HISTORY

Few blacks settled in Whatcom County

November 13, 2007 

Black waiters at the Fairhaven Hotel pose for this picture during Christmas 1891.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CENTER FOR PACIFIC NORTHWEST STUDIES

Western Washington University had one other black professor in 1961 when Thaddeus Spratlen came to teach there. He was surprised to hear that the 1960 census reported 22 black residents in all of Bellingham.

"We don't remember more than three or four, at most," he said.

Spratlen had a similar reaction to hearing that the black community jumped to 135 people by 1970. That boosted the black community to 0.3 percent of the city's population — the first time since 1900 that the percentage had topped 0.2.

HISTORICAL COMMUNITY

Some blacks fled the south to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1800s, but trouble followed them here.

In 1844, the Oregon Territory (which included Washington) banned blacks and ordered those who stayed to be whipped every six months until they left. Oregon kept a black exclusion law on the books until 1926.

The federal Donation Land Act of 1850 allowed homesteaders free land, but excluded blacks from the deal.

According to the census, Fairhaven and New Whatcom had just 30 black residents in 1900, three years before merging to form Bellingham. But newspaper accounts at the time talk of a black community that included black churches, a black social club and black-owned businesses.

News reports also recount police, among other things, telling "undesirable Negroes" to leave town and fining a black man for allegedly making advances on a white waitress. The Bellingham Herald gave admiring coverage to a Ku Klux Klan parade in 1926.

MORE WELCOMING

Western professors and university officials helped Spratlen and his family move in, to head off racial problems. He remembers the city as being very welcoming in general, although his family did stand out.

"Yeah, we were oddities," he said. "You would get the stares."

The family found Bellingham isolating, so Spratlen moved to UCLA in 1969. He went to the University of Washington in 1972 and now is an emeritus professor of marketing.

Since Spratlen left, the black community has grown to 1 percent of Bellingham's population, still far below state and national numbers. The census does not say how many of Bellingham's 532 black residents were born in the city, but just 149 of them are from Washington.

"I don't know of any indigenous African-Americans," said Felix Anderson, associate pastor at Bellingham's Christ the King Church.

Anderson, a 54-year-old New York native, came for a computer job 13 years ago and stayed for the quality of life. He now lives in Ferndale.

Russ Whidbee, a 41-year-old financial advisor who is black, came in 1980 to attend Western. He said he was shocked, at first, by how few blacks were here, but learned that "people are people."

Whidbee is co-chairman of Loving Brothers of Whatcom County, a social group that includes many black people, along with people other backgrounds.

"Whether we want to admit it or not, maybe it fills a need," he said.

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