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Seattle and the Central District ‘On the Spot’ Then and Now

A man named Al Smith named his photography business “On the Spot” as he recorded life in the Central District from the 1940s to the end of his life. The Museum of History of Industry adopted that same name for the major exhibition of his work on view until June 17. “On the Spot” can also apply to the present moment for the Central District as it grapples with gentrification and the erasure of the community that Al Smith photographed.

Born in 1914, Smith grew up in the Central District and attended a Catholic High School as the only African American, then traveled the world on steamships as a steward. He returned to Seattle in the early 1940s and worked at the Bremerton shipyard, living in the Central District. In those years, he haunted the black jazz venues on Jackson Street, creating some extraordinary photographs. African American musicians could not perform in white clubs in those years of intense segregation. But, as Smith tells us in his photographs, the after hour clubs were integrated, we see mixed race couples and white couples, and Asian couples, as well as many black people having a great time. These clubs were also speakeasies since alcohol was banned in Washington State until 1949.

Hazel Scott, 1949, Civic Auditorium. Image courtesy MOHAI, Al Smith Collection

Al Smith captured the intense community of performers, dancers and audience. As Paul De Barros states so well “When you look at Al’s photographs, you don’t feel like a visitor, but more like a participant, partaking in the joy revealed by his camera.” His images stun us with their beauty, as he captures the perfect moment in a performance. Aside from the jazz greats whom we know by name, such as Ernestine Anderson (still a teenager), or the already famous Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington and Vivian Dandridge, we see the delighted audience members, many of them unidentified soldiers from a nearby base during World War II. As Smith participated in these “after hour” evenings, he photographed relaxed and happy people in a protected setting free from the restraints of a racist society.

Other segments of the exhibition present his darkroom (now an historic artifact for many in the age of digital photography), his earliest work, and his record of life in the Central District, including such characteristic businesses as beauty salons (there is a fabulous wall of women’s hair dos), and barbecue, civic parades, children’s parties, music schools and sports teams, and women’s and men’s civic clubs. In addition, families have fun at the beach, at the circus, and at private house parties (another product of severe segregation). Each image can stand for a body of work on these subjects; they are carefully chosen to give us a cross section of life.

In the post Civil Rights era, black families have dispersed from the Central District, white families and upper income workers have moved in. The close-knit community is gone, but many artists are working to preserve its history as well as to simply hold onto their houses in the face of rising taxes. Inye Wokoma, whose home has so far survived gentrification, creates film/interview/photography installations that expose systemic racism, and erasure in the Central District through family artifacts, histories and photographs.

Jitterbug Couple, 1944. Image courtesy MOHAI, Al Smith Collection

At a workshop at Garfield High School before the Martin Luther King Day March on January 15, Laurence Pitre and Trae Anna Holiday asked us how do we respond to gentrification. Trae Anna Holiday called for organized resistance. Alone we can do little. For example, the group Africatown successfully opposed developers in order to keep affordable housing at 23rd and Union. Another crucial project documents the stories of current Central District residents. It will air on the next summer. Wheedlesgroove, a 2009 video documents a thriving soul scene in Seattle from 1972–1975.

And a spirit of collective resistance blossomed at the rally and march in honor of Martin Luther King that began right after the workshop. All ages, all ethnicities, marched together in the true spirit of community that Martin Luther King advocated. Everyone together embodied resistance to the retrograde racism of our current administration.

Five days after the MLK March, the Women’s March brought out thousands of men and women advocating resistance to fear and abuse, and in favor of inclusion, justice, love, respect, affordable housing, healthcare, and immigration. Leading the march was a group honoring Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Washington State. While the sense of collective resistance we saw in the MLK March was now more individualized, with the majority of marchers holding their own handmade signs, the thousands who came represent a whole new will to resist racism and sexism.

Today a new generation of artists document the present moment in the Central District and Seattle. A just-opened exhibition (which I haven’t yet seen) “Everyday Black” (on view until May 15, 2018) at the Northwest African American Museum with work by photographers Jessica Rycheal and Zorn B. Taylor explores contemporary “intersections and identities that are held within blackness.” The exhibition emphasizes the everyday, in contrast to Al Smith’s “every night.” Such a contrast suggests how times have changed since the close knit segregated community documented by Al Smith. Today these photographers record complexity, ambiguity and inclusivity.

A mixed income, mixed race community can hopefully survive in the Central District and in Seattle as a whole, even as we respect and honor the roots in the past. As these two marches and the Northwest African American Museum exhibition celebrated, we are moving beyond the divisions of the past, embracing the idea that all causes are one cause, we must all work together to realize the world we know we must have. In a way, we see it already in Al Smith’s stupendous photographs of jazz performers.

Postscript: For another intense and brilliant look at an historical black community impacted by racism, don’t miss August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” at the Seattle Repertory Theater until February 11.

~Susan Noyes Platt

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