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Capitol Hill Historical Society: 109 years ago, Seattle racists tried to stop their wedding so they went to Capitol Hill

FAME Church

First African Methodist Episcopalian Church, Seattle, 2017 (Image: Josh Holland with permission to CHS)

On this day in 1911, Ed Foster and Clara Miller made headlines in Seattle because one was white and one was black, and they dared to marry on Capitol Hill.

FOSTER: Ed Foster and his siblings were the first literate generation in their family. His handwriting was still bad enough that transcriptions of the wedding records, including contemporary sources, mistakenly name him C. D. Foster. He was born in 1879 in Marion, Alabama, on the farm worked by his parents and grandparents. Marion is in the Black Belt of Alabama, known for its dark, rich soil and the Black slave labor that sowed cotton in it. About sixty miles east of Marion is Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy. After the Union defeated them, Ed’s grandfather was paid to work land for the first time in his life. The Fosters were a Black family. Ed Foster was the son of freed slaves. The Fosters were lucky to be in Perry County, the most progressive county in Alabama after the Civil War. That meant they had the chance to improve their futures. Ed and his older siblings Joe and May attended Lincoln Normal School, founded by freed slaves to lift up their children through education. But Perry County was still not a Utopia. As one scholar put it,

“Only a handful of people were hanged, maimed, shot, whipped, or killed on account of prejudice between 1865 and 1874 [in Perry County]”. Bertis English, “A Black Belt Anomaly”. Alabama Review, 2009.

Contrast those deaths to the chaos sowed by the nascent Ku Klux Klan across the rest of Alabama, and Perry County was a relative paradise. His family was trapped in slavery in the South for generations. Freed, and given a basic education, Ed and his siblings made their way to Puget Sound by 1910. Seattle was in national headlines in the lead up to and execution of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909, a possible explanation for their long move. They might have been drawn by a special edition of the Black newspaper Seattle Republican that circulated from 1907 to 1909. It profiled the success of Black citizens with images of houses, descriptions of businesses, and accounts of farms of 10s or 100s of acres.


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MILLER: Clara Miller was born in Oregon in 1893, daughter of a coal miner and teamster. While Ed’s grandfather was enslaved in Alabama, Clara’s grandfather received land from the government. They were white, and enjoyed the privilege of full citizenship. He brought his family across the Oregon Trail in August 1852, just a couple years after Seattle’s founders. They claimed land and settled in Springfield, Oregon. There is a double theft to be thought of in the settlement of Oregon Territory and Washington Territory. Here in Seattle it was an “opportunity” taken from the native Duwamish people, and an opportunity not extended to the slaves in the South. Freedom and free land do not guarantee happiness, though. Something happened in about 1900 between Clara’s parents. Her mother took seven-year-old Clara, leaving five other children behind. They went to Tacoma. Clara’s mother remarried, but Clara and her mother struggled for money again after her stepfather died. Clara went to work for a wealthy realtor, living with his family as a servant.

WEDDING: Their unremarkable lives suddenly became front-page news on their wedding day, Tuesday, July 11, 1911. Clara was 18 years old, accompanied by her mother and little half-brother. Ed was older, 33, and a widower. His friend from Tacoma joined him as witness. On their license they wrote the address of the room Ed rented from a Black hodcarrier. Incidentally, the home was demolished recently for an Amazon office building at Republican and Fairview named Amelia. The Seattle Star carried news of the marriage of these common people as something extraordinary and scandalous. The headline read, WHITE GIRL AND NEGRO TO MARRY. The reporter interviewed King County clerk C. F. Gage about the couple and he said, “I hated to issue that marriage license.” The article over-emphasized race and ancestry: “full blooded negro” for Ed and his friend, “golden-haired Scottish of pure white blood” for Clara, and “little mulatto” for Clara’s half-brother.

King County Courthouse, 1909

King County Courthouse. From “Souvenir of Seattle”, 1909 via archive.org. The site is now part of Harborview Hospital.

Ed and Clara left the county courthouse and headed for a civil wedding to the office of King County Justice John E. Carroll, downhill in the Prefontaine Building. They were turned down. The tone of the article implied that he refused to wed a white woman and a Black man. But perhaps he was simply in court and unable to perform the ceremony. Certainly the reporter was racist, probably Gage, but it’s completely unclear with Carroll. So the wedding party set out across town to find someone to wed them. They ended up right here on Capitol Hill, at FAME, First African Methodist Episcopalian Church, one of a cluster of Black churches.

Reverend William T. Osborne performed the ceremonies in Lee Chapel, the predecessor to FAME’s current buildings at 14th and Pine, not far from the East Precinct and the former CHOP protest zone. Like Ed, Reverend Osborne was from Alabama. But he was a generation older. As a boy he befriended a Union colonel during a battle. The colonel adopted him and later, after struggling against racism to get the young man the education he desired, sent Osborne to flourish at Wheaton College. A decade later he was ordained and began pastoring Black churches across the South and West.

