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Black History Month 2023: Recognizing Black community members’ commitment to positive change in Seattle

National Archives, Seattle Public Library online collections. Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum.

Blog stats: 1,600 words | 9-minute read

Editor’s Note (February 24, 2023): This blog post was developed in close partnership between our SDOT Communications Team and Black Employees Support Team (BEST) employees. SDOT is actively working to center the voices of Black team members, reflect on the significance of Black History Month for all Seattleites, and share how Black history and communities have influenced our work.


  • We’re honoring Black History Month and this year’s theme of Black Resistance.
  • This includes recognizing a history of constructive civic activism by Black community members who have long endeavored to make positive change in Seattle and beyond – important work that continues to this day.
  • In this post, we look at how racially discriminatory policies have shaped Seattle, how Black community members have led the fight for change, and how we’re working toward a more equitable, accessible city for all communities.
  • You can use the links below to drop down to more information:

Please note: The two sections below include information from the Seattle Municipal Archives, including this article on the history of redlining in Seattle.

Remembering the History of Redlining in Seattle

Until 1968, the discriminatory practice of denying credit or loans to people based on race and ethnicity was considered legal in Seattle. Maps like this one included boundaries that were manipulated to create areas deemed “hazardous” or “definitely declining” based on the presence of Black and Brown people living there.

Known as “redlining,” this discrimination resulted in the City of Seattle and banks withholding financial and infrastructural investment from people living in neighborhoods classified as “risky” to investors, including denying credit, insurance, and healthcare. Redlining even led to the development of food deserts (areas that lack access to fresh and affordable food). Places like the Central District, where the population was primarily Black, were labeled “hazardous,” which further validated fair housing opponents’ beliefs that Black people living in an area would make the area undesirable. As a result, deterioration of housing and streets, a lack of adequate lighting at night, and many other issues that would be considered the City’s responsibilities were not addressed.

Many of these areas have long received less attention and fewer resources for infrastructure from City government. This meant that while white homebuyers experienced rising property values, accessible resources, and lower mortgage interest rates, Black homeowners were unable to improve their homes or make returns on their investments. This created a vicious cycle in which minority-inhabited neighborhoods were suffering, but there was very little they could do to improve or escape their situation. And without City government intervention, wealth and mobility gaps got worse.

Many Black people protest racial discrimination in Seattle at a march. The participants hold up signs as they walk along the street.
Anti-discrimination march in Seattle on June 15, 1963. Courtesy MOHAI (2000.

Ending Redlining

The national civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s inspired fair housing activists in Seattle to take action and begin working to integrate these neighborhoods. These activists, which included the Seattle branch of the NAACP, The Christian Friends for Racial Equality (CFRE), and Garfield High School principal Frank Hanawalt, urged the Seattle City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting racial discrimination in housing.

In response, Seattle Mayor Gordon S. Clinton appointed the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Minority Housing, which held a public hearing on October 19, 1962. This hearing led to a recommended open housing ordinance and the creation of a Human Rights Commission. However, the Mayor and City Council delayed appointing anyone to the Advisory Committee for a year. In protest of the City’s delay, Rev. Mance Jackson and Rev. Samuel McKinney organized a march of more than 300 people to Seattle City Hall on July 1, 1963. At the end of the march, 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.

Several young people sit on the floor of an indoor building, in front of a large table where three people sit. Several other people are also in the background.
Protesters sit on the floor in the Seattle City Council chamber during a civil rights hearing; From left to right: Delores Hall (18), Jackie Ellis (11), Infanta Spence (20), Susan Van Dong (20), and sit-in spokesman Eddie Givens. Credit: Bruce McKim/The Seattle Times

Five years later, first-term Seattle Councilmember Sam Smith, the first African American member of both the Washington State Legislature and Seattle City Council, introduced Ordinance 96619, which established penalties for unfair housing practices.

However, this didn’t undo the racial, social, and financial segregation that redlining had created, and practices were slow to change. In July 1975, the Central Seattle Community Council Federation released a six-month study titled “Redlining and Disinvestment in Central Seattle,” which examined 1,150 property transactions in Seattle from 1970 to 1974.

