Seattle builds Northwest African American Museum

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SEATTLE — Gray and green may be the colors most associated with this forward-focused city, but it has a history in other tones, too. Chinese immigrants helped build railroads, only to be driven out later. Japanese residents were forced into internment camps during World War II. Blacks surged into the city after the war for work. Hispanics are the fastest-growing group.

This year, two new museums and a new traditional gate marking the city’s Chinatown will be completed, formally acknowledging the role minority groups have played in shaping Seattle and the region — even as those roles are changing. The new touchstones will meet dueling misperceptions: that the city has had a bland racial past and that tolerance and unity are among the local natural resources.

“If it’s a nice place, it’s not because it’s always been a nice place,” said James N. Gregory, director of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington. “It’s because people fought like hell to make things better. It’s kind of an annoying local mythology: ‘Oh, Seattle doesn’t have problems. It doesn’t have racial problems. That’s just the South.’ ”

In fact, the locations of the new museums — the Northwest African American Museum at the edge of the Central District and the newly expanded Wing Luke Asian Museum in what is now called the International District — are directly linked to the city’s troubled racial history. The neighborhoods became concentrated with minorities beginning in the 19th century because discriminatory housing policies prevented Asians, blacks and other groups from living elsewhere.

[HNN Editor: The architect of record for the Northwest African American Museum is DKA, one of Washington State’s largest minority-owned firms (it's named for Donald King, the President/CEO). The museum is located in a refurbished school that had long been boarded up. Rico Quirindongo, the project architect, has been working on the dream of turning the school into an African American museum since he was a graduate student and wrote his thesis about it.]

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