That query was answered in some very different personal ways during a panel discussion last week called “From Pioneers to Mayors: Blacks in the West.” The program was hosted by the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, at the Northwest African American Museum in the historic Colman School building on Beacon Hill. The panel’s variety of responses was in itself the best answer to such a broad question, perhaps.
But one contradiction in the minds of blacks who migrated West seemed to resonate throughout the room, and it was illustrated in the story told by panelist Eddie Hill. He began with a wry quote from an African-American math professor retired from the UW: “White folks moved to Seattle to get away from black folks, and black folks moved to Seattle to get away from black folks.”
Hill got away from his family and community by leaving Chicago for the West Coast, but he paid a price for the distance he gained. Several generations of Hill’s family on his father’s side had belonged to the Chicago police force, and his mother’s people had been teachers in Chicago schools.
“In Chicago you did what your family did," he said. "Moving from my city violated the rules, and moving to Seattle meant giving up your history.” But moving away let him reinvent himself. “In San Diego, I became a surfer. In Oakland I was a painter.” In Olympia he became an organic farmer, and now in Seattle he’s an urban planner and designer. “There's a freedom allowed in the West that my Chicago family didn't and doesn't have.”
At the same time, Hill missed the strong sense of black community in Chicago. “In Olympia I asked people, ‘Where's the neighborhood?’ Folks in Seattle didn’t know there was a black history museum in Tacoma. They didn't know their history, the way we knew who we were and what was up in Chicago.” Now, through his urban planning work at Seattle’s Central District Displacement Network, he’s trying to build in Seattle some of what he had in the city of his birth but rejected 25 years ago.
So it turns out Hill couldn’t fully develop himself unless he reunited with — or at least imported some essential features of — the community he left behind. The great Ralph Ellison said that white people can’t become whole, either, unless they connect with the black community they so often disown — but Thursday night there wasn’t time to talk about that.
A sense of place, a sense of self, ties and ruptures: Such themes wove throughout the evening’s conversation. Hill was joined by Rev. Phyllis Beaumonte, education chairwoman of the Washington state NAACP chapter; Professor Darrell Milner of Portland State University; Kibibi Monie, executive director of Nu Black Arts West Theatre; and panel presider Professor Quintard Taylor of the UW.