PASTOR PATRINELL WRIGHT was just a 20-year-old country girl from Carthage, Texas, who didn’t know what she was getting into when she migrated to Seattle in 1964.
She grew up one of seven children in the Walnut Grove community, to be exact, a nearby farming enclave designated for blacks. That’s how it was in Southern towns back then. If you were black, you knew where you belonged, and it sure wasn’t around white people, unless you happened to be working for them.
Seattle had its own form of segregation, with blacks clustered mainly in the city’s Central District because of racist lending practices and whites-only “covenants” in housing subdivisions in Shoreline, Ballard, Green Lake, Queen Anne, Magnolia, White Center, Bellevue and beyond.
Wright boarded a Continental Trailways coach and set off by herself on the first cross-country bus ride she’d ever taken. But the price of that three-and-a-half-day bus ride to Seattle cost a lot more than what she paid for her ticket.
She was forced to take a seat at the back of the bus, on a bench barely suitable for sitting, the only black passenger on a coach overloaded with hate.
“I was called every name in the book, except ‘Child of God,’” Wright says while reminiscing at her home in the Central District, where she has lived for 48 years.
The bus lavatory and the restrooms at bus stations along the way were for whites only, too. Blacks used unisex outhouses behind the stations.
Wright knows what it’s like to live on the margins of a world built by and for whites.
Now she sits in the living room of the house she and her husband, Benny Wright, own on 33rd Avenue, mulling the possibility of being marginalized in her own neighborhood.
The CD, Seattle’s most storied African-American district, one anchored by black churches like Mount Zion Baptist and First African Methodist Episcopal and one that witnessed the rise of Quincy Jones, the emergence of a prominent black middle class, the formation of the city’s Black Panther movement and the birth of local hip-hop, is getting less black by the year.
The district, which spans roughly from the back side of Capitol Hill toward Lake Washington and from East Madison Street down toward the Interstate 90 Lid, was more than 70 percent black in the 1960s and early ’70s when Wright moved in.
Today, less than one-fifth of the population is black, with whites moving in in such huge numbers that in the space of a couple of decades, they’ve become the majority for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, when there was a sizable Jewish presence in the area.
“This was a deliberate attempt to get us out of here because the area is so central and convenient to downtown,” Wright says, echoing a sentiment held by many who fear that blacks are being pushed away to make the district more desirable for whites with higher incomes.
One thing is clear: Seattle hip-hop artist Draze was dead-on when he titled his 2014 “eulogy” for the CD’s black community “The Hood Ain’t the Same,” and when he points out the uneasy proximity of a new, legal-weed emporium to an old black church at 23rd and Union in his latest anti-gentrification song “Irony on 23rd.”
Demographic data show that cities like Renton, SeaTac, Tukwila, Kent and Federal Way have higher percentages of blacks than Seattle’s 7.9 percent.
All over the CD, new town houses and apartments have been squeezed awkwardly between the neighborhood’s older apartments and bungalows in a housing bubble fueled by the arrival of tens of thousands of young, mostly white, tech workers.
“I can’t find my way around — I get lost now,” Wright says.
Her living room is filled with framed family photographs, picture albums and scrapbooks chronicling the successes of the renowned Total Experience Gospel Choir, which she founded as a music class at Franklin High School in 1973.
The choir started with 108 African-American kids.
Today it’s six blacks and 24 whites, Wright says.
Wright steps out to the front porch and points to the big house catty-corner from hers where Seattle’s Black Panther Party was born.
The family of the African-American real estate agent who sold her the house all those years ago still owns the property behind hers.
Wright points there and there and there.
Every one of the houses around this intersection was owned by an African American back in the day.
Wright’s situation is bittersweet. She still owns property in the CD, and it’s worth substantially more than the $17,000 she and her husband paid for it in 1968.
But even the living room’s side window looks back to happier days.
Every Sunday, at exactly 9 a.m., Mr. and Mrs. Davis, African-American neighbors, would stroll by Wright’s house and wave at her as they headed to their church about a block away, and that’s how Wright knew it was time to get dressed and head to her own worship service.
“Now it’s just five of us,” Wright says of the dwindling black population in her immediate neighborhood. “It used to be so friendly. We watched out for each other’s children. We used to take care of each other — and with a tremendous amount of love and respect.”
Wright’s husband was raised in Seattle in a house that used to stand by the intersection of 21st and Fir.
“His home is now a cracker-box apartment,” Wright says with a sneer.
Her husband’s old church at 17th and Fir: “It’s an apartment building now,” she says.
She gets up and heads to the kitchen, then returns seconds later with a tall, rectangular box of saltines to demonstrate the general shape and cramped design of the new buildings cropping up all over the CD.
Wright says annual property taxes have nearly doubled in recent years to around $5,000, and expenses like monthly house bills further strain the budget.
“Most of us are ashamed to admit that we can’t afford our places anymore,” Wright says of the few older black homeowners living on fixed incomes who remain. “The utilities are killing me.”
TO BE BLACK in Seattle requires an ability to hold your own in mostly white spaces, a tolerance for curious stares and ill-considered comments when you just want to fit in, and a gift for drawing cultural sustenance from the most fleeting of moments. You have to get used to representing not just your own idiosyncrasies as a person but an entire race. It can be draining work, and it can detract from the obvious benefit of living in a region with good-paying jobs, a mix of lifestyles and otherwise easygoing people.
A head nod and wave, a gesture of mutual acknowledgment between African Americans that has been passed down through generations, can mean a lot under these circumstances.
This winter and spring, Metro buses carried a beguiling poster for a Seattle Art Museum exhibit featuring the florid portraits of African Americans painted by black artist Kehinde Wiley.
For the time it takes to pick up a passenger, Wiley’s “Morpheus,” a languid portrait of a young black male on a backdrop of flowers, stared back at anyone who caught the subject’s gaze, briefly filling a void that runs deep but can be difficult to explain.
Among those who’ve known the CD all their lives, the slightest suggestion can touch off a flight back to the good ol’ days, when black barber shops served as chummy debate societies; when there were enough black folks to line both sides of 23rd during the Black Community Festival parade; and when people could walk down the street and see a little bit of their heritage, struggles, triumphs and hopes reflected in the eyes of their neighbors.
Say “Quincy,” and flash back to the teenage Quincy Jones delivering papers and attending Garfield High School in the CD or playing his first gig at the age of 14 at the East Madison Street YMCA or studying his buddy and mentor Ray Charles’ Braille musical arrangements or bebopping all night long in one of the dozens of black and mixed clubs along Jackson with Charles and Ernestine Anderson at his side.
Say “Jimi” to Wright, and she’s likely to pull from her scrapbook a picture of her singing at the funeral of another former Garfield student, Jimi Hendrix, in 1970.