Munro: Olympia’s African American Trailblazers

Ralph Munro, Secretary of State   1980-2001 resident of Olympia since 1966

Secretary Munro offered following remarks at a First United Methodist Church in Olympia on January 29, 2012 in recognition of their life’s work to further civil rights in Thurston County.

Olympia was a different place in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s.  Much smaller: state government only had a couple thousand employees. The Legislature came to town for 60 days every second year. There was no freeway. There were no pizza parlors. Many things were different.

Old Highway 99, the Pacific Coast Highway, came down the 4th Avenue hill.  When you reached Capitol Way, you turned left if you were headed for Portland and kept going straight if you wanted to go to Aberdeen or the ocean beaches.

Hundreds of families would travel down from Seattle and  Tacoma on the weekends to eat oysters at Ode Huston’s restaurant on Mud Bay or the Oyster House, downtown on the tide flats.

Tumwater held the biggest business in south Sound—the Olympia Brewing Company, owned by the Schmidt family. “It’s the Water’

And little Lacey was known for its racetrack, golf course and St Martins college.

The entire area was ‘off limits’ to Negro soldiers or airmen from McChord Air Base or Fort Lewis.

There were four African Americans in town……one fellow who worked at the brewery, one as a mechanic downtown, one as a window washer for businesses on main street and one domestic.

No one thought or talked about racism because there was hardly anyone to be racist towards.

Representative Charlie Stokes, a Republican from Seattle, was the only Negro in the Legislature and he had no staff..

When Democrat Sam Smith replaced Charlie, he convinced the Caucus to hire two black students to work in the bill room during the legislative sessions……………Mel Dodd and Duane Browning.  Mel and I lived together, off and on, for several years.

The only other Negro in the Legislative building was the shoe shine man on the third floor.

That was when I discovered how racist Olympia could be: Phone calls in the night: ’are you the guy who lives with the n—- ’………….’he’s the first n—- to live in this neighborhood’… click

One night when we were having dinner in Ben Moore’s café, a fellow at an adjoining table challenged us. ’would you and those two n—-s like to fight your way out of here tonight’.

That was the Olympia that John Grace arrived to.

John was born in Perry, Georgia in 1931. Before he arrived here, he had already graduated from the Georgia Academy for the Blind, and the School for Piano Technology in Vancouver, Washington. He arrived in South Sound on the bus on October 15, 1962 and found a room at the old Governor Hotel[.]

John opened his piano shop at 215 Capitol Way, as time went by and soon his reputation flourished as people recognized that he was the best in town, when it came to pianos.

John was the same then as he is now.  A friendly, outgoing fellow, who walked all over town and made friends on every corner. Although totally blind, he seldom used his cane, and he met many folks who just stopped to help him across the street. His music made him an ambassador for friendship and he was the first Negro to cross the threshold of many Caucasian owned homes.

John would take the bus to Portland on Sunday mornings to go to church.  He was not welcome in Olympia churches even though they always called on him to tune their pianos.  As time went by, he and some others decided it was time for ‘their’ church in Olympia and on the first Sunday in June, 1975, New Life Baptist Church was born at the YWCA.  John was the one who gave the church its name.

So today we honor John Grace, Olympia’s first black business owner in our times and a true ambassador of friendship for our community.

Virgil Clarkson was born in Houston, Texas. Although not part of the ‘deep south’ Texas was fully segregated. He graduated from Texas Southern University, a black institution of higher learning, in 1953 with a degree in Math and Physics.   He was inducted into the Army  and sent to Europe to serve his country. It was there that he accidentally met Dr. Martin Luther King one evening, when he had traveled across the Atlantic to receive his Nobel Prize.

Virgil mustered out of the Army in 1965 at Fort Lawton in Seattle, and saw a job opening with the State Department of Natural Resources in Olympia. His friends urged him not to apply.  They knew the Olympia was a racist town.

Virgil applied and was accepted. He was hired by Gene Little, a member of the First United Methodist church.

On his second day here, he went looking for other Negroes in the community,  and discovered that there weren’t any. He checked the train station, the bus station, the downtown area, none that he could find.  He realized then that he was the first, or one of the first

When a better job opened up at the State Department of Highways, he applied.  Virgil soon realized that the Highway Department had 6000 employees and only six of them were African American.  One was Jim Wilson, who became a lifetime friend.

Things were not always pleasant.  One morning he opened his desk drawer and found a carefully tied and prepared noose laying on top of his paperwork.  Around the same time, Jim Wilson opened a drawer in his desk and found human feces inside.  The threats were subtle but direct.

Virgil found that he was not welcome in any of the local Baptist churches and because of friends who welcomed him, became a member of the First United Methodist Church, where he remains an active member today.

His accomplishments are many.  Founder of ‘open housing ordinances’ for Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater, and Thurston County.  Active member of Kiwanis, leader of the Elks clubs, active in the opera society, five times on the Lacey Council, three times as Mayor, 20 years as member and chair of the Selective Service Board, on the Fair Board. The list goes on and on.

Virgil, the First United Methodist church is proud to have you as a member.

When Lynden Johnson began his first elected term of office, he declared a ‘war’ on poverty.  Money flowed to the states to open up offices and hire organizers to ‘fight poverty at the local level.’

The state office of Economic Opportunity was located on the second floor of the Hotel Olympian, on Legion Street in downtown Olympia.  They began to hire minorities and urged other state agencies to do so as well.

The deputy director for the office was John Finley from Yakima. He and his lovely wife Sylvia moved to the capitol city and began looking for a home.  The only house in Olympia that the realtors would show him was the little red house on Water Street that is now the ‘Swing’ restaurant.  That home had no neighbors.

