Recently a story of kindness on Capitol Hill emerged from America’s dark history of racist mass incarceration. Since February of last year, the curated history project 50 Objects has revealed stories of Japanese Americans illegally sent to desert camps. The 12th installment on closer inspection ties back to a lost part of our neighborhood.
In December, 50 Objects ran an emotional story called Pink Dress. An autobiographical tale by Marge Nitta, it described a precious, embroidered dress given to her by a family friend during their imprisonment.
The friend had not yet met Marge. Marge’s mother was pregnant when America’s President, scared of immigrants and guided by racism, issued an executive order for the U.S. Army to imprison all West Coast ethnic Japanese.
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Marge was born while the family lived in temporary barracks at the Puyallup fairgrounds. Marge’s parents were members of Seattle Buddhist Church, as discussed in the review of American Sutra. The book’s description of treatment in Puyallup and Minidoka tells part of their story as well. After they were transferred to the long-term prison camp at Minidoka, Idaho, the dress arrived in a package from Seattle.
Marge’s parents were able to visit a photo studio and have a portrait taken of her with the dress. It was her only baby picture so of course she kept it, but also she kept the dress all of these years.
In the same way as her parents photographed her, Marge has photographed her own daughter and her daughter’s daughters in the pink dress. The generous but simple act of kindness has become a part of the Nitta family’s identity.
From Pine to Minidoka
The dress was sent in 1943 to the Nittas by Etta and Walter Thomassen. The Thomassens and Nittas were neighbors at Boylston and Pine, where the Seattle Central College parking garage is now.
Until 1971 the northeast corner of Boylston and Pine was a three-story, brick building called Sanders Apartments. One of the ten apartments in the upper floors was rented by the Thomassens.
Another resident of the Sanders, Mrs. Lydia J. Durland, vouched for Marge’s grandfather Sentaro on his Army draft card as someone who would always know his address. She also happened to be the Sanders Apartments manager.
Below the apartments were small retail storefronts. Among a few restaurants and an upholsterer was Green Grocery. In 1934 the Nittas purchased Green Grocery from recently widowed Konme Ikeda.
Ikeda’s husband Genzo George Ikeda was killed two years prior, in 1932. The store was robbed several times in the course of a week, and on the robber’s last visit Genzo was caught in cross fire between the robber and police and killed. (More on that at HistoryLink.) Considering the tragedy of Genzo Ikeda, residents and other business owners must have connected with the Nittas as soon as they took over.
The Nittas moved from the area where Chinatown and Nihonmachi mixed at Dearborn and 7th Ave South, part of what we call the International District today. They had a grocery store there too, run by Marge’s grandparents Sentaro and Sami Nitta. They lived upstairs. Prior to that they had another store nearby at Weller and 8th Avenue South.
Marge’s father Masaru Nitta took over the store from his parents in 1938. He married her mother May in 1940. Her family had a farm east of Portland, but she grew up in Tacoma where her family ran Hotel Revere and earlier had a restaurant. She was very familiar with running a business.
Two generations of the Nitta family lived at 1608 Boylston. Along with Masaru’s parents there were his brothers Susumu and Sakae. The house was built in about 1902, first the residence of Pioneer Square doctor Joseph Lukens. In about 1919 it was lifted and two concrete storefronts were added below that, used by various auto repair shops.
While the Nittas lived in the home there was a engine block repair shop and general auto repair in either bay. In earlier years the house was rented room by room, but the Nittas apparently were the only residents in the late 1930s.
If you walk down to Boylston and Pine you won’t find the house now. It’s at about the spot of the lower entrance to Seattle Central’s parking garage. The house was demolished in 1969, after Washington State purchased the property to expand Seattle Central Community College.
The Sanders Apartments, location of Green Grocery and the Thomassens, was built in 1910 by William H. Sanders. Sanders apparently left his job at the city treasurer’s office and the apartment building became his and his wife Maud’s full time job. The Sanderses still owned the Sanders when the Nittas and Thomassens worked and lived there. William was even in the room when Genzo Ikeda was killed.
It was designed by Ellsworth Storey, now celebrated as one of Seattle’s most famous architects. At the time Storey was just getting started, with only 5 years of experience building houses. The previous year he designed an expo building for the International Concatenated Order of Hoo Hoo for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, and a few months after Sanders Apartments he completed plans for the Beacon Hill Congregational Church.
Businesses over the years match expectations for neighborhood retail and auto row. They included predecessors to Green Grocery, Shlengel hair store, Olson Brothers upholsterers and interior decorators, a pharmacy, a piston distributor, and a distributor for Quaker Burnoil heaters.
Like the Nittas’ home next door, you won’t find the Sanders when you pass by Pine and Boylston. The Sanders was demolished in 1971 after the state purchased it for Seattle Central Community College. You could step in to Hot Mama’s Pizza, which would be next door to Green Grocery.
After “forced relocation” ended the Nittas returned to Seattle. They moved to the Central District, and Marge attended Garfield High. While there she was awarded Girl of the Month by the Capitol Hill Lions Club for being an honors student, her work on the school newspaper, in-school publicity, and involvement in groups to boost school spirit. When she graduated in 1960 she was one of 24 students profiled in the Seattle Times for having straight A’s and received a scholarship from the American Legion as top Garfield student.
Back to the Present
In the 1960 Seattle Times, right below the article about Marge Nitta’s scholastic achievement was another article about students. Its title was “Defense-Fund Drive for Negro Students Set”. The opening paragraph explained, “A drive to raise funds for the legal defense of Negro students who have been arrested for taking part in non-violent demonstrations in the South will begin this week on the University of Washington campus.”
The story of the pink dress is a reminder that our neighborhood’s history is the history of Seattle and America. Regular people who lived right here were caught up in the events you learned about. Racism and the struggle against it happened here. The Nitta family holds on to the dress as a reminder of a bright spot in dark times. As we each struggle and suffer through the present, we need to know that we are not the first. We are stewards of our past. If it is forgotten or lost or repeated we share the blame.
Thanks to Capitol Hill Historical Society member Karen Maeda Allman for pointing out the neighborhood connection to us! She spotted that the address that the Nitta family sent holiday cards posted to Twitter was on Capitol Hill.
To find out more about what the Capitol Hill Historical Society is up to, visit our webpage, find us on Facebook, or join us for a meeting!