Disinvestment, or the purposeful withholding of investment from Black communities, meant developers, builders, and the City did not invest in substantially improving these neighborhoods, businesses, or shared spaces. The study noted above found that eight major banking institutions approved no more than two loans each in the Central Area and Rainier Valley during this time. Prompted by this report, the mayor established a Reinvestment Task Force to propose policies to eliminate redlining.

Two people sit at a table while holding a piece of paper in a room.
Jeanette Williams and Sam Smith, 1974, Seattle Municipal Archives
A poster in bright pink that says "Redlining and Disinvestment in Central Seattle: How the Banks are Destroying Our Neighborhoods."
Redlining report, 1975, Document 11219, Seattle Municipal Archives

Empowering Black Community Members through Mobility

Today, we are still reckoning with the lack of equity and significant disparities that redlining has created in our local transportation system.

Seattle’s history of disinvestment has resulted in longer commutes for community members of color than their white counterparts due to displacement from areas they once lived, and often less access to high-quality transit service. This has limited access to opportunities and wealth, and can prevent lower-income communities with less infrastructure from easily choosing low to no-cost mobility options like walking and biking.

At a national level, although communities of color statistically contribute less to pollution, they disproportionately experience the long-term impacts of it as these neighborhoods are also disproportionately located next to highways, port facilities, railroads, and industrial areas — areas that research shows are known to produce 10 times the concentrations of toxic and carcinogenic metals than are found in nearby non-Hispanic white neighborhoods.

Access, choice, and safety are key to advancing equity in our transportation system and empowering historically oppressed peoples. One of the ways we are recommitting to resolving many of the historic effects of redlining and empower under-invested communities is through the Seattle Transportation Plan. Planners are currently using community input to shape everything from future transportation funding to projects and programs that enhance the way we enjoy public space and move through the city. We will all benefit from a healthier, more connected Seattle.

You can help shape the future of transportation in Seattle too – we want to hear from you. The Seattle Transportation Plan is our commitment to building a transportation system that provides everyone with access to safe, efficient, and affordable options to reach places and opportunities. Visit the online engagement hub to share your feedback on plans, maps, and other elements currently in development. Thank you for your interest and sharing your perspectives.

We also encourage you to stay informed by signing up for regular email updates. You can select any number of topics you’re most interested in.

Looking Forward

In 2020, we sat down with Dr. Matthew Howard from SDOT Communications to touch on issues of mobility, and specifically how race and mobility affect social change (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). He shared how our Positionality –  how one’s identity influences their understanding of the world – is essential to better serving communities most in need of investment. This discussion highlighted the importance of considering the unique needs and viewpoints of Black and Brown community members, and bringing them into the transportation planning process.

Recently, a group of our staff and leadership met with Black bike community members from Bike Works and Black Girls Do Bike to discuss current issues around equal access to safe and affordable mobility options. The conversation centered around SDOT accountability for delivering on promises made during public engagement processes and specific tactics and actions that the department will take to rebuild trust with underserved communities.

It’s community members and organizations like this who are helping shape the future of transportation and racial equity in Seattle. Our partnerships with other local groups championing transportation safety, equity, and mobility help ensure diverse viewpoints and expertise are part of our future project, policy, and program development. For example, Smash the Box, a local organization, is partnering with us to provide more inclusive, equitable, and innovative engagement in neighborhoods like Beacon Hill.

Twelve people smile while posing for a photo during a bike ride. The people are wearing biking clothes and helmets, and bikes are in the background. Large cargo containers and cranes are also in the background.
 Black Girls Do Bike and Rainier Riders pose for a group photo during the West Seattle Bike Experience ride.

We’re working to elevate equity and more effectively prioritize safe and comfortable travel for all Seattle community members through our Pedestrian Program Racial Equity Analysis which evaluates current conditions and potential barriers to mobility for all people, and will ultimately improve our Pedestrian Program to meet the needs of everyone walking and rolling in Seattle.

Our Transportation Equity Workgroup has co-developed a Transportation Equity Framework to help guide our work moving forward, allowing us to be more responsive to the needs of Black community members, as well as other communities of color and other underserved communities in Seattle. With the framework now complete, we are taking steps to implement the more than 200 specific tactics developed in partnership with the workgroup.

Thank you for your interest in this important work, not just in February but throughout the year to advance equity and build a more inclusive One Seattle for everyone.