Black History Month is a construct that aggravates some for its stand-alone focus. “I don’t want a black history month,” actor Morgan Freeman said. “Black history is American history.”
Indeed, black history is Pacific Northwest history. Tease out a thread and it reveals the fabric of the Northwest.
Consider Shirley Walthall, the Everett School District’s first African-American teacher, who died Feb. 8.
As Marsha Cogdill, a friend and fellow teacher of Walthall told The Herald’s Sharon Salyer, “There were places that wouldn’t rent to them (Walthall and her husband, Bernie) because they were black. I don’t think we were as far along as we thought we were.”
It was an experience echoed by Betty Cobbs, who arrived in Everett in 1972, a newly minted teacher. “I was literally afraid,” Cobbs said. “When I came to Everett, I didn’t see any people of color here.” Walthall took Cobbs under her wing.
Walthall was a mentor and friend, beloved by students and colleagues throughout her distinguished 35-year teaching career.
Today the Everett School District is more of a racial and ethnic mosaic, with 72 different spoken languages. Yet Walthall was only 72 when she died. She and her family settled to Everett in 1965, one year after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.
Marking the centennial of the Washington Territory in 1953, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said, “Washington has been a pioneer in social legislation, alert to injustices inflicted on people and groups by the dominant groups.”
It was a partly true, partly sanitized read.
Everywhere, footprints. One of the first (non-native) Americans to settle in Puget Sound was a black man named George Washington Bush (his farm, now referred to as Bush Prairie, is near Olympia.)
One of the most neck-extending U.S District Court judges in U.S. history was an African American named Jack Tanner, who was born and raised in Tacoma.
Tanner was most famous for his 1980 ruling that the Walla Walla State Penitentiary violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and his 1983 “comparable worth” decision on pay equity.
Locally, a meaningful way to memorialize Walthall’s legacy is to name the district’s next high school in her honor. It will be future Everett students, after all, who will internalize history, look back and pause to wonder, “what took so long?”