Seattle's past steeped with racism

Discriminatory practices shaped neighborhood demographics

Seattle's past steeped with racism

Seattle's past steeped with racism

Seattle resident, longtime activist and former King County Councilman Larry Gossett is familiar with racial covenants, although at the time, nobody in his family was familiar with the term.

All he knew was when his father, Nelmon Gossett, saved up enough money from working as a mailman to purchase a home in 1956, he logically looked in West Seattle, where he worked. The first realtor Gossett's father spoke to said showing him a house in that neighborhood would not be an option and she would be “run out” if she helped him.

“The realtor didn't know the word covenant,” Gossett said. “My daddy didn’t know about the word covenant.”

Gossett said his father then went to a second realtor and told him what he wanted, and the realtor said he could help. When they crossed the West Seattle bridge and drove into the city to the central district, Gossett's father soon realized buying a house in West Seattle wasn’t going to happen.

Racially restricted covenants

Seattle has a long and complicated history with racial housing disparity in its neighborhoods, where segregation has been subtly and outwardly reenforced through the years.

At the time Gossett’s father bought a house, Seattle was one of the most segregated cities in the country, with 88 percent of Black Americans living in the central district, Gossett said. Racially restricted covenants helped reenforce that separation.

According to the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, racially restricted covenants written into deeds were a common practice in the early 20th century. They were agreements that prohibited a particular group of people, like Black Americans and other minorities, from buying, leasing or living on a piece of property. Even if a property was sold to a new buyer, the covenant remained in effect.

According to Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project research, racially restricted covenants were common in Magnolia, Queen Anne and Madison Park.

The covenant language for the Madison Park addition to the city of Seattle states the land in question, “shall never be used, occupied by or sold, conveyed, leased, rented or given to Negroes, or any person or persons of the Negro blood.” Language used for a covenant established in 1929 that applied to the Broadmoor development in 1929 was more specific: "No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race, and the party of the second part his heirs, personal representatives or assigns, shall never place any such person in the possession or occupancy of said property or any part thereof, nor permit the said property or any part thereof, ever to be used or occupied by any such person, excepting only employeees(sic) in the domestic service on the premises of persons qualified hereunder as occupants and users and residing on the premises."

In Magnolia, the racial covenant for the Magnolia Manor deed established in 1927, and another for Magnolia View states, “No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property, or any building thereon; except domestic servants may actually and in good faith be employed by white occupants of such premises.”

Many examples for covenants in deeds in Queen Anne use the same language. The deeds for the Comstock Supplemental Addition, the Northern Addition and George Kinnear’s Supplemental Addition, state, “That the said property herein described shall not be sold, conveyed, leased or given to any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race, nor shall any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race be permitted to occupy or use the property excepting only employees in the domestic service on the premises of persons qualified hereunder as occupants or users and residing on the premises.”

By the time Congress passed the Housing Rights Act in 1968 forbidding the practice of housing discrimination based on race or ethnicity, Queen Anne, Magnolia and Madison Park were established as white neighborhoods, while the central district was where the majority of Black residents lived, something that has not changed much in the decades since, according to the University of Washington study.


Even after racially restrictive covenants were outlawed, other practices emerged to take their place and maintain the status quo, such as redlining.

Around the same time the Housing Rights Act was enacted, Seattle also passed an ordinance “defining and prohibiting unfair housing practices in the sale and offering for sale and in the rental and offering for rent and in the financing of housing accommodations ...”

Enforcing that ordinance was more difficult, however. According to the Seattle Municipal Archives, in 1975, Central Seattle Community Council Federation published a report discussing the practice of redlining, which was defined as “the practice by banks and other lending institutions of refusing home loans or requiring higher interest rates and larger down payments to otherwise credit worthy people because they happen to live in a certain area.” Again, Seattle’s central district was targeted.

According to the Seattle Municipal Archives article on redlining, banks wouldn't lend money on properties that “fell below a certain price” in the central area and Rainier Valley. The only option left to home buyers was to seek out a loan from a mortgage company, which “charged more and foreclosed up to eight times more often on FHA loans than banks or savings and loan institutions.”

While city leaders tried to address the issue, redlining and predatory lending didn't stop.

Chris Jeffries, who has lived in Seattle for almost 60 years and protested against unfair bank practices with Gossett in 1975, said his parents were victims of predatory lending. He said his dad bought a house in the central district but was charged a higher interest rate than somebody else who qualified for the same loan. That was 1994.


Jeffries said the biggest problem in Seattle now is gentrification, where Black residents, who already get paid less, are getting priced out of their neighborhoods because of big companies moving in and existing houses getting replaced with newer homes. Jeffries said for many Black residents living on a pension or who come from a single-income home, they can't afford the increase in property values and inflation and are moving outside the city.

“There is absolutely no more black community because of the displacement,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries also doesn't think that can ever change.

“That boat has sailed,” he said. “You just can't improve the housing opportunities and not do anything about the employment opportunities because, you know, they go hand in hand.”

Gossett agrees that gentrification is a problem for Black residents now, but the city's past discriminatory practices have led to this situation.

“Progressive activists would tell you it’s the systemic and very successful ways Blacks were isolated and segregated and charged more for housing,” Gossett said.

He said while some Black advocacy groups in the city are trying to regain some footholds in Seattle by reestablishing enclaves on certain blocks, like 24th and Union, because of the economic differential, doing so is cost prohibitive.

“The cost makes it really, really difficult,” he said. “We really have to work on the economic situation for Black and other minority populations.”

Gossett remains hopeful, however, that things will improve, especially with the awareness and attention raised by the killing of George Floyd. He said Floyd’s death inadvertently highlighted to people the racial inequality in this country, which is now shedding light on other inequities, such as economic disparity between the different groups.

He said consistent and wide-spread conversation is needed to reenforce the message that racial oppression and discrimination have to end.

“Ain’t nothing going to change if people don’t know that for certain parts of the population, it’s never been equitable, it’s never been fair,” Gossett said.

In his mind, even more important than the conversations are the protests in the city.

“The struggles make a difference,” Gossett said. “All these movements help to bring about change.”

The place for it to start is at the local level, he said.

Jazmine Smith, a member of the Queen Anne Community Council and its land use review and transportation committees, wants to do her part by raising awareness in Queen Anne.

Smith, who is a woman of color, said a problem she has seen too frequently is the residents shaping neighborhood plans today are not minorities.

For the most part, committee members are white homeowners — not renters — who advocate for development proposals that affect them personally, she said. As a result, they may inadvertently exclude people, such as through the language they use or because the recommendations they make drive up development costs.

“I feel there can be a disconnect in the perspectives that are available to committees,” Smith said.

Committee members aren't doing the community justice if they are not advocating for all of the residents, she said.

“That’s why I want to be here,” Smith said. “I want to start these conversations and do right in Interbay, lower Queen Anne and our community.

“I hope we can continue to find more ways to bring people to the table,” she added.

To learn more about Seattle’s history with racial segregation, visit