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The Coon Chicken Inn in Seattle

May 30, 2010

I’ve just had an unpleasant experience of the abstract becoming concrete. I learned something new about Seattle’s racist history and it has shaken me up.  Close to where I  live in Seattle is where the Coon Chicken Inn served  chicken “the way [it] is cooked by the real, old-fashioned Mammy”  in the 1930s and 40s.  Visitors to the restaurant would enter  through the mouth of a  twelve-foot grinning ‘Coon’ head.

The restaurant existed on what’s now Lake City Way; a route which I often travel.  Now when I drive by, my awareness is brought again to the impact and legacy of racism. While the restaurant was in operation, the Lake City covenant covering property in this area dictated that no lots could be sold, rented or leased to anyone “not of the white race” nor could anyone not of the white race occupy any of those building unless they were a domestic servant actually employed by a white occupant. Seattle was a segregated city for most of the 20th century and this restaurant made it clear that blacks were not welcome in north Seattle. By the 1930s, most African Americans lived in the Central District, 8 miles from the Coon Chicken Inn.

Coon Chicken Logo

If you drove around Seattle during this time, you would likely see one of the 1,000 spare tire covers featuring the coon chicken logo; publicity created by the restaurant owner.  An employee of a prominent African-American newspaper was arrested for removing such a tire cover. In court the judge laughed, fined the man, and told him to go home.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana).

The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project is a University of Washington endeavor in collaboration with community groups and it has abundant information about this story and many others. As a white person, I have a particular responsibility to fill out my abstract notions of racism with concrete examples that increase my awareness of the ongoing bigotry and pain experienced by people of color in the area I call home.

Racist caricature is not only a thing of the past:

Our past and present are linked to what we will create in the future. Justice calls. How will we answer?

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