04-13-2024  6:18 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
The Seattle Griot Project's new Washington State Black Legacy Institute is housed in the former Sanctuary at Admiral building in West Seattle.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 29 December 2023

A year ago, the folks at the Seattle Griot Project introduced The Skanner to a developing blueprint for cities looking to preserve local Black history, neighborhood by neighborhood. 

seattle griot expands introRoger EvansCurator Roger Evans told The Skanner that the organization has “been in turbo mode this year,” acquiring an impressive permanent space that used to house a Christian Science church, and fundraising to purchase it outright.

The group continues to combine analog resources with digital technology – including AI – to best exhibit Black history in the Pacific Northwest. The growing interactive museum and community space has resources for new archivists and interviewers who might be looking to explore their own families’ pasts. 

Evans sat down with The Skanner to talk about Black history in the Pacific Northwest, the unexpected treasures that can be found among elders’ personal archives and how digital literacy is the key to preservation. 


How has the Seattle Griot Project grown since we last spoke?

This year, on top of interviews, we’ve added to our profile. We bought a 9,000-square-foot building up in West Seattle, which we have formally titled the Washington State Black Legacy Institute.

The environment is going to be the display case, so to speak, of what the Griot project is collecting, what they’re amassing, what they’re getting ready to tell the story of the Pacific Northwest and I hate to say it, it includes Oregon too, because we’re talking about the Oregon territories, when Blacks made migration over here in 1844. So it covers all of Oregon, all of Washington, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho – we're talking about six states. We have been collecting and putting together that story to be spoken in this environment. 

We have a mobile exhibition, the roving museum. We have created 11 banners that represent eight pioneers, a timeline and a preface that outlines what we do. The banners have primary Black pioneers from Spokane to Bremerton. There’s a timeline that talks about the evolution of our liberties and the milestones, ways we became more and more capable of creating a normal lifestyle for Black communities.

The eight pioneers that we have, we grabbed their pictures from online. So they were pretty poor quality. Within our environment we’re using AI tools. So we’ve AI-enhanced these people and they look like photographs now. It’s just fabulous – it’s creepy how real they look.

We’re trying to make those pioneers almost have this prestigious look, like if you were in the Arctic Club or something like that, in this environment. We had the images created and printed on canvas, we actually have them as portraits. They’re framed and they’ll be on the wall, like CEOs of a company. 

Then also we’re starting to do some digital literacy training, as well as some more elaborate training. We’re going to teach people who can come through our community courses for free.

We need to re-skill our community.

We’re partnering with some Masonic orders, other orders that are (working on) anything from domestic violence to digital heritage. We’ve partnered with Evergreen College in Tacoma, they’re doing a Kitsap County Griot Project and we’re showing them some of the tools we’re using. We’re going to share those resources again so we can have this as a successful endeavor. 


Why did you feel digital literacy was an important educational offering?

As we were collecting, we found that at least in Washington state, roughly 22% of Black families still don’t have an adequate computer system within their homes. So our efforts, being digital as they were, were not going to be effective in 22% of our community. So we had to think, how do we off-set? How do we augment our efforts to be more proficient, so we can reach these populations?

We had to create programming and initiatives that would address those efforts. I sat down and talked with my staff, my crew, my partners, and we evolved the vision and expanded it.

We have several different levels of programming – digital literacy, financial literacy. That is our five-year goal.


How are you making the new Washington State Black Legacy Institute accessible to the community?

We’ve designated an area where people can come in and do research on their families. They can access a scanner, a computer, our database. We’re kind of setting it up almost like a study hall environment, with the opportunity to skate into being a presentation and exhibition environment as well.

It’s a huge building, glorious-looking. It has a lot of open spaces for community. I have a church coming in here every Sunday to do services. This is a space to engage our community. 

It’s a three-floor building, with a sanctuary on the main floor we have formally titled the Hall of Pioneers. There is a theater, workshops, classrooms, offices. The building was built in 1929, so it kind of carries the same heritage as some of the recent pioneers that we’re talking about.

There’s all these little stories sitting in a tapestry, and it’s not in the school books so our children don’t get it. So what we have to do here at the Legacy Institute is we have to almost design a curriculum so that we can infuse this level of Black history into our children. 


What have you learned about historic preservation in the past year?

I found more of my family history. I traced my great-grandfather back to 1869, where he was born, and then I found his parents. 

As far as what I’ve learned, all of the people that have come and stayed here at some point intersect in their lives. I was just looking in a paper the other day, from 1968, and not only did it have mention of one of the people we did an interview with, but also a relative of mine, and then a relative of another person who works on staff with our organization – all on the same page. It just tells you how integrated our community is if you go back far enough. I have found that everyone who keeps anything of that Black history, will find other people in the community where it touches their lives as well. 

Everybody’s information that they collect is necessary to tell what (co-founder) Clyde (Merriwether) calls the tapestry of our story.


What artifacts or documents have you recently acquired that help tell the story of Seattle’s Black legacy?

We have the Who’s Who in Washington State, and that book was representative of a lot of the local businesses in the Black community in the early 20s. The book was produced in 1926…they did an exhaustive census, they did an accounting of both churches and fraternities, of Masonic orders. Not only people’s names and where they came from, but a lot of times their addresses and their phone numbers at the time. This little book was in very limited print. We were lucky, we have been blessed to be exposed to three people’s versions of it. We’re creating a digital version that will look as good as the original, and people will have access to that and any other documents that validate this culture and community.

As much as Black people love to praise Black Wall Street (in Tulsa, Okla.)

What that book does is it tells us in some form or fashion that we had our own Black Wall Street up here in the Pacific Northwest.

People were doing anything from hotels to drug stores to hardware stores. 

We had gone down to Tulsa twice this year. People are praising that environment because they had so many Black-owned businesses, but they totally overlooked the Pacific Northwest because for one thing, we really don’t keep an account like we need to. 

There was a secondary book, called Cayton’s Yearbook, which Horace Cayton had put together. His book basically parallels on the business side the same efforts they were talking about with the Who’s Who of Washington State. They kind of validate each other. Horace Cayton’s was from 1930, so it’s the same time period.

We’re finding evidence, and it’s taking time. I know the more we explore people’s homes, the more fabulous stuff we find – just treasures.

That’s part of what we’ve been captivated by, because the information is there, we just didn’t realize it. Now that we come into the realization, I think we’re starting to get people to recognize what we do. We’ve been doing it for three years now, and I think we really got people awake when we bought the building. We’re getting buzz now. 

For more information, visit theseattlegriotproject.com.

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