Life and Times in Leschi: Powell Barnett, Part 3
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.