Life and Times in Leschi: Powell Barnett, Part 2
In his 1968 interview with Larry Gossett (excerpted here last month), Powell Barnett refers to the fact that housing discrimination was still legal in Seattle into the late 1960s. African Americans had very few opportunities to live outside the Central Area, which included Leschi. The Leschi Improvement Council (LIC) sought to avoid an increasingly crowded ghettoization of the neighborhood and all of Central Seattle. “Open housing,” which banned racial discrimination in housing sale or rental, was legislated by the city council in 1968, the culmination of a decade-long campaign.
For many years the LIC maintained its reputation as a firm force in city politics for preserving low-density zoning in our neighborhood. Nowadays, de facto housing segregation plays out in a different way. As early as the late 1960s, the LIC sought to calm the apprehensions of Blacks that they would be edged out by high income whites returning to the neighborhood through gentrification. But edged, to the further reaches of the city and county, out is what has happened.
In 1966, Powell Barnett represented the LIC in the campaign to establish the crosstown bus service, Route 48, which runs from the Mt. Baker Transit Center to the University District. Having built a base of support, especially in the Black community, this campaign was successful in 6 months. Prior to 1966, there had been no public transportation from the Central Area to the U District that didn’t go through downtown. Not since 1940, that is, when Seattle’s cable-car and electric-streetcar system was abandoned in favor of electric trolleys and gasoline-powered buses. In that earlier era, it was possible to ride a streetcar straight north from 23rd and Jackson to the UW, with a transfer at 23rd and Madison.
Barnett remained active in the community council well into his 80s, attending meetings and taking responsibilities until late 1969.
Powell Barnett Park extends from Alder to Jefferson Street on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in Leschi. It had earlier been a running track for Garfield High School athletes but was abandoned in 1962. It was sold to the Parks Department in 1966, and improvements were made through the Central Area Motivation Project (CAMP) in 1967. Students at Leschi Elementary School chose Barnett’s name for the park, and upon the recommendation of the LIC, the city named the playground in Barnett’s honor in 1969. The city rule against naming streets after a living person did not apply to public parks. Barnett’s granddaughter, Maisha Barnett, worked with the LIC in 2006 to make improvements throughout the park, develop the children’s play area, and later create the Fitness Zone, which contains adult exercise equipment (for a 6-minute video of the playground makeover, see youtube.com/watchv=q1CJMIiXssc). The community council retains an account for improvements to the park as needed.
In the late 1950s, long before the park was at all developed, I played there as a child, exploring the caverns in the hillside on the park’s east edge.
Barnett’s civic activism was not limited to the LIC. He was an organizer of the East Madison YMCA (now named Meredith Matthews) as a racially integrated organization. After World War II he was chairman of the welcoming committee that assisted Japanese Americans who had been interned.
He also helped reorganize the Seattle Urban League, of which he was the board chair in 1947. The Seattle Times reported that, at a date not specified, Barnett had a dispute with the board over a provision in the Urban League bylaws that “a certain percentage of the board had to be Negro.”* Barnett didn’t want to raise the percentage, but rather to abolish it. “I don’t care if the board is 100% white,” he said. “This quota thing is what we’re trying to abolish. Negroes want a chance, not a gift.” Subsequently, he chaired a committee that revised the League’s bylaws and protected its membership in the Community Chest charity, which could have been in jeopardy due to the racial quota requirement.**
In 1956, after 25 years of activism with the Urban League (since the 1930 founding of the Seattle chapter), including 15 years on its board, he received the organization’s Annual Award. In his acceptance speech, he credited the organization for the hiring of the first Black schoolteachers, transit operators, and nurses.
For more on open housing, see:
“The Seattle Open Housing Campaign, 1959-1968” at Seattle.gov
“Seattle in Black and White,” part III, by Joan Singler et al, 2011
“The Forging of a Black Community,” chapter 3, by Quintard Taylor 2022
* Seattle Times, May 16, 1967, page 1. ** Mary Henry, Tribute: A Guide to Seattle's Public Parks and Buildings Named for Black People: With Brief Biographical Sketches, page 59
Next month: Barnett’s youth in a coal-mining town; Barnett as a musician.
The author writes monthly about Leschi history and his experiences over his 47 years in the neighborhood.