Harold Moss, the first Black mayor of Tacoma and the man who guided the sometimes troubled city through turbulent times, died Monday night. He was 90.
Moss died at his Tacoma home from long-term health complications, according to his family.
Moss became Tacoma’s first Black City Council member in 1970, its first Black mayor in 1994 and the first Black Pierce County Council member in 1996.
“Harold Moss was a lion, and he blazed trails that allowed many of us who came after him to assume positions of leadership,” said Marilyn Strickland, who became Tacoma’s second Black mayor in 2009.
Harold Gene Moss was born Oct. 1, 1929, in Gilmer, Texas, to John Harris Moss and Ida Bell Wright, according to History Link. His family later moved to Michigan.
He settled in Tacoma after serving in the National Guard in the Korean War and being stationed at Fort Lewis, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
In Tacoma, Moss and his then wife, Bil, fought against the discriminatory postwar real estate tactic known as redlining.
“When you called a real estate office, you used what I call your ‘white voice,’ ” Harold Moss said in 2018, sharing his strategy for roping a white real estate agent into showing a home.
It wasn’t the only place they faced discrimination. While still in the National Guard, Moss tried to skate at a Tacoma rink. He was stopped by the manager.
“He told me he was terribly sorry, but coloreds skated at the rink on Wednesdays,” Moss recalled in 1994.
That his government would train him to shoot at Koreans, who had never discriminated against him, yet his own countrymen would bar him from restaurants or, in this case, a roller rink, “really galled me,” Moss said.
“I wanted to push for a change in the racial climate,” Moss said in 1994.
He wanted to change the system from the inside out; protesting in the community just wasn’t enough, he said.
“I wanted to do all I can from behind the dais,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re just screaming into the wind.”
In 1969, he helped calm seething tempers and contain violence to a single night during the Mother’s Day Disturbance on the city’s Hilltop when racial tensions erupted in violence and property destruction. It is considered a turning point in Tacoma’s civil-rights movement.
Jim Walton, who became Tacoma’s first Black city manager in 2003, recalled the Mother’s Day Disturbance as the start of what became a decades-long friendship and partnership with Moss.
Amid the turmoil, Walton said, Moss displayed the will and political tenacity that would go on to define him.
“He was a tough piece of leather, even though he was thought to be small and short,” Walton said. “He was able to maintain his focus. You couldn’t take him off his point.”
In the years that followed the Mother’s Day Disturbance, Moss won jobs for Black contractors, helped found the Tacoma Urban League, built a long record of activism with the NAACP and continued to serve long into his retirement.
Lyle Quasim, co-chair of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, also described Moss as one of the “founding elements” of the Black Collective, which has been active in the area for more than 50 years.
According to Quasim, Moss was active in the Black Collective until the novel coronavirus pandemic forced meetings to be held remotely this year. Moss was in attendance the last time the Black Collective met in person, Quasim said.
“Harold’s legacy is that he was fearless, he was persistent and he always kept the Black community in the forefront of everything he did,” Quasim said.
In 2019, the Tacoma City Council renamed the 34th Street Bridge, spanning state Route 7 between East B Street and East D Street, as the Harold G. Moss Bridge.
Current Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards called Moss “a shining bridge builder” Tuesday.
“When people look at that bridge, they should see two things: A connection from one side to another, and the light that shines on it,” Woodards said. “I think that is how we should remember Harold.”
On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer said Moss was a trailblazer and called his death “an enormous loss for our community.”
“In so many ways, his is a story of fighting for dreams that mattered for so many,” said Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor. “Last week, I had the opportunity to tell him that I loved him and appreciated him. And like so many others, I will miss him dearly.”
Moss is survived by his wife, Genie Jefferson, and sons Mike and Dean Moss.
He is also survived by sisters Dorothy Toliver and Martha Brown, brother Frank Frison and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other family members.
He was preceded in death by daughter Cathy Tibbs Moss.