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Wing Luke Museum exhibit explores Seattle’s legacy of redlining

Documenting Seattle’s racist past—and planning for the future

National Archives, Seattle Public Library online collections/Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum

In Seattle—and across the country—redlining has had a lasting impact on communities of color. In a broader sense, redlining refers to literal boundaries drawn to keep people of color out of neighborhoods, areas, even entire cities. This takes a lot of forms, though: discriminatory mortgage lending, racially restrictive neighborhood covenants, and even entire city laws, like one that banned Native Americans from entering Seattle entirely.

A new exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, “The Excluded, Inside the Lines,” commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1968 national Fair Housing Act and local Open Housing Act, which made discrimination against homebuyers of color illegal. It tells the stories of the communities made resilient by discrimination and exclusion, and the community leaders who fought to end redlining practices—but it also brings the narrative into the present day.

Seattle is particularly rife with racially restrictive covenants, some even still in place today. The 1968 laws technically make those covenants unenforceable, but redlining is very much in our cultural consciousness. As people of color were pushed into smaller areas, they built generations of close-knit communities. The exhibit also tells the story of leaders from these neighborhoods collaborating to promote resiliency, including the Jackson Street Community Council, which promoted strong small businesses and community services the 1940s, and the Seattle Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a key part of the Civil Rights movement.

It also built a lasting legacy of resistance—the Northwest African American Museum, El Centro de la Raza, and the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center were all built after citizen occupations. Another cross-cultural coalition known as Seattle’s Gang of Four—now-King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, Roberto Maestas, Bernie Whitebear, and Bob Santos—were at the forefront of creating the latter two.

Seattle’s Gang of Four demonstrate in Chinatown International District.
Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum

Those very communities are now at high risk of displacement and gentrification, pushing them further to the margins. In 1970, for example, the Central Area was 73 percent black—but now, that number has fallen below 20 percent, according to city data. With Seattle changing rapidly, part of the project is a longer-term way of telling these stories: partnering to create a “Redlining History and Culture Trail,” building a safe pathway that marks significant locations from the International District up through the Central District.

In a way, Wing Luke Museum is itself a monument to Seattle’s legacy of racism in housing. Its namesake was a city councilmember who was a strong advocate for open housing laws in Seattle. Luke had pushed for a law that would have banned housing discrimination five years before the federal Fair Housing Act, including an emergency clause that would put it into effect immediately—but only a watered-down version made it through city council, which was ultimately rejected by voters in a 1964 referendum with a two-to-one margin.

Luke died in a plane crash a year later—and it wasn’t until 1968, as civil rights legislation swept the country in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that the city council eventually passed a strong, municipal ordinance, a week after the Fair Housing Act was passed.

The exhibit, which is free to the public, is open March 8, 2019 through February 23, 2020.