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A Historical Summit takes Place at The Evergreen State College Tacoma campus!

-By Dean Marcia Tate Arunga, Evergreen State College Tacoma and Ellen Mirro, Studio TJP

On Saturday May 17th an important Summit was held on the historic preservation of Black history in the Washington State archives at the Evergreen State College Tacoma campus. Over one hundred people gathered to discuss the lack of historical monuments and landmarks that make contributions to the State’s heritage and development.  


Opened by elder of the Puyallup Tribe, Ramona Bennett, who shared parts of her own history in Tacoma as a fighter for the rights of her people. She endorsed the necessity for correcting a history that includes all people. She declared, “You are loved and you and welcome”! Her words of encouragement were an inspirational beginning for the day. 


The summit was elevated by the electrifying words of keynote speaker, State Representative Jamila Taylor of the 30th district. Representative Taylor, the daughter of Dr. Quintard Taylor, prolific historian of Washington State, brought her father’s accomplishments into the room. She noted how he once beckoned her to join the family business in writing history books. She retorted, “I want to be in the history books!” Indeed, she has carved a place in the history books as our state representative initiating bill #1474, taking steps to close the generational wealth gap created by inequitable home ownership. 


The purpose of the Summit was to examine history of Black people in our beloved state and to include them in the annals of history through landmarks, monuments, and the reframing of Black historical facts. Great citizens like activist, George Putnam Riley and the dozen families who invested in a substantial track of land that makes up today’s’ Hilltop neighborhood in Tacoma should be remembered.  


The role that government policies played in how groups of people were segregated by legally recognized laws in the United States, is today referred to as “de jure segregation”. It was no accident that neighborhoods, schools, places of employment and ownership opportunities served to expand the wealth of families of white families while tightening the wealth among Black families. Thus, the generational wealth gap was rooted in segregation by employment opportunities, neighborhoods, zoning, restrictive real estate covenants and redlining tactics that all secured the widening gap of generational wealth.   


Architect Ellen Mirro and Monette Hearn from the Washington state archeology and Preservation department presented on the systemic barriers for preserving underrepresented communities in Washington State. Policies through eminent domain amounted to theft, including tax sales, heirs property laws, and state sponsored violence. Today, while history is preserved by over 1,500 National register sites, only three current sites relate to African American heritage, with three more pending. They noted that in comparison, based on Washington’s African American population both historically and today, would suggest that between 100 and 180 of the sites could be designated if we put equal value on African American heritage. They also found that of Tacoma's 36 designated landmarks in the Hilltop neighborhood, at least 10 should be related to African American heritage but only one is currently proposed. Current Historic Preservation policy appears to devalue the remaining sites making them, for the most part, ineligible for listing on the national register or as landmarks.  


There is much to learn about archiving black history, starting with Nettie Asberry, the first Black woman to hold a doctorate, to the cherished family photo albums that exist in all our homes. Digital archivists Roger Evans and Ryan Donaldson expounded on the need to learn how to digitize our history and tell our family stories. Roger is part owner of The Griot Project, dedicated to assisting in the digitization of family archives. Together they demonstrated how to use digital graphics to tell the stories of family histories.   


Dionne Bonner and Whitney Brady displayed their role as artists to illuminate the role of public art for preserving the historic record. They implored us to consider public art as a way of remembering Tacoma’s black past. There was also a somber moments at the summit as Psychologist Orisade Awodola reminded us of the healing process that must take place in the black community as they recall forgotten history. As we unearth the history of Black people that was invalidated, we have a chance to both celebrate and reconcile with our past. 

Bobby Fouther and his sister Liz, came from neighboring Portland, Oregon to present their museum quality presentation on the Albina district. Once deemed as a blighted neighborhood, Bobby and Liz were able to show the elegance and dignity that thrived in the neighborhood. Their work has successfully changed the narrative of their childhood neighborhood. In that same vein, Karen Akuyea Vargas of the Remnant project has been the frontrunners in “unearthing historical artifacts that come from Kitsap County”. They have spent decades collecting Black history in Kitsap County, with strong connections to historical links to King County, Pierce County Roslyn and the Tri Cities and more.  


The rapid migration growth patterns of black populations that emerged out of military bases in Spokane and Bremerton and Tacoma. From there, the Hanford nuclear site in the Tri cities, the dangerous coal mining industry in Roslyn Washington, historic military based shipyards and munition industries in Bremerton, Tacoma, Renton and Seattle, were all destinations to eager Black adults seeking a better life in the Pacific Northwest. They brought extraordinary artistic talents, entrepreneurship, and human power that goes unaccounted. As the numbers increased the government found strategies to alienate and segregate whole neighborhoods. 


The United Nations has acknowledged that cultural heritage is a human right and the intentional destruction of cultural sites is a violation of human rights. We considered how the heritage and landmark sites could go a long way to memorialize black heritage could be better represented.   


The presence of Mayor Victoria Woodards at the summit both validated and renewed our mission to continue until more historical landmarks and history are commemorated across our fair state.  


The event concluded with words from the Executive Director of Evergreen State College Dr. Dexter Gordon, reminding us of our responsibility to preserve Black history. He shared a quote by writer / orators, James Baldwin who reminds us, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” James Baldwin,  Notes of a Native Son


Dr. Keith Stafford, assistant director of Evergreen Tacoma commented on the success of the Summit by saying, “It was critical to make the connection of our culture, especially for our children who often think they don’t have a history”.  Dr. Sharon Cronin faculty in Evergreen’s Early Childhood Education reiterated “this is Sankofa at its’ best. That is what we do at Evergreen!” Sankofa is an andinkra symbol and emblem that represents Evergreen Tacoma. It is a bird that flies forward while looking back. The parable that represents this symbol states: “In order to know where you are going, you must first know where you came from”. Dr. Cronin comments, “Sankofa is what this event is all about. It is not just about the adults, it is also about the children, the future!” 


Please begin to collect your photo albums, search for your family stories, and gather knowledge of neighborhoods and their changing landscapes. It will be incumbent upon all Americans to preserve history. It is essential for African Americans to insert ourselves into the annals of history while we are alive and well. The generations after us are depending on it. We hope you will stay tuned for the next announcement about the Preservation Summit and participate as if your community preservation depends on it.    

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