Teaching a City about Its Civil Rights History: A Public History Success Story
James N. Gregory and Trevor Griffey, April 2007
Two years ago, most Seattle citizens thought that the civil rights movement occurred only in the South. "Seattle was not segregated," a well-educated resident told one of us with total confidence. She knows better now, thanks in part to a new public history project—based at the University of Washington and largely conducted by students taking history and American ethnic studies courses. The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (www.civilrights.washington.edu) began in 2004 with a tiny budget and a determination to create an online resource for documenting and publicizing stories of civil rights activism in a city that had learned to forget its history of white supremacy. The project has since evolved into a public history success story that could be duplicated at other universities. We think it offers a model for linking academic and public history, for giving history undergraduates research experience and publishing opportunities, for exploiting the digital revolution and bringing historical research to broad publics and K–12 classrooms, and, most of all, for connecting universities to the communities they serve.
The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project demonstrates the multiracial history of civil rights activism in the Pacific Northwest and explores the relationship between civil rights and labor struggles throughout the 20th century. The content alone is impressive, providing the most complete set of online resources about civil rights struggles for any city outside the South. Intended for use in classrooms as well as by scholars, the multimedia web site features several short films, dozens of original essays, streaming-video excerpts from more than 70 oral histories, and more than 1,000 digitized photographs, documents, and newspaper articles.
The story of how the project was built is also exciting. Close to 100 undergraduate and graduate students have participated so far, and almost as many members of the community. Now high school and middle school teachers are also joining in, using it in their classrooms, contributing to the growing list of online lesson plans. With very modest funding but a great deal of enthusiastic collaboration, the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project is making an impact on curricula in scores of schools throughout western Washington.
And it is having an impact beyond the classroom as well. Local newspapers and city and state officials have heralded the project and its insights. Last winter, the state legislature passed a law directly inspired by our work, a law aimed at acknowledging and correcting a historic pattern of racial injustice. In addition, data we presented on our web site about residential segregation patterns in Seattle were cited in the school integration case currently before the United States Supreme Court.
Neither of us thought of ourselves as public historians before this project, but we now realize that the boundaries between academic and public history can and should be bridged. Every city has an important civil rights history worth rescuing from historical amnesia. It is a history worth rescuing because it can help highlight the capacity of everyday people to change communities and make history. Moreover, cities of the north and the west have civil rights histories that differ from the traditional 1954–64 textbook story that focused on the South. In Seattle, organized struggles for racial justice began with Native peoples and Chinese immigrants and over the last century have involved African Americans, Japanese and Filipino Americans, Jews, and Latinos. Seattle was also a heavily unionized town for much of the 20th century, giving organized labor a prominent local role in struggles for racial justice—at times by promoting white privilege, and at other times by serving as a movement vehicle for various communities of color to demand jobs in addition to freedom.
Just as the project sought to portray local actors as agents of history, it also enabled students to become producers of knowledge instead of just consumers. Students produced most of the web site's content, and their excitement has transformed our teaching and made us appreciate the great potential for public humanities projects to transform undergraduate learning. We have introduced oral history into the curriculum by having students assist us with interviewing veterans of the various civil rights movements. Because we emphasize the creation of new knowledge, students do original research and write 15–20 page essays on important events, people, and issues. Many of the nearly 100 students who have participated so far do so as senior history majors enrolled in required research courses, but others have heard about the project and want to do independent study research.
The potential for online publication has dramatically increased the quality of papers we receive from students. We encourage careful narrative, accurate use of primary and secondary sources, and publish only essays that meet high standards. The result is a growing list of articles such as those titled "After Internment: Seattle's Debate over Japanese Americans' Right to Return Home" and "By Right of Discovery: United Indians of All Tribes Retake Fort Lawton, 1970." One student's paper, "The Seattle School Boycott of 1966," won two University of Washington prizes for undergraduate student research and later was republished in the regional monthly magazine, ColorsNW.
Some students have taken the opportunity for active learning to another level. One undergraduate, a woman in an electrician apprenticeship program, has used her first-hand knowledge of unions and the construction industry to interview half a dozen labor activists about their participation in efforts in the 1970s to desegregate the electrical trades by sex as well as race. Documenting the day-to-day abuse that women and people of color suffered and continue to suffer in hostile work environments, as well as the different forms of solidarity these workers developed to reform their unions and challenge their employers, her research has highlighted the often unheralded sacrifices that working people have made to connect their own struggles for survival to civil rights movements.
One of our most exciting experiences was working with eight students who were all members of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), a Latino/a student group that traces its roots to the Chicano/a movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As student activists who already knew each other and worked well together, this group of undergraduates took the lead in creating a special unit called "The Chicano/a Movement in Washington State History Project." Until then little had been written about Chicano activism in the Pacific Northwest. In just two academic quarters, the students interviewed over a dozen movement veterans, collected and digitized hundreds of rare newspaper articles, documents, and photos, and used these materials to write a detailed historical narrative. The result is an online collection of considerable value, one of few sources for learning about the history of the Chicano movement outside of California and the Southwest.
Another team of students spent months researching racially restrictive covenants in the King County Recorders' Office. Seattle, like most cities, was residentially segregated throughout most of its history. Unlike most, Seattle's ghetto was a multiracial zone shared by African Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, and Jews. People of color were kept in the central area of Seattle by a complex of discriminatory practices, including deed restrictions. Between 1926 and 1948, it was common practice for land developers, neighborhood associations, realtors, and groups of white homeowners to write racial restrictions into property deeds to ensure that future owners would be prevented from selling to non-whites or in some cases Jews. Combing through old property records, our team of researchers collected more than 400 of these restrictive covenants, enabling us to present a database and to map the patterns of exclusion so that this history will not be forgotten and its effects can be debated.
This restrictive covenant database has been an eye-opener for Seattle's general public, and the subject of major publicity. The city's largest daily newspaper ran a front page article on the findings of the covenant research team, and television news programs asked residents if they had noticed the racist restrictions that still lurk in their property deeds. The Seattle Times followed up with an editorial calling on the legislature to make it easier for neighborhood associations to remove their covenants. State legislators heeded the call. Last spring, the governor signed into law a bill that was inspired directly by the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
Our community collaborations—especially with former members of the Black Panther Party—have also generated attention. Working with former leaders of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party, we have created the single most comprehensive collection of materials—publications, interviews, newspaper articles, and photos—about any Black Panther Party Chapter, including the Oakland, California, headquarters.
Finally, the project has provided the graduate students involved in its development with important professional experiences that are not standard in history programs. As research assistants in a department that has no public history program, graduate students involved with the project have learned to conduct oral histories, give speeches to the general public, construct websites, network with K–12 curriculum development professionals, facilitate manuscript donations to the university's library, develop partnerships between the university and community groups, and supervise undergraduate independent studies. This training can have a transformative effect on graduate students' sense of themselves as cultural workers in their communities, adding a dimension beyond the usual academic training.
By making the community our classroom, and treating students as scholars, the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project shows how academic historians can produce history that makes a difference.
—James N. Gregory is a professor of history at the University of Washington and director of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
—Trevor Griffey is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Washington and project coordinator of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.