November 24, 1985: The Colman School Occupation

Seattle's Northwest African American Museum
Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum

Seattle’s Colman School, located in Rainier Valley and built in 1909, stood out for many years as a symbol for the city’s African-American community due to the distinction of being the first school in Seattle attended by black students, as well as having hired many black teachers. When it was closed by the Seattle School District in June 1985 due to the impending expansion of neighboring Interstate 90, many felt the building should have been converted into a black history museum — an idea which had first been proposed in 1981. When a city government task force formed to discuss the idea went in the direction such endeavors often go — namely, nowhere — a group of African-American community activists began, on the date in focus here, a direct-action occupation of the building as a means of forcing the issue forward.

The activists, numbering roughly forty, entered the building, located at 24th Avenue South and South Atlantic Street, through a window that had been broken earlier by vandals. The building had lights, but no heat and no running water. Charlie James, spokesman for the activists, said, “We understand it’s going to be cold and uncomfortable, but we have a mission to accomplish.”

The main roadblocks to the activists’ stated goal of claiming the Colman School for the proposed museum were much more bureaucratic than ideological in nature. While many in Seattle’s city government, including Mayor Charles Royer, openly supported the museum in principle, the Seattle School District was at the time negotiating with the Washington State Department of Transportation for the transfer of the property from the city to the state. Thus, the acquisition of the building was a much more complicated legal task than it would have been had the land still been simply owned by the city. The immediate goal of the occupation was to let the city know that the activists were serious about claiming the school as the ideal location for the museum.

While the school district warned the group about the illegality of the occupation, it refused to arrest or evict the activists for fear of bad publicity. Four of the activists — Charlie James, Earl Debnam, Michael Greenwood, and Omari Tahir — would continue to occupy the school for eight years, making their action the longest act of civil disobedience in U.S. history to date.

The occupation finally ended in 1993 when the Seattle city government at long last agreed to fund the museum. The dream soon became deferred when the activists found themselves at odds with a group of mainstream local black civic leaders who wanted to use their clout in city hall to carry the project forward. It would thus be another ten years of lawsuits and bad blood before Seattle’s Urban League was able to buy the building from the Seattle School District for $800,000. The final result of the Colman School occupation, the Northwest African American Museum, part of a complex that also contains 36 apartments dedicated as affordable housing, opened on March 8, 2008.

Sources: “African-American Museum Task Force Formed,” The Seattle Medium, February 13, 1985, p. 4; Kathleen Klein and Mary Rothschild, “Goal of sit-in: a black museum,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 26, 1985, p. D1; Charles E. Brown, “Activists move in at old school,” The Seattle Times, November 26, 1985, p. B1; Kathleen Klein, “Museum supporters plan to stay at school,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 27, 1985, p. D1; “Blacks refusing to vacate school,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 1985, p. D1; Chris Bennett and Connie Cameron, “If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When? Says Activist,” The Seattle Medium, December 4, 1985, p. 1; Connie Cameron, “The Takeover At Colman: A Noble Idea And A Just Cause,” The Seattle Medium, December 4, 1985, p. 6; Jack Broom, “School is transformed into museum, housing,” The Seattle Times, January 11, 2008, p. B; Trevor Griffey, “A Dream Fulfilled,” Colors Northwest magazine, March 2008, p. 18; Charlie James, “The complete history of Seattle’s newest museum,” The Seattle Times, March 20, 2008, p. B9.

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