William P. Stewart, an African-American Civil War veteran, is buried in the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery in Snohomish. The state is renaming Highway 99 in his honor.

Highway 99 renamed in honor of Snohomish settler William P. Stewart

Three sisters gathered at Georgina Paul’s Everett home Thursday to talk about a man they never met. They are the great-granddaughters of William P. Stewart, an African-American Civil War veteran who settled in Snohomish after serving in the Union Army.

Stewart, born free in Illinois in 1839, was a private in the 29th U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry. He enlisted in Chicago in early 1865, and served in the final stages of the Union’s Virginia Campaign, including the fall of Richmond. By 1889, he and his wife, Elizabeth “Eliza” Thornton Stewart, had settled in Snohomish. They had one son, Vay Stewart, a mailman.

William and Eliza Stewart are buried at the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery in Snohomish, where his grave is marked by a government-issued headstone.

It has been an extraordinary spring for Paul, 69, and sisters Mary Barrett, 55, who lives in Lakewood near Tacoma, and Everett’s Marilyn Quincy, 72. On Tuesday they were in Olympia, where the state Transportation Commission agreed to rename Highway 99 in Stewart’s honor.

They cheered the announcement, which followed the Legislature’s unanimous March passage of House Joint Memorial 4010. The measure requested that State Route 99 be named the William P. Stewart Memorial Highway.

“It was such an honor for our family as a whole, growing up here,” said Paul, a lifelong Everett resident and 1964 graduate of Cascade High School.

For Barrett, who grew up hearing stories about her ancestors, the highway designation has renewed her pride in Stewart and in roots that go back generations in this state. “People ask where I came from. I’m an original Washingtonian,” said Barrett, who graduated from Cascade in 1978.

Quincy noted that their mother, Stewart’s granddaughter, was named Maydrew Wiliza Stewart Davis. Her middle name, Wiliza, was a blend of William’s and Eliza’s first names. They have pictures of the Snohomish farmhouse where the Stewarts settled, and of ancestors who moved to north Everett.

As the sisters leafed through a family Bible and photos, they praised Hans Dunshee, now a Snohomish County Council member. In 2002, then-state Rep. Dunshee, D-Snohomish, launched an impassioned effort to remove a marker at Peace Arch State Park in Blaine designating the road as “Jefferson Davis Highway No. 99.”

That marker and another near Vancouver, Washington, were put up in 1940 by a state branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Davis, once a congressman from Mississippi, was president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Those old granite monuments are now on private land. State Department of Transportation spokesman Travis Phelps said traffic engineers will soon begin work on signs with the Stewart designation.

Marian Harrison, 85, was with the sisters in Olympia Tuesday. She had an ancestor marry into Stewart’s family and is related to Quincy. For Harrison, who lives in Marysville, the change is long overdue.

Harrison, who has testified in Olympia in support of the Stewart designation, praised Dunshee’s tenacity. “I admire the guy. He stood up for what he thought was right,” said Harrison, who has worked on a Snohomish County black history project.

The issue “was important because it was about us,” Dunshee said. “It was about what we consider important in this state.”

Dunshee considered three time periods while pushing for the change. First was the Civil War era, when Stewart served. He described the early 1940s, when the old monuments were installed, as “the height of the Jim Crow period.” And now? “I think we are significantly different and better than we were in 1941,” Dunshee said.

He sees no reason to honor Davis here, and described the Confederate leader as “a man who led a revolution that killed more Americans than any other war action we’ve been in.”

In Stewart, “we’ve got a man who volunteered in the Union cause,” said Dunshee, adding that black Civil War soldiers “risked enslavement if they were caught.”

“I thought he was a man to honor,” Dunshee added.

Phelps said the new designation affects Highway 99, which doesn’t run the full length of Washington. Old U.S. 99, once called Pacific Highway, was a federal route from the California-Mexican border to Blaine. It was gradually phased out starting in the early 1960s.

Highway 99 runs from Fife north through Seattle, where it is Aurora, and into Snohomish County. Officially, it ends in Everett, near Everett Mall Way and Highway 526. Phelps said it isn’t yet known where new signs will be placed.

About 200 Civil War veterans are buried in the GAR Cemetery, said Biff Reading, the cemetery manager. They include Sgt. Austin P. Waterhouse, who served with the 44th Indiana Volunteers and lost an arm at the battle of Shiloh.

For Dunshee, there’s an important message in honoring a black veteran of the Civil War. “Racism is not dead. It isn’t ended. I think this is a good statement about our state,” he said.

Stewart’s great-granddaughters agree. Barrett said history has overlooked contributions made by African-Americans, Native Americans and Chinese workers who toiled to build the country’s railroads. “Snohomish has a very rich history, and so does the state,” she said.

“Coming up in school, we learned very little of that history,” said Quincy, a 1962 graduate of Everett High.

Today, a proud past has come to light.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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