initiatives were underway in Michigan, Illinois, and California, as well as Washington. Real estate interests were the primary opponents of the measures in each of these states.
Those opposing the open housing legislation advertised heavily, with slogans referencing personal freedom and forced housing. The advertisements urged voters to examine human rights and property rights and to vote “no” in order not to lose family freedom. The names of City Council members, Paul Alexander, Floyd Miller, Mike Mitchell and Myrtle Edwards, appeared in some of the newspaper ads in opposition to the ordinance.
Proponents of the open housing legislation sponsored marches, rallies, and educational meetings. A rally two days before the vote was held at Westlake Plaza with over 1,500 attending. Those endorsing the ordinance at the rally included the Council of Planning Affiliates, representing health and welfare agencies; Puget Sound Cooperative League, made up of Group Health cooperatives; King County Schools, and many church and community groups.
The open housing legislation went before the voters on March 10 1964 and was defeated by more than a two-to-one margin, 115,627 opposed to 54,448 in favor.
The local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was one of the community groups actively working against discrimination in housing. CORE formed a Housing Committee in May, 1963 and launched an investigation of the charges of discrimination by the real estate industry. In 1964, CORE sponsored a protest consisting of picketing and a sit-in at the Lake City and Aurora offices of Picture Floor Plans, Inc. because the company discriminated against non-white buyers. It was owned by the president of the Seattle Real Estate Board. A court-ordered injunction terminated the protests and those working against discrimination in housing turned away from direct action as a method of achieving their goal.
Attitudes slowly changed between 1964 and 1968, partially due to voluntary efforts such as the Fair Housing Listing Service and Operation Equality. The Fair Housing Listing Service, created by Sidney Gerber in 1962, worked with 24 organizations and brought together blacks wanting to move out of the Central District and white homeowners willing to sell to minorities. Operation Equality was a three-year program run by the Seattle Urban League to assist minorities in finding housing. The Seattle Real Estate Board issued a Statement of Principle in June 1965, stating that it was the policy of the Board that members should show all listing without discrimination.
In January 1965, the first African American Judge, Charles Z. Smith, was appointed to the Seattle Municipal Court. The Human Rights Commission remained active during this period working to introduce non-discriminatory employment clauses in the City’s public works contracts in June 1965. A six-week course to increase consciousness about racial discrimination was introduced for supervisory employees in the City. On June 1, 1965, Mayor Braman issued an Executive Oder relating to fair practices, reaffirming the City’s policy to protect the rights of all citizens and affording all persons equal treatment.
Despite efforts by the Human Rights Commission to improve race relations, many in the Seattle community were afraid racial tensions were increasing, not decreasing. The American Civil Liberties Union requested a public hearing in January 1965 to review the need for a Police Review Board in response to claims of brutality by the police. City Council denied the request but did agree to review the use of force by the police. In June 1965 an off-duty police officer shot Robert L. Reese, an African American, in the International District. As a result of this incident, police training methods were questioned and a Community Relations Unit was established. Race relations training was stepped up as part of police training.
On the national stage, the publicity engendered by the Civil Rights movement and the outrage at the violence perpetrated against marchers and voting rights activists helped focus attention on inequality in Seattle. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in public places and in schools. Outrage was palpable over the scenes of state police brutality against demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965. On August 6, 1965, the President signed the Voting Rights Act. On the other hand, some national events served to fuel fear of increased racial tension in Seattle. Race riots in Los Angeles in 1965 and in Detroit and Newark in 1967 encouraged the Seattle Police Department to plan for possible riots in Seattle.
Slowly changing attitudes towards segregation in housing as well as increasing fear that racial tensions could explode in Seattle served to trigger passage of an open housing ordinance in 1968. On April 19, 1968, three weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the City Council unanimously passed Ordinance 96619 “defining and prohibiting unfair housing practices in the sale and offering for sale and in the rental and offering for rent and in the financing of housing accommodations, and defining offenses and prescribing penalties, and declaring an emergency therefore.” The ordinance had been sponsored by six of the nine Council members, but the chief architect was first term Council member, Sam Smith, the first African-American to sit on the Council. Smith had previously been a tireless advocate for open housing and fair employment while serving as the first African American member of the Washington State Legislature.
The open housing legislation passed in 1968 was amended in 1975 to include prohibitions against discrimination based on sex, marital status, sexual orientation, and political ideology; and in 1979 to include age and parental status. In 1986, creed, and disability were added as prohibitions on discrimination and in 1999 gender identify as added. Seattle did not pass legislation regarding employment discrimination based on age, sex, race, creed, color or national origin until 1972.
Bibliography & Additional Resources
Bauman, Robert. “Jim Crow in the Tri-Cities, 1943-1950.” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Summer 2005, Vol. 96 No. 3.
Davis, Kate. “Housing Segregation in Seattle : An update of A Study and Data on Segregated Housing in Seattle / Seattle Human Rights Department, 1976.” 2005.
Taylor, Quintard. The Forging of a Black Community: A History of Seattle’s Central District, 1870-through the Civil Rights Era. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.
Schmid, Calvin F. and McVey, Jr., Wayne W. Growth and Distribution of Minority Races in Seattle, Washington. Seattle: Seattle Public Schools, 1964.
“Case studies on process of integration in neighborhoods of Seattle, Washington : A Report.” Greater Seattle Housing Council. Research Committee. 1960.
“Summary of recent research concerning minority housing in Seattle.” Walter B. Watson, Ernest A. T. Barth (Institute of Sociological Research, Department of Sociology, University of Washington.: 1962.
“A study and data on segregated housing in Seattle, Washington (H-3721) / prepared by Seattle Human Rights Department for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 1976.
Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project
Especially useful for information on restrictive covenants
Contains information at the national level about civil rights, including a timeline and primary source documents.