African American heritage in Washington goes back to the territorial era, with the arrival of Black pioneers who settled in both rural and urban areas. In 1845, George W. and Isabella James Bush and their five sons left Missouri and settled in south Puget Sound in an area now known as Bush Prairie.
Seattle’s earliest African American resident was Manuel Lopes, who came originally from Cape Verde and worked in the Atlantic whaling trade before arriving in Seattle in 1852, where he worked as a restaurateur and barber. Entrepreneur William Grose came to Seattle in 1861, establishing a hotel near the waterfront and later buying a large ranch property above the Madison Valley east of downtown.
In the 1880s and 1890s, African Americans from the South were recruited to work in the coal mines of the Pacific Northwest, in towns such as Roslyn, Newcastle and Franklin. Although discrimination limited employment for Blacks in many industries and professions, the region offered opportunities for land ownership and economic improvement.
Two distinct African American neighborhoods developed in Seattle, in the East Madison area and the Yesler–Jackson area, and these eventually grew together to form the Central District or Central Area, as it is known today. Churches, fraternal organizations and social clubs established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to serve the community.
World War II brought a tremendous increase in the Pacific Northwest’s African American population, as workers seeking well-paying jobs in the shipyards and other defense industries migrated to the region. Seattle’s jazz music scene flourished. Yesler Terrace became the first racially integrated public housing in the nation in 1940, and the following decades brought many “firsts” for Black workers in industry, nursing, teaching and other fields.
In 1967, Sam Smith became the first African American to serve on the Seattle City Council, and in 1968 an open housing ordinance was finally approved. In recent years, immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and several West African nations have established vibrant neighborhoods on First Hill and in Southeast Seattle, enriching existing communities and adding new cultural traditions to Seattle’s ethnic heritage.