Black and African Americans made up less than 1% of the total population in Seattle during the post-Civil War period, and they built a thriving community of churches, civic organizations and fraternal clubs in the Central District. The neighborhood has seen many changes over the years, but the legacy and strength of that community building continues to shape the city.
“Women of color have always been a major part of this historic neighborhood and the history of Seattle,” says Patricia Hayden, Chief Program Officer at YWCA Seattle King County, who worked at the Phillis Wheatley YWCA in the heart of the Central District for more than 30 years.
The Phillis Wheatley branch of YWCA has been operating in the Central District since 1919, founded by black women after they weren’t allowed to join the main Seattle YWCA. The organization was originally started to provide services for women looking to establish sustainability and safety, and that would be a foundation of YWCA’s mission.
During Hayden’s tenure as the branch director and in her current position, she has helped to develop programs addressing prevention and intervention of domestic violence, child care, youth services and employment service. “We were the first YWCA branch to develop a holistic approach to addressing community needs,” says Hayden, who notes that this successful model has been followed by other YWCA branches as well as other service organizations.
Here are six other history-making women of color who were residents of Seattle and the Central District.
Sarah Grose became the first black woman to settle in Seattle when she moved here with her husband, William, and their two children in 1860.
Corinne Carter worked with black children brought to the Seattle Police Department and was designated “Special Policewoman” in 1914, though she remained unpaid. She was instrumental in establishing the Phillis Wheatley Branch of YWCA, originally located at 24th and Howell in the Central District. At the time, this was one of few public meeting spaces for people of color in the community. The space also offered social, educational and employment programs for black girls, as well as overnight accommodations for out-of-town girls.
Bertha Pitts Campbell moved to Seattle in 1923 after attending Howard University in Washington D.C., where she established one of the country’s first and largest black sororities. She was one of Seattle’s first civil rights workers and the first woman of color to exercise the right to vote on YWCA’s board, on which she served for 53 years.
Susie Revels Cayton, daughter of the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate, moved to Seattle in 1896. She was a frequent contributor and associate editor of the Seattle Republican, one of the state’s most successful black-owned newspapers, until it closed in 1913. She also organized several service clubs, including the Sunday Forum, which brought together black Seattle residents to talk about issues important to their lives. Cayton supported education, proclaiming it was the most valuable way for African American people to become successful.
Letitia A. Graves was a beautician who migrated to Seattle with her husband from Kansas in 1884. She was at the forefront of protesting the new policy of segregating black federal employees introduced by President Woodrow Wilson. Graves was also instrumental in founding the Seattle chapter of the NAACP in 1913 and served as the organization’s first president.
Gertrude Dawson was one of the founding members of the Mary Mahoney Registered Nurses Club in Seattle in 1949. The mission of these African American nurses was to provide financial and career support for other black students pursuing careers in professional nursing. Dawson, the first African American nurse to be hired by Group Health Hospital, in 1956, was chief nurse-negotiator for salaries and benefits in 1965. She negotiated the highest monthly salary increase ($45 a month) that nurses in Washington had ever received.
There are countless women who have and continue to contribute to Seattle’s rich history. You can continue their legacy by volunteering with women and families in need. Learn more about engagement opportunities at YWCA by visiting ywcaworks.org.