Diversity and Democracy

A City Learns its Civil Rights History while a University Learns New Ways to Engage Students

Three years ago we initiated a project that has both transformed the way we teach and educated our city about its forgotten history. What began as a research-based experiment in teaching the history of the local civil rights movement has evolved into the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, an innovative Web archive based at the University of Washington. The project offers a model for giving undergraduate students research experience and publishing opportunities, for exploiting the digital revolution and bringing historical research to broad publics and K-12 classrooms, and for connecting universities to the communities they serve. 

Seattle's Forgotten Past

Cities in the Northwestern United States have unique civil rights histories that are often unfamiliar to their residents. In Seattle, organized struggles for racial justice began with Native peoples and Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s and have expanded to include the community’s many racial and ethnic groups. In the 1940s, Seattle’s civil rights activists began to challenge segregation, winning a battle to force Boeing to hire minority workers, picketing stores and restaurants that refused to serve Asian and black customers, and convincing the legislature to pass a fair employment law. A new wave of activism in the 1960s exposed continuing patterns of segregation and secured major breakthroughs.

Seattle’s current social climate reflects those generations of civil rights battles. The city and surrounding county remain 70 percent white, with Asian Americans constituting 14 percent, Latinos 7 percent, African Americans 6 percent, and American Indians 1 percent of the population. But Seattle is less segregated than many metropolitan areas, and its minority communities have achieved some political victories. Although serious inequalities linked to race still plague the city, Seattle’s reputation for liberal social politics reflects the continuing alliances pioneered by Seattle’s civil rights movements.

Our project’s multimedia Web site brings this complicated history to life with several short films, dozens of original historical essays, more than eighty video oral histories, and more than 1,000 digitized photographs, documents, and newspaper articles. Students working in history and American ethnic studies courses have been largely responsible for this content. Their efforts have created the most complete set of online resources about civil rights movements in any city outside the south. 

Plugging Into Online Opportunities

The project began with a tiny budget and our determination to create an online resource that documented and publicized stories of civil rights activism in a city that had learned to forget its history of white supremacy. Community groups and students were immediately eager to help with the project. After eight months, we posted a preliminary version of the Web site and have steadily expanded the content since. Media attention and strong working relationships with prominent local activists helped us at every stage, as people in the community and students on campus volunteered to do research, share photographs, and publicize the project.

Web site design and management can be expensive, but does not have to be. We learned the basics of content management and have benefited from the advice of a graduate student who is a Web programmer. Grant-funded graduate students serve as associate editors, conducting oral histories, editing videos, and editing student papers for publication. Nearly 100 undergraduates have been involved in producing content. Students help with oral histories, conduct archival research, and digitize newspaper articles for the online databases. Most importantly, they write research papers that we publish on the Web site. This has been one of the project’s great innovations: we treat students as producers, not consumers, of knowledge.

Affecting Students and the Community

The potential for publication has dramatically improved the quality of undergraduate work. We encourage students to write with careful attention to narrative and accurate use of primary and secondary sources, and we publish only essays that meet high standards. Students rise to the challenge, and several articles have won widespread recognition. The Seattle Police Department has used one paper (on the history of efforts by the black community to stem police brutality) in its officer training program. Our students’ excitement has transformed our teaching and made us appreciate the great potential for public history projects to improve undergraduate learning.

The project has made a demonstrable public impact. Many area high schools and middle schools use the Web site as a teaching tool, and the project has appeared in instruction modules for city employees, police officers, union apprentices, and Teach for America volunteers. In a brief for the momentous recent Supreme Court decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the project’s contents were cited as proof that segregation’s widespread effects require continuing mediation. The legislature recently passed a law addressing another issue the project uncovered: the lingering effects of racially restrictive covenants in property deeds throughout the region.

The project has provided the students involved in its development with important professional experiences that are not standard in history programs. Students have learned to conduct research and oral histories. They have interacted with community groups and veterans of various civil rights campaigns. In some instances, this training has transformed students’ sense of themselves as cultural workers in their communities. By making the community our classroom and treating students as scholars, the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project illustrates how academic historians can produce history that makes a difference.

To view the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, visit www.civilrights.washington.edu

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Perspectives, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. The original article, “Teaching a City its Civil Rights History: A Public History Success Story,” is available online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0704/0704tea1.cfm

Historical Research for Contemporary Justice

Here are a few of the highlights of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project:

  • Eight UW members of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) created a unit called “The Chicano/a Movement in Washington State History Project.” Students interviewed over a dozen movement veterans, collected and digitized hundreds of rare newspaper articles, documents, and photos, and used these materials to write a detailed historical narrative. The result is one of the only online sources for learning about the history of the Chicano movement outside of California and the Southwest.
  • One team of students spent months researching restrictive covenants. Seattle, like most cities, was residentially segregated throughout most of its history. But unlike other cities, Seattle had deed restrictions that created a multiracial ghetto shared by African Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, and Jews. By combing through old property records, our researchers collected more than 400 restrictive covenants, enabling us to map the patterns of exclusion in a database.
  • Through our partnership with former leaders of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, we have created a comprehensive collection of online materials about the chapter. A dozen interviews with leaders and rank-and-file members form the core of the collection, which includes rare photographs, digitized newspaper articles, and newspapers published by the Seattle chapter.

—James N. Gregory and Trevor Griffey

James N. Gregory is a professor of history and director of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project; Trevor Griffey is a doctoral candidate in history and project coordinator of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project—both at the University of Washington.

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