Exclusion, Displacement and Erasure: Megan Asaka on Seattle's Hidden Ethnic and Indigenous History
tags: urban history,Seattle,Native American history,Asian American History
The nostalgia that infuses current thinking about Seattle’s past not only erases the exclusionary roots of the city’s founding but also ignores how these forces continued, and continue, to structure racial inequalities. Our current moment of heightened inequality and rampant gentrification underscores the dire need for critical historical analyses that refuse to romanticize the past. It’s through the routes of the past that we can begin to reimagine our present and chart new paths toward more equitable futures.
Megan Asaka, Seattle from the Margins
The labor that built and transformed Seattle from a tiny settlement in the 1850s to a modern American city was powered by a migratory and transient workforce that has been largely forgotten or ignored by history. Many of these workers were Native Americans and Asians, including Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos. The city accepted the fruits of their labor but denied their full inclusion in the evolving urban society.
Thanks to history professor and native Seattleite Megan Asaka, we now have a meticulously researched and revelatory history of the communities that built the city in her new book Seattle from the Margins: Exclusion, Erasure, and the Making of a Pacific Coast City (University of Washington Press). The book intertwines the labor, urban, racial, political and social history of Seattle.
With a fresh perspective, Professor Asaka presents new ways of understanding Seattle as she recounts a lost history of multicultural workers who transformed the city and lived under a discriminatory local regime that separated them from white neighborhoods. The book presents a fascinating and lively account of how Native people and Asian immigrants nonetheless provided essential labor from the beginnings of this major west coast city to the dawn of World War II.
Professor Asaka describes a city that has been segregated since the first years of white settlement in the 1850s as the founders and employers of the city were ever seeking a pool of workers that was readily available and preferably cheap—while excluded from the society and the geography of white Seattle.
First, the Duwamish and other Native people provided labor and then, as Professor Asaka recounts, waves of Asian immigrants—first the Chinese and later the Japanese and Filipinos—were exploited by local employers while facing discrimination imposed by local regulation, as well as dehumanizing and racist treatment in many aspects of their lives. As the city benefitted from this mobile labor force, municipal authorities and elites saw these non-white people as “undesirables” and the spaces where they dwelt were deemed a threat to health and safety and an obstacle to urban progress.
Seattle from the Margins is a feat of original and exhaustive research and interpretation. While the history of this vital workforce is virtually absent from traditional archival sources, Professor Asaka pieced together her book by studying available diaries, family memorabilia and letters, as well as studying the background of the sites where the forgotten workers and their families lived and worked such as logging camps, lodging houses, city buildings, farming and lumber towns, the waterfront, and areas designated by authorities as “slums.”
With creativity and resourcefulness, Professor Asaka recognizes the significance of marginalized people in the complex history of a major American city as she challenges the dominant, often sentimentalized narrative of its history. As she notes in the introduction of Margins, her book was inspired by her family history in Seattle and by her work as an oral historian and archivist for Densho, a community-based organization that seeks to preserve and share the stories of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II.
Dr. Asaka is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses on Asian American history, urban history, and public humanities. She has been recognized for developing new methodologies and frameworks of analysis for understanding the past and the present. She earned her doctorate at Yale. Seattle at the Margins is based on her dissertation that won awards from the American Historical Association (Pacific Coast Branch) and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. The Seattle Public Library recently featured a lecture by Professor Asaka and selected Margins as a “Peak Pick,” a special status for new and notable books.
Professor Asaka graciously responded to questions by phone from her office in California.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Asaka on your groundbreaking new book Seattle from the Margins. I’m a baby boomer in Seattle and I found your words on marginalized people original and enlightening. It’s great that you’re doing this research on erased or hidden history. It's a remarkable book and offers a new perspective on our regional history as well as urban, social, racial and labor history.
Before we get to the book, I wanted to ask you a few questions about your background. You cover some of this in your book, but I wondered about your childhood in Seattle—where you lived, the schools you went to and how you felt yourself as a Japanese American in Seattle?
Professor Megan Asaka: My parents were divorced, so I grew up in a couple of different places. So, my mom lived in Montlake for a long time. My dad lived in various places around Capitol Hill. He lived one block off Broadway in this really cool apartment when I was little. Those were the two main areas.
I went to Madrona [elementary school]. I was in a program like AP [advanced placement] that you tested to get into. Then I went to Washington Middle School, and then I went to Lakeside for high school. That’s a private high school, and that's where I first started thinking about my identity and feeling like an outsider in some ways in that environment. My dad's family is Japanese American. My mom's family is white, mostly from Iowa and the Midwest.
And I was always very interested in family history on both sides. My grandparents on my dad's Japanese American side were very open, and my grandmother talked about her experiences during the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. I interviewed her for a paper when I was in middle school, and she talked to me about her experience. I knew about that history and how it had shaped my family, and they were very open about it. And I knew about my dad's history too. He was born right after World War II, and he grew up in the Central District and Beacon Hill neighborhood. And I was also very rooted to those neighborhoods as well.
