The Donaldsons Stand Among Roslyn's Black Pioneers: Part 4
By Alisa Weis and Ryan Anthony Donaldson
Donaldson Presence in Seattle
This is the fourth part of a series on Roslyn’s Black Pioneers, made possible due to the diligent research of Lillian “Babe” (Donaldson) Warren and her husband Robert E. Williams through “The Donaldson Odyssey: Footsteps to Freedom” and the continued efforts of Donaldson family to bring their family history to light.
It might surprise some to learn that Manuel Lopes, a Black man, made his home in Seattle 10 years before the Civil War. Or that there was an African American man named York who contributed to the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveling down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast. Or that a Black man named George Washington is responsible for settling Centralia, Washington, with a monument, unveiled last year, commemorating him at Olympia’s Capitol Campus. Or that Nettie Asberry, a Black woman suffragist, was a co-founder of the Tacoma NAACP, the first chapter west of the Rockies. Until recent years, such history was left to the margins of history books if there was a mention at all.
Following the footsteps of these early founding pioneers, the Donaldsons migrated to Seattle at the beginning of the 20th century.
“There’s a belief that Black people don’t exist in the west,” Dr. Quintard Taylor said at the June 2022 book launch for his second edition of The Forging of a Black Community at the Seattle Public Library. He went on to say, “There are a lot of Black experiences, and they are as valid here as anywhere.”
From left: Horace and Susie Revels Cayton, ca. 1896. (Headlines and Pictures, July 1945)
Likewise, Horace and Susie Revels Cayton, cited by African American historian Esther Mumford in her seminal book Seattle’s Black Victorians as the “best known Aframericans in Seattle at the turn of the [20th] century,” played an important role in documenting the Donaldsons’ lives over a 20-year period.
The Caytons were among some of the most educated people in Seattle regardless of color, and yet they endured the racist constraints put upon them. Together in 1894 they first published the widely circulated The Seattle Republican. Utilizing informants and based on the Caytons’ travels through the area, every issue of their paper included a local Roslyn section, along with other Black pioneer towns and cities. In combing through the succinct summaries, interested family members or researchers can quickly gain insight into lives from the past, including trips, church functions and special events, as the Donaldsons have had the good fortune to do. Digitized versions of The Seattle Republican can be freely accessed on the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America.
The Caytons with their children composed one of two Black families to reside in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. According to African American historian Ralph Hayes, Dr. Taylor, and others, they lost some of their standing when their publication spoke out against the lynching occurring in other states. As soon as their reporting turned slightly political (emphasizing human rights), their business was made to suffer, with white readers cancelling subscriptions en masse. In 2021, the Cayton-Revels House was designated a City of Seattle Landmark in recognition of the family’s historical significance. The landmarks nomination, written by Taha Ebrahimi, is available online and provides an extensive background and further details on the Caytons and their children.
Though Washington is often hailed as a progressive state, some historical accounts will tell you that the Black tolerance might in part be because the African American population was so small for the first four decades of the 20th century. There are too many occasions of racial upheaval—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888, being one of them—to claim ethnicity had no bearing on where one stood in society. By the onset of World War I and the Great Migration, Seattle had more clearly defined norms for where non-white communities could frequent and reside. Prior unspoken “rules” dictated how non-white people could interact, socialize, and marry.
In his foundational work, Dr. Taylor chronicles the African American community from the 1870’s through the Civil Rights Movement. He said that the work he does as a historian involves refusing to “propagate American mythology that Black people haven’t done anything in the west.”
One need only look to the online resource center Dr. Taylor he oversees, BlackPast.Org, to comprehend the global experiences and contributions of hundreds of people with African Ancestry. With over 8,000 posts and growing, BlackPast.Org provides worldwide access as the largest web-based resource for African American history.
After Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889, opportunity abounded more for some people than others. With an influx of European immigrants moving to the region, competition grew for manual labor and service jobs. John Thomas Gayton, who arrived in Seattle as the coachman to a white doctor and his father at age 24, began his own business as a barber, then worked his way up to being a head steward and eventually a Federal Court Librarian. William Grose, Seattle’s second Black settler, became a prominent hotel and restaurant operator and property owner. While Gayton’s and Grose’s stories were successes, not all Black families experienced such an ascent up the ladder.
From left: Henry Donaldson and Lillian "Babe" Donaldson, ca. 1980s. (Donaldson Family).
Babe’s own father, Henry Donaldson, contributed to a video series called “The Forgotten Pioneers” for the Washington Centennial Ethnic Heritage Project. Airing in 1988 on KIRO, video producer and anchorwoman Nerissa Williams interviewed him about his experience growing up in Roslyn. He recounts the story of his father, General, traveling west when he was only 13 years old.
“I heard three train loads came out, and my dad came out on one of them,” Henry said. “No. 3 mine was the biggest mine is Roslyn, and that’s where they had all this trouble starting, and that’s when they brought the [Black miners] in.”
