On New Year’s Eve, Inye Wokoma joined three of his brothers to tour the gutted skeleton of a house on Marion. “This was our mother’s house,” he later told friends, “owned by our grandparents, and the center of our childhood and young adult lives.” Strapped for cash, the family recently decided to sell the house and reinvest the proceeds into adjacent rental properties.
The house’s story is a microcosm of the Central District, the historically black and increasingly white series of neighborhoods between downtown and Lake Washington. “The black vitality of the Central Area was mighty and strong” during the post-WWII decades, says longtime resident Vivian Phillips. From 1940 to 1960, the black population of Seattle grew by more than 600%. Phillips describes the CD of that time as a bastion of black business, black community, and black activism.
But in recent decades that outpost of what some call “the African diaspora” has been eroding. In 1990, the CD’s black residents outnumbered whites by nearly three-to-one, writes Seattle University’s Henry McGee, Jr. By the turn of the millennium, whites had become the majority. “You can call it displacement, you can call it an exodus,” says Wokoma. “The community I grew up with no longer exists… People basically dispersed and found places where they could afford to live.” Places, that is, outside Seattle.
“Nobody’s disputing that communities change, that people move from one place to another,” Wokoma says, but because of rising housing prices, “this issue of forced displacement is a real issue” regardless of whether “that forced displacement is…a result of folks taking an interest in an area, or [of] more overt mechanisms like housing covenants.”
Like many black Seattle families, Wokomas’ family’s residency can be traced to World War II. After serving in the military, Wokoma says, his grandfather, Franklin Joseph Green, took his discharge money and started looking for a house to buy. “He essentially was about the business of creating the life that he wanted his family to have,” says Wokoma. Like any homebuyer, Green used the telephone to call different realtors to ask about potential properties.
One memorable reply: “We’ve got a great house in a neighborhood with no niggers and no Jews!” said the realtor. Green showed up to the realtor’s office the next day. He said, “I’m here to see the house in the neighborhood with no niggers and no Jews.” And then he went and saw it.
Green eventually bought a duplex on 24th Ave, where he and his wife became the first black residents on their block, says Wokoma, “against the wishes of their neighbors.” Over the next 30 years, his grandfather gradually acquired and renovated more than half a dozen properties, some abandoned, which he rented almost exclusively to extended family members. Wokoma recalls growing up in those houses as part of a tight-knit community of mutual aid. “You had this kind of internal economy that developed” between family members and neighbors, Wokoma says.
Today, Wokoma is trying to hold the properties together, as the CD he knew and loved becomes evermore diluted by outside money and new neighbors. When you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and are watching your home gradually deteriorate around you, he says, it’s hard to say no when someone offers you $100,000 for the property. But self-exile in exchange for fast cash can turn out to be a Faustian bargain. “In the moment, it seems like an ideal proposition. Because in every other sector in your life, you’ve hit roadblocks,” he says. But then “you find yourself somewhere in Kent. The grocery store is three miles away, there’s no sidewalks… [and] half your family is living in the CD.”
Wokoma reckons that the CD’s soul is already dispersed beyond repair. But that doesn’t mean he wants Black Seattle to march quietly into the suburbs. Far from it: Wokoma wants to have “a larger conversation about what’s happening in our society, about what gentrification is a symptom of.” And that conversation has to happen now, Wokoma says, because we’re at a crossroads: Just as the influx of blacks into northern cities after the Reconstruction shaped the urban demography of the 20th century, the influx of whites into city centers and corresponding displacement of blacks onto cities’ peripheries will shape the urban demography of the 21st century.
Do we want that?
“We should decide whether we’re going to create something with intention,” Wokoma says. “Do we want a 21st century [social] Darwinian society?… We have an opportunity to create something different, something more equitable… and these conversations aid in that intentionality.”
CHS met Inye Wokoma after reading this essay he shared via Facebook on December 31st:
On New Year’s Eve 2014 three of my brothers and I walked through the home we grew up in. This was our mother’s house, owned by our grandparents, and the center of our childhood and young adult lives. The home was sold earlier this year by the guardians of our grandmother’s estate (our grandmother has alzheimers and requires 24/7 care) in order to generate cash to renovate two other homes in the family. The new owners have gutted the entire house, stripping it down to its frame.
As we walked through the house we talked about what it means to be a black family fighting to maintain a foothold in the neighborhood we grew up in. A neighborhood that has rapidly transformed around us. We talked about the economic challenges and all of the ways we need to reorient ourselves to the current reality to avoid the loss of more of our family homes, and by extension, more of our sense of place and identity.
This is the most recent chapter in our family’s 67 year story of building family and community in Seattle’s Central District. It is a story building community and family despite the monumental forces of racism and discrimination during the 20th century. It is about nurturing a thriving community, culture and economy over half a century. It is also about individual and communal displacement, gentrification, and the struggle to maintain a cohesive sense of family and community despite overwhelming tides of change.
As the sun set on 2014 we stood together, facing the new year with a quiet challenge to one another to think bigger, plan farther ahead, stay focused, committed and connected to a shared goal of saving what is left of our family homes and continuing the legacy of community building that our elders and ancestors passed on to us.