Right around this time last year, Tony Allison and Joe Hunter Jr., long ago high school basketball teammates now in their late 60s, organized a Zoom meeting for themselves and a few former classmates.
Allison was nervous. Hunter was not.
Seattle, and the nation, was in the early throes of what would become the largest, sustained protest movement in American history after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The two had organized about a dozen fellow Roosevelt High School alums, half white and half Black, to talk about their lives in the half-century since graduation and the role race had played.
Allison, who is white, brought about half the group. Hunter, who is Black, brought the other half.
“I was nervous and I said so at the first meeting,” Allison said. “I didn’t know how it was going to go, and frankly, a bunch of white guys asking some Black guys they had hardly seen for 50 years to engage with them on basically white racism, it’s like, what’s the reaction going to be?”
For Hunter, who was bused from his predominantly Black neighborhood to a predominantly white high school and who, for decades, worked in a nearly all-white business environment, it was old hat.
“It wasn’t anything new,” he said. “You’ve got to understand, for most people of color, myself included and a lot of individuals that I contacted, we’re always talking about this. It’s nothing new. I can’t tell you all the presentations and meetings I’ve been to on diversity and inclusion.”
But at that first meeting, Allison’s anxiety and Hunter’s modest skepticism quickly melted.
They told stories and reminisced. They liked hearing about each other’s lives. They weren’t solving centuries of racism, but they also weren’t trapped in some forced corporate equity training.
“Everyone wanted to do this and we were interested in each other,” Allison said. “Pretty quickly it became human.”
That first meeting led to another. And another. And some organization. Their numbers grew. And pretty soon they’d started a group, Roosevelt Alumni for Racial Equity. They’ve met, every two weeks, through the year. They bring in guest speakers. They’re producing a documentary on Seattle’s voluntary busing program of the 1960s and 1970s, which brought Black students, like Hunter, to Roosevelt.
And they’ve raised $230,000 (and counting), to fund, in perpetuity, $5,000 scholarships to help Roosevelt students of color afford college or post-graduate training.
In the year since Floyd’s death, the nightly protests have faded away, many of their demands unmet. Some significant laws have been changed, many others have not. Governments are fractious and slow to act. Businesses renege. But the nation’s consciousness was raised. Change, smaller but still transformational, can come on a personal level, through one person, reaching out to another, listening, trying to make a difference.
It might not be systemic, but it is not nothing.
“You have to ask yourself, what does it take to make progress and have that progress sustained?” Hunter said. “I think it has to come down to individuals and individuals’ relationships and individuals with a common commitment and purpose staying together and not being distracted.”
“Doing some soul-searching”
Allison and Hunter were never really friends. They were teammates back then, for the Rough Riders. They respected each other. But they didn’t hang out. And then they mostly lost touch after graduating in 1971. They talked for a few minutes and shot some hoops at a 40th reunion about a decade ago.
So Allison, who worked in the fishing industry before becoming a high school history teacher, felt comfortable contacting him out of the blue last year. He and five other classmates, all white, had been talking about Floyd’s murder, the protests, their own role, or lack thereof, in all of it.
“Several of us, mostly guys you knew at RHS, would like to reconnect with black friends and teammates from high school,” Allison wrote to Hunter, in a Facebook message. “Basically we’re real upset at the state of our country and interested in a conversation — mostly us listening and learning — about the experience of racism in our society.”
Hunter responded he was happy to help, but wanted to know: “Why do you want to have the conversation now?”
Good question, Allison said.
“I guess with all that’s going on we’re doing some soul-searching on what it means, and has meant, to be white vs black,” he wrote. “And what we might do to improve things.”
Hunter, a longtime manager and executive at JCPenney, wrote a loose agenda for that first meeting. Each participant would spend about five minutes talking about life since high school, would recount a race-related experience that had a lasting impact and would talk about why they wanted to participate in the call.
The white participants had all grown up in North Seattle neighborhoods around Roosevelt that at the time were segregated by redlining and racist property covenants. The Black participants had mostly grown up in the Central District, where virtually all of Seattle’s Black population lived. They arrived at Roosevelt via the city’s Voluntary Racial Transfer program, where, at its peak, about 2,200 Black kids were bused to majority white schools in an effort at integration.
