Photo: Black Panthers demonstrating at federal courthouse, Seattle, 1969. Tom Barlet, Courtesy MOHAI (1986.5.52268.2)
In 1948 Ray Charles was an unknown, blind musician who’d been in Seattle for only about a year. That was also when Charles got his first big break, a gig at the Elks Lodge. The Lodge is where Black soldiers went to party, since they weren’t welcome anywhere else. It’s also a place where the likes of James Brown could be spotted. Seattle gave Ray Charles a personal first but the city has a long list of Black firsts, also.
Seattle is located in King County, which got its first Black resident in 1858 — Manuel Lopes — who was one of the city’s first barbers. The first Black church in the Washington Territory was established in Seattle in 1886, First African American Episcopal. On August 28, 1963 — the same day as the March on Washington — the Seattle Public School District became the first major system in the country to initiate a voluntary desegregation plan (and it was the first to successfully desegregate). In 1973 Bill Russell became the NBA’s first Black coach/general manager, ultimately leading the Seattle Supersonics to their first playoff berth in the 1974-1975 season. Russell was the first Black coach to win a championship while still in Boston but Lenny Wilkins became the first Black (non-player) coach to win a championship, when he did so with the Supersonics, in 1979.
In 1986 Ron Sims became the first African American elected to the King County Council. Soon after election, Sims embarked on an unusual, bold and potentially risky campaign. There are a great many ways in which various localities honor Black heroes but Sims wanted to push the envelope a bit further. Sims wanted to rename King County — the most populous county in the state– for Dr. Martin Luther King. Three years later Norman Rice became the city’s first Black mayor but in 2005 Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law State Senate Bill 5332. As a result, King County was officially renamed Martin Luther King Junior County.