Hands lightly clasped behind her slender back, Josephine Stratman Stokes, 80, takes an orator's stance as she looks through picture windows high above Lake Washington, her view...

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Hands lightly clasped behind her slender back, Josephine Stratman Stokes, 80, takes an orator’s stance as she looks through picture windows high above Lake Washington, her view since 1962 when she and her late husband were solidly established as one of Seattle’s more prominent couples.

As she speaks, she edifies — something she did with distinction as one of Seattle’s first black schoolteachers, and something she’s done by example all her life. From her early days in segregated Alabama, Stokes has used carriage, self-respect and high aspirations to lift others — even those with narrow views.

Her lessons are about dignity, but also persistence. They come in scenes, of how her family responded to Jim Crow laws in the South that legally separated black and white, and in Seattle, where discrimination was subtler and opportunity good. She and her late husband, Judge Charles M. Stokes, turned down a white attorney friend’s offer to front the purchase of a house for them in an all-white neighborhood and instead worked to change laws for equal housing.

Responding to segregation

In her own words

Stokes recalls growing up in Selma, Ala. (1:19, MP3)

Stokes grew up in Selma, Ala., which in 1965 would become one of the bloodiest scenes in the civil-rights movement when 600 people, marching from Selma for voting rights in the first of three marches, were attacked by lawmen with clubs and tear gas. Though Stokes was not surprised at the response, she and her family defied racial separation in quieter ways in the decades leading to World War II. Here she tells about working in a store in which she was not allowed to treat her white friend as an equal, and, decades later, having dinner with Martin Luther King Jr. the week before he took part in the Selma-to-Montgomery march that spurred the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Josephine Stratman Stokes

Age: 80

Occupation: Retired Seattle Public Schools teacher and librarian; charter member of the Greater Seattle Chapter of Links Inc., which celebrates 50 years of civic service this year. The group’s work includes scholarships, help for the homeless and international programs.

Background: Born in Selma, Ala., in 1924, graduated from Clark College, in Atlanta, Ga., in 1947 with a Bachelor of Science degree in home economics. Received her teaching credentials from the University of Washington. Recognized for 35 years of distinguished service as elementary teacher, librarian, reading specialist and acting principal for Seattle Public Schools. Featured in the January 2005 issue of Essence Magazine article “Look Great At Any Age.” She is a life member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the National Council of Negro Women, and a charter member of the Seattle Chapter of Jack & Jill of America, which honors African-American high-school seniors.

Family: Married for 44 years to the late Judge Charles M. Stokes, the first black legislator from Seattle and first black person to serve on the King County District Court. He spoke on behalf of Dwight Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican National Convention and co-sponsored the Civil Rights Omnibus Bill, which put Washington in the forefront of civil-rights legislation, according to HistoryLink.org. Mother of Vicki Stokes, a United Airline employee; Andre Wooten, attorney; and Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Essence Magazine editor and author of “Song for My Father: Memoir of an All-American Family” (Atria Books, 2004, $26).

— Sherry Stripling

“Selma at that time was segregated. Blacks were in one area. The whites were in another area. We went to separate schools. We played in different areas, parks … Actually, when I went to high school, we crossed. The white kids were going up in our neighborhood where they had built a new school and we were going that way up in their area to an older school…

“In the South, you knew what you were supposed to do or what you weren’t supposed to do. As people say, ‘You knew your place.’ Which was different from Seattle, where you think — or thought — everything was equal — and every now and then you’d run into something different. I was very comfortable in Selma.

“I had a loving family and a very protective family. I guess my only real white friend was when I was in high school. … There was this young lady who was the same age that I was that was working in the [Smart & Thrifty] shop, and we became very good friends. One day the, um, manager of the store said to me, ‘Josephine, … Catherine’s looking for you,’ and she said, … ‘Miss Metzger to you!’ And, of course, I thought, ‘OK, Catherine is my age, you know, she calls me Josephine, I call her Catherine.’ The manager had an attitude about blacks and whites. … Anyway, I told my parents about it, and I didn’t go back to work there anymore.

“The week before Martin Luther King went to Selma, he was in Seattle to speak, and my husband was chair, and we took Martin Luther King out to dinner. I did so want to go to that march because I was from Selma, but then I was a young teacher, and I didn’t want to take off. … I know Selma, being from Selma, and so I wasn’t surprised at the things that happened there with the dogs and the hoses and that kind of stuff, but I did so want to be there to support the people, and so I’m proud of the part that Selma played in the civil-rights struggle.”

Hitch your dreams to the stars

Stokes grew up believing she could be whatever she wanted to be, which ranged from doctor to aviatrix to clothing designer. Her aunt used to say “Hitch your dreams to the stars.” She came to Seattle on summer breaks from Atlanta’s Clark College, first in 1944 — during the decade when Seattle’s black population quadrupled from less than 4,000 to nearly 16,000, thanks in large part to World War II.


Josephine Stratman Stokes as a child in Selma, Ala., with her older sister, Katie Ashford.

“There weren’t many minority kids, minority people in Seattle, and, you know, when you saw somebody you were glad to see them [laugh].

“When I came to Seattle and the waiters and waitresses in the hotel were white. That was a new thing for me. Those were jobs that black people had in Selma….

