Black Tri-Citians reflect on struggles, progress

KENNEWICK — When CJ Mitchell of Richland helped build Kennewick's Eastgate and Westgate elementary schools in 1952, he could work in Kennewick but found he couldn't live there.

East Pasco was the only place black families could find homes.

Some experiences that black Tri-Citians faced before the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s seem unbelievable now.

But longtime Tri-Citians such as Mitchell, 79, know first hand the discrimination blacks faced in the Tri-Cities and across the nation.

February is Black History Month, which Dallas Barnes of Pasco said still is needed so people can learn about black history that otherwise would remain unknown.

It's a "very rich history of people who have been left out of the mainstream," said Barnes, associate director of student services and special projects at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

Vanis Daniels of Pasco recalls that in 1948 one of his cousins ended up "chained to a pole like a dog" on a Kennewick street corner.

Daniels' cousin, Jimmy Lee Green, was waiting for some Hanford co-workers to come out of an all-white tavern with some beer, so they could go elsewhere to hang out, Daniels said.

But when his co-workers came out of the bar, Daniels, 73, said his cousin was no longer there. They found him several blocks away on the corner of Washington Street and Kennewick Avenue, where police officers had chained him.

"They didn't want him over there," Daniels said.

It's but one example of the egregious discrimination Tri-City blacks once faced, longtime residents say.

Webster Jackson, 76, who graduated from Pasco High in 1952, recalled that he was one of about seven blacks at the school.

White teens would keep the basketball away from him and the only other black teen in physical education classes.

"Nobody did or said anything about it," said Jackson, who retired as Pasco's administrative services director in 2006 after working for the city for 35 years.

While in high school, Jackson applied for an apprenticeship at the local pipefitters union in Pasco, but as soon as he walked out the door he saw the secretary toss his application into the trash.

Instead, he became the first black to complete a four-year apprenticeship with the local carpenter's union and worked as a carpenter for eight years.

Daniels, who graduated from Pasco High in 1954, said while he was there, none of the black students found out about job opportunities but white students did.

His former high school principal later told him that school employees couldn't tell black students about jobs because it would affect the employees' jobs and families.

Daniels, who worked at the Port of Pasco tank farm for 16 years, said he was driving to pick up his TV from a downtown Kennewick repair shop in the mid-1950s when a police officer stopped him.

The officer then followed him to the shop and parked, then followed Daniels back to the bridge to ensure he returned to Pasco.

Civil rights leader Jack Tanner, who later became a federal judge, led a group of 80 people in a 1963 march in downtown Pasco protesting discrimination and dubbed Kennewick "the Birmingham of Washington."

Robert Bauman, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of history, said there was no law that prevented blacks from living in Kennewick before things began to change in the mid-1960s. But real estate agents wouldn't show homes to black families, and neighborhood covenants prevented residents from selling or renting to blacks.

Until the 1950s, Richland's government housing was only for permanent workers, which effectively segregated the city, Bauman said. Temporary work -- in construction or as janitors -- was all that was open to blacks until General Electric became Hanford's main contractor and opened up some permanent jobs to blacks.

When Mitchell decided to buy a home in Richland in 1965, he said a white real estate agent declined to sell to him. So Mitchell went to look at a Richland home with a for sale by owner sign.

"He slammed the door in my face," Mitchell recalled.

At the time, he was living in a home purchased from the government. Mitchell, who became the first black man to serve on Columbia Basin College's board of directors in 1970, eventually bought a new home in Richland in 1976, where he still lives.

Within a week after moving in, he said he answered a phone call and an unidentified person said, "This is the Ku Klux Klan and you are next."

But Jackson said the overt prejudice came from a small percentage of whites and was something blacks learned to work around.

For example, he recalls as a teen driving with some friends around Pasco and deciding to go cruise around Kennewick one evening. As they drove off the old green bridge into Kennewick, a police officer stopped them and ordered them turn back.

Jackson said they did a U-turn. An hour later, they crossed the bridge again and didn't meet a police officer.

And Mitchell, who worked for Battelle in human resources until 1993, said he had to be prepared to be put on the spot by white co-workers and succeed at jobs with little or no training.

For example, when going around to talk to Battelle employees about new 401(k) plans in 1979, a white co-worker put him on the spot to lead a second presentation. And when he started helping with college recruitment, his only training for his first campus visit was seeing one presentation.

Although times have improved, Barnes said he still sees covert discrimination.

For example, there is a conspicuous lack of blacks among local elected leaders, Barnes said.

The current Kennewick, Richland and Pasco city councils and school boards, West Richland City Council, and the Benton and Franklin county commissions do not have any black members.

That lack of leadership positions affects the black community's clout, he said.

And a disproportionate number of minorities are incarcerated in the state, Barnes said.

"We still have some major problems," he said.