In 1970, when they were at Roosevelt, every neighborhood, every census tract, north of the Ship Canal, was at least 90% white.
Bruce Johnson, one of the participants at that initial meeting, noted that the voluntary busing program was essentially the first time he’d ever interacted with kids of a different race.
“Not one Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native student attended Laurelhurst Elementary during my time there,” Johnson said. His childhood, he said, was one of parks and rec sports and water skiing and summer days at the Laurelhurst Beach Club.
They told stories about a near brawl at a basketball game between predominantly white Roosevelt and predominantly Black Garfield. Someone tackled the referee. Fans spilled on the court. Hunter, playing for Roosevelt, with friends at Garfield, was sort of caught in the middle.
Hunter later played basketball for Western Washington University. He told a story about being called a racial slur by four or five older white men at a pub in Port Angeles after a Western game. They threatened to “get the dogs.” Just as striking, in Hunter’s memory, was the one white man who told him he’d help him if they tried anything.
One participant, a Black man, talked about his days working for the Washington State Patrol. His first assignment, in the early 1980s, was in Colfax, in rural, nearly all-white, southeastern Washington. Someone called the police to report a Black man driving a police cruiser.
Someone called the cops to report a Black cop. The others, on Zoom, laughed at the absurdity. Comedy is tragedy plus time.
“This was something that us north-end white folks never had to deal with,” Johnson said.
“Still happening today”
The busing program that brought Hunter and other students of color to Roosevelt was soon replaced with a broader, mandatory busing program that bused students, both white and of color, to schools around the city, in an effort to integrate.
It eventually petered out in the face of lawsuits and public opposition. A subsequent integration effort, which used race as a tiebreaker when assigning high schools to students, was tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court, following a lawsuit by Seattle parents.
The Seattle school district, as a whole, is very diverse. But individual schools remain largely segregated. Roosevelt is 71% white and just 4% Black. In South Seattle, by contrast, Rainier Beach High School’s student body is 97% students of color.
It’s a sentiment that has come up a lot in the alumni group’s discussions.
One member recalled, some 50 years ago, demanding more books by Black authors in the Roosevelt library. Hunter recalled a protest at Western Washington, when he was a freshman, demanding more ethnic studies and faculty of color.
The state Board of Education voted, just this spring, to make an ethnic studies requirement for high school graduation. The vote was nonbinding and there’s no timeline to put it into effect.
“A lot of the things that were talked about when we were in school are still happening today,” Hunter said. “It’s amazing that people will say things and have maybe good intentions 50 years ago and here we are, talking about the same things.”
These are not easy subjects and emotions can run high sometimes.
“The good thing about this group is everybody is willing to at least listen and if they don’t understand, at least try to understand the other person’s point of view,” Hunter said. “Even if they don’t agree with it.”
Kristina Rodgers, the principal of Roosevelt (and an alum of the high school herself) has sat in on most of the group’s guest speaker sessions since last summer.
“It’s just really refreshing to be a part of those conversations and to hear them have those ‘Ahas’ and be able to talk and be really real with each other,” Rodgers said. “People that are willing to engage and always be learning and unlearning despite where they are agewise is, I think, very exciting.”
The meetings now usually have about three dozen participants, and they’re trying to attract more alums, especially younger ones, to join.
This spring, the alumni group gave out its first two James A. Davis Jr. Memorial Scholarships, named for a beloved classmate who died in 2013 — $5,000 each to two Black seniors. Leah Scott plans to attend North Seattle College, on her way to either the University of Washington or Eastern Washington, to study political science and economics. Recipient Elsabeth Assaye is the first in her family to go to college. She plans to attend the New York Institute of Technology to become a software developer.
Rodgers sees a generational difference between the alumni and her current students, a sign of both progress and work yet undone.
Many of the older alumni of color, Rodgers said, saw their mostly white high school, in hindsight, as preparation for a life or career spent in predominantly white spaces. In 2021, Rodgers said, her students largely don’t think that’s something they should be forced to adapt to. “And I don’t think they should have to, either.”