For decades coal was the desired commodity, and men toiled long and hard to extract it from the earth. Despite a contentious start where African American newcomers were often threatened, Black and white miners eventually formed a working relationship in the mines. One’s color was not of utmost importance when faced with the rigors of tilling the earth as a team, trying to stay clear from cave ins and other injuries.
As demand for coal subsided and Black families dispersed throughout the state, they found opportunities in other trades. Yet they were often limited by the “powers that be” by how far they could reach, where they could frequent, and where they could reside.
When Henry later lived in Seattle, his business – Donaldson’s House Contracting Co. – suffered from his African American customers facing financing barriers. “We couldn’t get loans or FHAs from the bank,” he said of the widespread discrimination.
There were also spoken and unspoken rules about which people could frequent businesses. For instance, Seattle’s Metropolitan Theater would only allow Black patrons to go to a separate box office and sit in the balcony. It was called “N---- Heaven” at the time. Seattle’s Moore Theatre still has the original segregated side door that once separated access for the theatre’s Black patrons. If a proprietor wanted to open a barbershop, they had to decide Black or white customers---it wasn’t acceptable to serve both.
“I’ve been to a lot of places that refused to serve you,” Henry said. “Of course, if I knew I wasn’t going to be served, I didn’t want to be embarrassed so I wouldn’t go in. You couldn’t go to a lot of shows. You couldn’t sit wherever you wanted to; you had to go where they put you.”
Henry Donaldson purchased a home for his family in Seattle by 1940, but as his daughter Babe tells it in The Donaldson Odyssey, “We were one of the first Black families to move into the neighborhood and were the subjects of racial harassment both day and night. Some of the neighbors wasted no time in putting their homes up for sale.”
This trend of “white flight” is well documented through the mid 20th century. Lenora Bentley said that her mother was a white woman who claimed she was “mulatto” so she wouldn’t have to explain why she’d married a Black man. Her mother and her aunt, Babe, bought two respective homes in Seattle around 28th Avenue South and Dearborn Street in the early 1950’s. She said, “They both looked white. When their husbands, who are Black, showed up later, all the whites eventually moved out.”
Though Seattle is often credited for not having segregated schools, Donaldson family members will tell you integrated schools had more to do with the low percentage of Black students in the region than a sense of justice or progressiveness of the times. African American students experienced unequal treatment from an early age.
Lenora recalls an occasion when her father, whose skin appeared darker than her own, arrived at her school, doing his job as an employee of Seattle Disposal. As he was on his way out, “Dad hollered at me. When I said, ‘hi Daddy,’ a little white boy said, ‘is that n---- your daddy?”
“I beat that boy up for saying that, and they kicked me out of school because of it,” Lenora said, meanwhile alluding to the fact that her classmate wasn’t corrected for his racist remarks. Not even a slap on the hand.
From left: Al “Butch” Smith with his son Greg, posing in front of Al Smith’s photograph of Isabelle “Izzy” (Donaldson) Smith, at the “Perspectives on Place: Photographs from Here” exhibition at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), May 26, 2022. (Ryan Anthony Donaldson)
Butch Smith, son to Isabelle “Izzy” Donaldson and renowned African American photographer Al Smith, recalls what it was like to grow up in the “segregated redline district” of Seattle. He didn’t often consider the limitations placed upon African Americans until realizing that only Black doctors would treat him. He was sixteen years old before he saw a white doctor for the first time.
In reflecting on his father’s photography, which captures the spirit of the Central District Al resided in for all 92 years of his life, Smith said, “He knew down deep what needed to be documented.” He recalls the “magic” of assisting his father with images in the dark room and waiting to see what would materialize. Al couldn’t have known how many of his photographs from his “On the Spot” business would stand the test of time. Some of his photographs are currently on display at the Smithsonian’s traveling “Negro Motorist Green Book” exhibit, as part of the art collection on display at the Jackson Apartments in Seattle’s Central District, and forming part of the Interview Wall at Black-owned Emmy award-winning media company Converge Media’s studio in downtown Seattle.
As evidenced from Smith’s body of work, the Central District night clubs were diverse and integrated. Jackson Street was regarded as the city’s melting pot. In group photos, you’ll find whites alongside Native Americans, Asians, and African Americans. The photographs prove that despite unspoken societal restrictions and active suppression, there were places where interracial acceptance, friendship, and love was revered and encouraged. While photographs taken at community venues such as the Black and Tan Hall don’t eradicate the problems and pitfalls outside those walls, they instead showcase a community willing to disrupt the status quo (Black & Tan Hall | Seattle, WA (blackandtanhall.com).
It might surprise some to realize that Washington is the only western state without an anti-miscegenation ban. Whereas there was a short-lived ban on interracial marriage when Washington was a territory back in 1855, the ban was eradicated in 1868, revisited in 1935 and overturned again. But simply because there wasn’t a legal jurisdiction didn’t mean that love across color lines was commonly accepted. The Donaldsons would know, having been a biracial family since the nineteenth century.