Powell Barnett’s father brought the family in 1889 from Indiana to the coal town of Roslyn, Washington. The elder Barnett had been recruited to work in the mines there, along with about 300 other African American miners. They didn’t learn until they were most of the way to Washington State that they were being brought to break a strike by white miners. In a 1967 interview, Barnett relates that, after the white miners’ strike was settled, and they were reinstated, the relationship among all the workers was “as good as you could expect.” Blacks were able to hold skilled and supervisory positions along with whites. He adds that there was no housing segregation in Roslyn.
While a teenager in the small town, the young Powell helped organize a brass band. “The white boys had one there and the Slavonian people had one, so we decided that we should have one,” he told interviewer Richard Berner in 1967. They didn’t have a teacher, so they approached a man who was teaching the white band. But before long the teacher received an ultimatum from the white band to choose one or the other. A member of the white band then agreed to teach the Black band, but before long he received the same ultimatum. It’s interesting, though, that Barnett didn’t retreat from his comments about racial harmony.
After his father was injured in a mining accident, the teenage Powell Barnett became a miner himself. But he saw no future in mining, as he told Richard Berner.
“I looked around there and I could see two or three generations of people all working in the mines. Usually the fathers in those days, they expected the son to follow in their footsteps which a great many of them did. But I couldn't see myself spending my whole lifetime in and around the coal mines, which presented the same thing year in and year out. You stay there fifty years and you'll still be the same kind of a person, doing the very same thing, hard, laborious work with relatively low compensation for it.”
He left for Seattle in 1906. In the city, he worked as a construction and paving worker, a public utility employee, and a maintenance worker in the County-City Building (now the King County Courthouse). For a time he operated his own moving company. For 15 years, Barnett was the Democratic precinct committeeman in the 33rd Legislative District, which included Rainier Valley. At some point he served on the staff of State Senator Frank Connor, who represented the district.
Barnett excelled at baseball and organized Seattle’s first Black team. He knew the rules so well that he was eventually asked to be an umpire. In 1944 he organized the interracial Northwest Umpires Association, of which he was an officer for 17 years. Eventually he was hired as a local scout for the Baltimore Orioles.
Barnett joined an all-white band and played the bass from 1908-1913. In 1913 he became the first (and only) African American to join the all-white American Federation of Musician (AFM) Local 76. In 1917, he organized the Tenth Division Band, a civilian group that gave recruits a send-off from Seattle’s waterfront to World War I. He is known to have played the sousaphone, bass, and drums in Seattle, in addition to the small tuba that he played in Roslyn.
In 1917, with the consent of the AFM local, the predominately African American Local 458 was formed, and the city was divided between the two unions. The African American local got Jackson Street and vicinity as its performance area.
In 1921, due to a dispute over turf, Local 76 expelled some white members of Local 458 (but apparently not Barnett). That year, Barnett was elected president of 458. But the battles continued, and Local 76 successfully petitioned the international union to revoke the charter of the African American local, which was done in January 1924. Local 76 thwarted the Black musicians in their attempt to establish a new local, but relented late that year, and a new local, 495, was formed to give Seattle’s Black musicians union representation.
Hostility toward the Black union by Local 76 continued, however, for nearly 30 more years, a story that is beyond the scope of this article. Finally, in the mid-1950s, Barnett spearheaded a proposal for a merger of the two locals, which was accomplished late in 1956.
Powell Barnett lived for many years in the western part of Leschi, in the vicinity of Jackson Street and what is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way South. Many descendants of his and his wife’s families remain in the Seattle area, and elsewhere. In July 2012, in honor of a gathering of about 70 family members, Council member Larry Gossett, on behalf of the King County Council, proclaimed Barnett/Conna Family Reunion Day.
For more on the Seattle musicians’ unions, see historylink.org/file/10329 and the book “Before Seattle Rocked: A City and its Music,” by Karl Armbruster, pages 71-73 and throughout.
The author writes monthly about Leschi history and his experiences over his 47 years in the neighborhood.