WHY WAS IT NEWS? The day after their wedding, the Seattle Star published a correction of sorts. They were surprised to learn that interracial marriage was not banned in Washington State, and thought it necessary to educate their readers:

A marriage license was issued yesterday to a negro and a white woman. The state of Washington has no law against mixed marriages, although a bill was introduced at the last session of the legislature. It never came to vote. Oregon has such a law; so has California. Seattle Star, July 12, 1911

Earlier that year the state legislature considered a change, which thankfully is still just a bill sitting in committee. It was called the Ghent Bill, named after Seattle’s State Representative Dr. James Albert Ghent. Ghent was a member of the Seattle chapter of the Asiatic Exclusion League. The AEL was focused on oppressing Asian immigrants and their descendants, but they were not exclusive in their racist hate. Another member, Judge John Humphries, wrote the bill. One version of the bill was introduced by Representative William Wray. Here’s how it went:

It shall be unlawful for any person belonging to the white or Caucasian race to intermarry with Ethiopian, Japanese, Chinese, or other person belonging to the Mongolian or colored races; and any such marriage hereafter solemnized in this state shall be null and void. Minutes of the Twelfth Regular Session of the State of Washington, House Bill No. 50

The bill came with a $5000 fine or five year prison term for violation. Amendments to the bill added clarification. Ethiopian was replaced by “Negro”. Non-white was defined by having a quarter or more of another skin tone. Ghent’s bill was House Bill No. 34, and it was much more elaborate than Wray’s. In it, Humphries did away with difficult fractional measurements and simply made it illegal for a white person to marry someone with “a distinct and visible admixture of African blood, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, or Mongolian blood”. All existing marriages would be declared void. Humphries also decided to try to make “illicit carnal intercourse” between skin tones illegal, with the same weight of penalty. Humphries wanted stiffer penalties in the Ghent Bill as well. Violators would be guilty of a felony now, instead of a misdemeanor as in Wray’s bill. And they would spend two to fourteen years in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla with no possibility of a fine. Judge John Edmund Humphries. Dr. James Albert Ghent. William Wray. It’s easy to find mentions of their accomplishments. But they need to be more strongly remembered as racists and white supremacists. They wanted to stop Ed Foster and Clara Miller from ever being wed. To stop them from having a child, who had a child, whose children walk among us. They wanted to stop some of us from being here today.

ANNIVERSARIES: This year every American knows about Juneteenth, the annual celebration on June 19th of the end of slavery. Another anniversary we should all know is Loving Day. On June 12th, 1967 the Supreme Court ruled that Mildred and Richard Loving – a Black woman and white man – could be married. In 1958 the Lovings were arrested and banned from Virginia after getting married in Washington, D.C. Like Wray, Humphries, and Ghent tried to do here in Washington, it was illegal at the time for the Lovings to get married in Virginia. Thank you to the Lovings for bringing an end to that. Pick any day, though, and you can find a triumph over racism to celebrate in history. In Seattle we should throw a party on July 11th, the anniversary of the Foster-Miller wedding. It’s the day that a Black man and a white woman walked across the city until they found a way on Capitol Hill to become husband and wife. Thank you for research assistance to Gerald Carter, Mary Lee Carter, Dr. Mark Wilson, Dr. Eric Jackson, and Miller family descendants. Any error is my own.

To join Capitol Hill Historical Society, visit capitolhillpast.org.

Upcoming online events: July 12 with Elliott Bay Books joined by author Jennifer Ott to discuss Capitol Hill’s Olmsted Parks; and August 16 Q&A with author Jaqueline B. Williams (Hill With a Future).


$5/MONTH? SUBSCRIBE AND SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS: Support local journalism dedicated to your neighborhood. SUBSCRIBE HERE. Join to become a subscriber at $1/$5/$10 a month to help CHS provide community news with NO PAYWALL. You can also sign up for a one-time annual payment.


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Gwendolyn Dees,Ph.D.
Gwendolyn Dees,Ph.D.
4 months ago

This is a fascinating article, filled with history very close to my heart. I am from Birmingham, AL and my parents were born in Wilcox County, very close to the Neighboring Perry County, both of which part of the Black Belt. Thank you, your article is an inspiration to continue to tell our story.

Sarah
Sarah
4 months ago

Great article! I’m reading The Forging of a Black Community, Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era by Quintard Taylor and he outlines how this was an ongoing struggle… “In 1921 the Seattle branch (of the NAACP) mobilized to fight an anti-intermarriage bill under consideration by the state legislature”.. and “In February 1935, King County Rep Dorian Todd proposed House Bill 301, a prohibition on marriages of persons of Caucasian ancestry to ‘Negros, Orientals, Malays and persons of Eastern European extraction.’ The measure, prompted by the request of a Filipino man and a white woman to get a marriage license.” He goes onto show how a large number of Black and Filipino Seattlites came together, formed committees and after thousands of letters and telegrams, and protests in Olympia went on to block the anti-interracial marriage bill. Crazy the histories I grew up not learning about and taking for granted the rights we have now and how many BIPOC had to sacrifice for these rights.

Crow
Crow
4 months ago

Thank you for this article.

catherine hillenbrand
catherine hillenbrand
4 months ago

Rob, Thank you so much for your deep research and this article. I too am from Birmingham, AL so it resonates very strongly with me. Good to see this discussion/history coming from the Capitol Hill Historical Society and on the CHS blog.

Louis
Louis
4 months ago

Rob, I am still so grateful for the work you have done. I am still trying to comprehend that these were my great grandparents, and grandparents you wrote about. I adored these people, and was lucky enough to have them for many years in my life. I often thought what their life was life, but never dreamed of trying to do some research on it.
Again you have put so many things into perspective, and myself and others in the family can’t thank you enough.
Best regards,

shapreise jamerson
shapreise jamerson
4 months ago

Claras is my mother’s aunt. Claras brother is my grandfather…. My mother’s father. I’d love to talk to you.