Is local history too white?

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tags: Native Americans, Washington, white settlers



Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Gray Matters column for Seattle magazine and is an occasional guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM(94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at knute.berger@crosscut.com or follow him on twitter @KnuteBerger.

If you travel the state and visit local historical societies, you’ll notice that “history” tends to begin with the arrival of white settlers and extend to perhaps one or two generations back. With rare exceptions, the histories of immigrants, people of color, and Native Americans are relegated to the background if not overlooked entirely. If local museums and historical societies are to reflect what is happening here in recent decades, they’ll have to vastly broaden their scope. For some, that will be essential to survival in the 21st century.

A recent event in the city of Kent, Washington underscored the challenges and opportunities of broadening who gets to write and record local history.

King County is growing rapidly and accounts for nearly half (48 percent) of all population growth in Washington. The lion’s share are people of color, including immigrants and refugees. Kent, in South King County, is a ground zero for this kind of change. It is the third largest city in the county after Bellevue, and the sixth largest in Washington. It is a former farm town, founded along the White River in the mid-19th century, and later became a Boeing suburb — the aerospace company is still the largest employer. It also has home prices far less than Seattle or the Eastside.

In 1990, Kent was nearly 90 percent white. It became a majority minority community in 2010, according to figures provided by the city. Only about a third of kids in Kent schools are Caucasian and an estimated 138 languages are spoken there, after English predominantly Spanish, Russian, Somali, Punjabi and Vietnamese.

If the immigrant story of the 19th and early 20th Century was largely told of, by and for white Europeans, the narrative now features a greater variety of voices and peoples from around the world. Outgoing Kent mayor Suzette Cooke says that the city’s 125th anniversary in 2015 made her aware that their history needed major updating to reflect the new demographic reality of the city.




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