“Well, when I became active in organizations, like if we had something in the Olympic Hotel, we usually would ask them to please try to get some black people as waiters and waitresses. There weren’t that many, even in that kind of job. My attitude about working is that if I needed to get a job, I could get a job. It might not be what I want … I don’t like to cook, but if I had to cook, I would be the best cook a person had. … I think you were scrutinized. For instance, like my professor at the university told me, I had to be better than the other students in order to make it. And that has always been sort of the thing that I always felt, that I had to do very well in order to make it.”

Teaching mixed races in Seattle

In her own words

Stokes recalls teaching mixed races in Seattle. (1:45, MP3)

Stokes’ first husband, a former Tuskegee Airman, died during construction of a bridge at Dearborn Avenue. She met Charles Stokes around 1950 when they and other Mount Zion Baptist Church members were put on a committee called “Rise Above Color” to raise self-esteem among African Americans by holding up those with college educations as examples of what was possible. They married in 1951. She taught at Horace Mann Elementary School (2410 E. Cherry, now NOVA alternative school), from 1956 until it closed in 1968. Many of the black students were bused to the North End schools. Before going to Coleman and later John Hay elementaries, Stokes was temporarily sent to Sand Point Elementary School to help the white teachers learn to teach minority students, a concept that still amuses her.

“I used to wonder why it was that black teachers could teach children of all races … and why it was the white teachers had to have orientation and to be prepared for the minority kids coming out there. … I think kids adjust better than adults. I really think that if adults didn’t have the attitudes, the kids would make it OK. … Kids are kind of inquisitive. But I have had no trouble with teaching kids of any race. I think, as I tell people, it’s the way you carry yourself. If you want respect, you have to respect others … I just tell my kids, do the best you can. All that’s asked of you, is be the best you can … ”

Working for fair housing

Charles Stokes wooed Josephine Stokes during his first campaign in 1950, and she says she was drawn to him because he was kind and had high standards. He was only the second black legislator in Washington history when he won in the 37th District (the first was Owen Bush, 1889-90, son of Southwest Washington pioneer George Washington Bush). He won as a black Republican in a city where most black citizens were Democrats.

“Even though black people voted for him, they were not the majority. So he related to all people, and although he was very interested in equal housing and all that kind of thing … he was also interested in the betterment of the whole, the city, and all people. So I think that is why he was successful … ”

Seattle voters defeated an open housing referendum in 1964. The Stokeses, who had first-hand experience with discrimination from looking at houses in Seward Park around 1962, worked together to change the laws.


Stokes photographed in the Mount Baker neighborhood in the early ’60s. She and her husband worked for fair housing.

“At that time, people of our race couldn’t buy houses anywhere you wanted to. Mostly we found housing in the Central Area. … For instance, we looked at a house [in Seward Park] … and one of Charles’ attorney friends said that he would buy the house and then we could buy the house from him. But, you know, we didn’t want to do anything like that. We wanted to buy the house on our own merit. … I remember going to city council meetings and all kinds of things when we were working for fair housing.”

Staying optimistic, giving back

The Stokeses tried to give their three children a wider view of the world, and of politics, taking them to national conventions and to Judge Stokes’ swearing-in ceremonies (he was appointed King County District Court judge in 1968, the first of his race to hold the position, and later held his post through election). Mrs. Stokes tells here about the importance of maintaining hope, and her lifetime interest in giving to the community, especially children.

“Whenever we went someplace, we took the kids. It’s important for me for education … We always discussed school, politics, everything at dinner, and vocabulary, that was another thing. My husband, being a lawyer, was very concerned about the kids’ vocabulary. And he always gave them words at dinner time, to study, and, you know, they had to know the meaning of this word and how to use it in a sentence, which is important.

“My attitude has always been that your life is what you make it. I don’t dwell on things that are unpleasant or whatever. I just, you know, OK, well, that was yesterday. Let’s see what’s going to be today or tomorrow. … I always have hope. If you don’t think it’s going to be better, it probably won’t be better …

Available for purchase

“Black History: In Their Own Words,” a four-part series, will be available by mail the week of Feb. 28. The package will include all articles and photos. The color reprint will be re-formatted on 8½ x 11 paper for $7.35, including sales tax and postage and handling. To order, send a request and check payable to: The Seattle Times “Black History: In Their Own Words,” P.O. Box 1735, Seattle, WA 98111. By phone with a credit card, call the Resale Department at 206-464-3113. Or order by e-mail at resale@seattletimes.com.

“The Links, that’s an organization of friends, it’s a national organization, it started in Philadelphia. … We have adopted the African American Academy. I go out on Thursdays and tutor, and we do all kinds of programs. Then we have international trends where we work with the students from the university that come in from various countries, and we take them to the schools and introduce them to the students. … There are two of us [charter members] still active. [The other is Guela Gayton Johnson.] …

“We have women in our organization — doctors, lawyers, teachers, principals, business people, whatever — it’s a very hard-working group. I just want the children [all children, but especially black children because of the struggle for basic rights] to be self motivated, to know how important it is to have a good education. My hope for the future is that the kids will apply themselves and will realize that what you are is up to you.”

Sherry Stripling: sstripling@seattletimes.com