In 1969, the city of Seattle forced the displacement of Central Area Black families and extorted land owned by the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, where I have served as senior pastor for more than three decades. It is a story not widely known. The protests from last summer over the murder of George Floyd have shown us that the institutions that maintain injustice require a necessary disruption. It is never too late to make right a timeworn wrong and for Seattle to pay reparations for its specific harm to our Black community.
Just over five decades ago, under threat of eminent domain and condemnation, the city of Seattle forcibly took ownership of our church’s two properties on the northeast corner of 21st Avenue and Fir Street to be used for the Spruce Street Mini Park. Those two parcels, for which the city paid $34,000, are now valued at more than $2 million. This is land that the church had acquired and planned for church parking and educational programming to serve the community. Furthermore, the city took the remaining parcels on the block, including several single-family homes owned by Black families for the same park project. These families were paid approximately $11,000 to $15,000 per house, forced from their homes and were deprived of benefiting from the long-term appreciation of their assets.
This is particularly harmful, as homeownership is key to accruing generational wealth; where on average, Black households have only 14.5% of the wealth of white households, according to the Center for American Progress. Our church, like many other Black landowners, had been the direct targets of discriminatory city policies that accelerated the displacement of Black Americans from the Central Area.
At the time the city established the Seattle Urban Renewal Enterprise, or SURE, an effort motivated by federal government programs to clear “blighted areas” in inner cities under the mantle of “urban renewal,” the “war on poverty” and “Model Cities” policies in the 1950s and ’60s.
These government programs were racist and targeted Black neighborhoods, resulting in the massive loss of Black ownership in commercial and residential properties. One of the key initiatives adopted by SURE was the Yesler Atlantic Neighborhood Improvement Project, which aimed to redevelop the Central Area. The Central Area, once a neighborhood full of Black community activity and amenities, Black-owned commerce, and Black homeownership, was defined by SURE in its 1961 Yesler Atlantic Report as home to “the colored, the poor, the ignorant, the unfortunate, the undesirable, the weak.” SURE’s solution, as recommended to the city of Seattle, was “a ghetto” for “the undesirables” and “encouragement to middle and upper-income whites to move into the community,” resulting in a lack of investment opportunities for Black homeownership.
Some might say that gentrification and displacement are a dispassionate affair from an invisible hand of the market. But Scripture teaches us otherwise; that it is the powerful that turn us into refugees and strangers in our own land. There is nothing invisible about the hand of institutionalized racism, and the specific policies and decisions by those in local government that dispossessed us of our land. SURE described the Central Area community as home to the “purveyors of vice and crime, the chronic trouble makers, the undeserving poor — who are the source of most social blight in the area.” It explained that the Central Area was riddled with problems “so multiform, so complex, that individuals become lost and confused in this ‘urban jungle’ of social disorder and decay.”
Some 60 years later, urban renewal is recognized as a code word for perpetuating unsustainable development and increases in property values, social exclusion, gentrification and the displacement of marginalized communities. The Yesler Atlantic Report drips with a casual prejudice that reflected the social norms of the times. It offers us a detailed and organized road map for community disruption; wielding land use regulations as a practical weapon to dismantle a people. The report aimed to identify basic social problems in the neighborhood but was successful in highlighting and recording the history of government neglect, institutional racism and discriminatory policies as a means to redevelop communities of color. The report, and the federal programs that inspired it, would become a means for justifying actions such as the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church land taking and further exploitative redevelopment of the Central Area community.
In other parts of the country, we have seen people tearing down Confederate monuments in response to centuries of oppression. But in the park across from my church, there is no statue to tear down; in Seattle the symbols of racism are far less explicit.
In recent years, the city has relented to social pressure to generate more resources for the Black community. But we are pointing to a specific harm to our church and the surrounding neighborhood that remains unanswered. After years of perseverance and resilience, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church has three separate demands.
∙ We call on the city of Seattle to return the land or pay reparations for these unjust takings. The church is owed for what was taken.
∙ Additionally, the city must provide the funds necessary to build 87 units of affordable housing for New Hope Family Housing to fight displacement. The development of the housing project, which will be built adjacent to our church, is a duty of the city to make the necessary investments in the Black community that have long been neglected.
∙ We have also called on the city to create a Central Area Homeownership Fund to help families of color build equity in their community.
For decades, our congregation and community have been forced to withstand racist policies, land grabbing, pressures from for-profit speculative developers, and insignificant economic support from the city that have resulted in the loss of our cultural spaces and the displacement of tens of thousands who once called this neighborhood home. The city must make right this historic and intentional wrong.