They eventually found a home in Lacey.

John worked hard and Sylvia volunteered to help get the first library started for the Lacey community.  The local Moose Club heard of her work and invited her to one of their meetings to accept their thanks and a check to help the library grow.

It was a dark and rainy night, when Sylvia Finley was to visit the club and accept the check.  When she arrived at the door on Pacific Avenue, the club members realized that she was a Negro and she was denied entrance to the building.

Racism seemed to be everywhere.  Cities were erupting with protests, fires and anger. Militant blacks stormed into our Governor’s office in the Legislative Building and turned over every desk, emptied the files on the floor and defiantly told the staff: ’we’ll be back!’

Headlines screamed from Tacoma, Seattle, Pasco, Portland of the protests and confrontations.  Fires were set in our central cities and when the fire trucks rolled from the station, their all white teams of firefighters were shot at.

It was an awful time.

In the midst of it all, a courageous woman stepped forward to ask a question.  ‘Why isn’t every child, a wanted child?’ Why can’t I as the proven mother of four wonderful children, adopt a minority child who waits and waits for a family.

Barbara Babcock Dolliver was born and raised in Auburndale, Massachusetts.  After high school graduation, she decided to attend Swarthmore College and it was there that she met her husband to be James Dolliver.

The traveled together to follow Jim’s dream of working in a National Park in the American West and ended up in Everett, Washington.  Jim was a deputy prosecutor and active in politics.  They both ‘hooked their star’ to a young legislator from Seattle named Dan Evans and followed him to the Governor’s office where Jim became the Chief of Staff in 1965.

Barbara was a homemaker, a good mother and a school volunteer.  She raised Beth, James, Peter and Keith and as the civil rights wars broke out, she decided to step into the fray in her own way.

Barbara decided to speak up for women’s rights and to ‘legitimize adoption of a minority child’   There were no press releases, no public statements, no announcements on the courthouse steps.

No, instead, one day she just appeared to us all with a new baby.  And as we unwrapped the little baby blanket over this precious child’s face. We all realized what she had done.

Barbara Babcock Dolliver had broken the barrier.  This wonderful little bundle of joy was a Negro child.  And I must say, that Jennifer was the sweetest baby that I have ever seen.

Barbara, the First United Methodist church is honored by your presence. And finally, two of the finest people in the world.  We will present them together.

thelma

Thelma Ann Harrison was born in Mobile, Alabama and graduated from Blount High School. From there she decided to seek a bio chemistry degree at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  In her sophomore year she met Nathaniel Jackson and they were married in 1966 at the Friendship Baptist Church.

Nat was from Lillie, Louisiana and while attending Southern University, he fell head over heels in love with Thelma.  He was an activist and found himself in Chicago in 1965, helping to organize a rally at the huge Soldiers Field for Dr. Martin Luther King.  Marion Anderson was there to sing, Dick Gregory to tell jokes, and Dr King to speak.

When he returned to college, he accepted a job working for the Southwest Alabama Farmers Co-op and was assigned to Marion, Alabama, in the heart of the ‘old south.’  Marion was the hometown of Coretta King, Dr. King’s wife.  His challenge was to organize a visit of Dr. King to Marion.

He soon found that a job that should be easy, was darn tough. Many blacks did not want Dr. King to come.  Things were peaceful and some didn’t want to ‘rock the boat.’  One black man at a local church organizing meeting challenged him.’

‘What are you n—- s up to’

’Things are fine here’

Nat and his team prevailed.  Dr. King did come…the crowd was large, the message was good.

Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated 60 days later.

Thelma Jackson was recruited to come to Richland, Washington to work as a research scientist  for Battelle Northwest. Nat followed her here and took a job working with black youth in the adjoining city of Pasco.  Soon they both found themselves involved in numerous community activities and they met Art Fletcher, the founder of the East Pasco Co-op and later a national civil rights leader.

Nat Jackson was recruited to come to Olympia, Washington to work with the State office of Economic Opportunity in Olympia.

They bought a house in Lacey and Thelma became involved in the Lydia Hawk Elementary School PTA.  She later became their President and she committed her life to seeking equality through education.

Thelma was elected to the North Thurston School Board, and subsequently has served as President for five terms.  She was active in the State School Directors Associations and became their president.  She has served as chair of the Evergreen State College Board of Trustees, first Chair of the Washington Legislative Ethics Board, as a member of the State Advisory Committee on Vocational Education, the League of Women voters. The list goes on and on. She is the mother of three beautiful children and the grandmother of four.

Nat worked on extending affirmative action as a statewide issue, went on Governor Evans’ personal staff setting goals for minorities and women, helped to establish the office of Minority in Women’s Rights, and was a founder of New Life Baptist Church.

Nathaniel and Thelma Jackson have made southern Puget Sound a better place to live.  The First United Methodist church is pleased to honor them today.

I asked each of our honorees who else helped.  Who were the Olympia heroes of this effort?  The names that they gave me are as follows:

Jim and Barbara Dolliver

Warren Flanigan of the Olympia School District

Gene Little of the Methodist church and the Department of Natural Resources

Gil Olson of Reliable Steel

Percy Bean of Olympia Hardware

First United Methodist Church

New Life Baptist, after it was formed by Henry Marshall

YWCA

George Barner, retired County Commissioner and now Port Commissioner

Al Thompson, a local realtor

Virgil Adams, a local realtor

This is a bit of history about some of my heros.

 

 

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