Exploring racial segregation, historical memory of Seattle

An old black and white photo showing a dirty road and wooden storefronts.
Historic photo of Seattle, courtesy of UW Special Collections

Author Megan Asaka asks her readers to think about who is retained in the historical memory surrounding the settlement and growth of the city and what is at stake when other groups are erased from the story. She explores these questions in her book Seattle from the Margins: Exclusion, Erasure, and the Making of a Pacific Coast City and in an upcoming presentation at Washington State University at 4:30 p.m. April 4 in Todd 276 on the Pullman campus.

Asaka, associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, will give a a talk entitled “The Dividing Line: Race and Segregation in Early Seattle” which will examine the creation of a geographical line in the city, dividing north and south, and white and non-white.

A headshot of a smiling woman with dark hair in front of blurred out greenery.
Megan Asaka, Photo by Stan Lim, UC Riverside

This segregation began at the inception of white settlement when founders pushed the Duwamish peoples to the southern part of the city and maintained a “residence district” in the northern part for white families. The efforts of local authorities in the city to contain its multiracial population shaped a geography of inequality that persists, as is evident in the social and spatial dynamics in Seattle today.

Asaka’s connection to Seattle is personal, as her family roots there go back four generations. Part of the Japanese American community, she was acutely aware of the region’s history of Japanese incarceration during World War II.

“I was always curious about the disconnect between what I knew from my family history in the city — which included segregation, exclusion, incarceration — and the city’s image as being a progressive, openminded place, both past and present,” she said.

Her book, which seeks to reconcile these apparent incongruities “reconceptualizes Seattle history from the perspective of those who had been pushed to the margins of urban society.”

She said that although her book is centrally focused on a local space, its relevance should transcend Seattle.

She noted that in many places “there has been a very particular way in which history has been told, focusing on the businessmen, the so-called pioneers, the early political leaders. We know their names and identities, we learn them in school and in our textbooks. But these perspectives only illuminate one view of [a] city’s past. Equally important are the stories of laborers, immigrants, and others…whose historical presence and contributions are rarely acknowledged.” The talk is put on by the WSU History Department’s Roots of Contemporary Issues Event Series.

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