I didn’t really come to understand my identity as a Japanese American and what that meant until I went to college. I think that's really typical journey for people. They go to college and they start to think about their lives in different ways, and that was true for me. I became very involved in ethnic studies in college and just seeking out classes that would speak more to my own family history and my own identity. So that's when I started to contemplate in a more conscious way than I had in the past about what it meant to be Japanese American and Japanese American history.
Robin Lindley: It seems you were inspired to study history since childhood.
Professor Megan Asaka: Yes. I really was. I always loved hearing stories from both sides of my family about their experiences. I loved learning about things that had happened in the past, but I didn't connect that with history as an academic discipline until later on. In school, you learn about history and it's about memorizing and about facts and about presidents. That sort of thing. And I never felt what I was interested in about the past was the same as what I was learning in school and what was presented to me.
I never thought of myself as a historian or that history was ever a path for me until, in fact, I started working at Densho [a Seattle non-profit dedicated to studying the incarceration of Japanese Americans] where they were doing a critical history. And I started seeing myself as a historian for the first time through that work, even though I was interested in history even as a child through conversations with my family and family history. And that’s how a lot of my students at UCR also become interested in history. But they're turned off by the way it’s often taught.
Robin Lindley: I realize history can be made dull and off-putting. My wife said she never liked history until recently because it was about politics and war and male oriented.
Professor Megan Asaka: Yes. It was very much like that for me, but that's changing now, even though there’s still a lot of focus on memorization. Students just don't like that, obviously. It's not stimulating to just sit and memorize fact and dates. When I had that experience too, I said I wasn’t interested in history. I said I'm not a historian because it was for other people interested in these other things.
But again, being at Densho really helped me. It was an empowering experience in the sense that I started to actually see myself as a historian for the first time.
Robin Lindley: I understand that you were an oral historian for several years at Densho in Seattle and you interviewed many survivors of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. Was that experience before graduate school?
Professor Megan Asaka: Yes. I first started working at Densho in college. I was a summer intern there. And then I returned after I graduated from college as a more full-time member. I worked there for about five years after that and I even continued to do interviews with them when I was in grad school. I wasn't initially involved in oral history but was working more on the archival part of Densho by gathering documents and working with especially families and community groups to digitize their materials.
I had a lot of really cool projects, but I became interested in the oral history work that they were doing. And so, I just asked Tom Ikeda (former Executive Director of Densho) if I could do this, and he said sure. And I began by observing interviews and then I started getting into it myself. It was an interesting experience, and I learned a lot about Japanese American history and history in general from these conversations. It was also interesting to see behind the scenes of what happened because interviews were videotaped and recorded. And oftentimes, the narrators would say things to me before the interview or after the interview that they wouldn't want recorded and put out there and publicized. So, it was more than hearing people's stories. I had to learn what are they were willing to talk about on the record, and what they were not willing to talk about. And so, it was interesting to see that process. It was amazing.
Densho's approach to oral history is very much rooted in the community and in developing relationships with the people they're interviewing. And so, it's not just we're going to interview you and then never talk to you again. It's about developing a relationship with the person. And they share the interview and then give all family members copies of the interview. With interviews outside of Seattle, we would have viewing parties and invite people to watch clips from their interviews. That work taught me a lot about the importance of community engagement
Robin Lindley: What a fantastic experience. Thanks for describing your contribution. What was your focus in your graduate studies at Yale? How did your studies lead to your award-winning dissertation that is the basis for your new book?
Professor Megan Asaka: I was not actually sure that I was even going to graduate school. I wasn't ever like, oh, I'm going to become an academic or I'm going to become a professional historian. That's my path, but it just happened that way.
I got into the American Studies Program and was able to work with some just really amazing scholars. Dolores Hayden, Mary Lui, and Ned Blackhawk were on my dissertation committee and they were all scholars who had connections to the West Coast, or even directly to Seattle. They really understood my project. I was lucky to have that because there is a very much an east coast bias in places like Yale, and if you're not talking about New York, it's like what are you doing.
I had started my Densho career by then, and had these questions about my own family history and what was missing from what I had learned from Seattle history. And so, there were lots of questions. Why is Seattle history told this way? And why does it not reflect at all what I know about Seattle history based on my family experiences? And so, in grad school, I was able to pursue that project, and I was exposed to different kinds of scholarship that I probably wouldn't have found if it hadn't been for grad school such as Native American history. I was exposed to a lot of that literature as well as urban history.
I also had the opportunity for research and the time that I had to conduct the research was great. I had two full years just researching for the dissertation, and a lot of it did end up in the book. And I wouldn't have been able to write the book without that experience at Yale and the PhD program. It helped me tell the story that I wanted to tell, and also to broaden the story beyond Seattle to make it more relevant to other cities as well—to try to tell a bigger story.
Also helpful at Yale was that I went through an interdisciplinary program, which was incredibly helpful for this book because telling the story of this particular workforce requires creative methodologies and research. I drew on architecture and the built environment and a lot of geography and photography and all kinds of interdisciplinary methods that I was encouraged to use in my program. It gave me a lot of freedom to explore different approach and to see what worked and that was an important part of how I told the story.
Robin Lindley: That's inspiring. I think it'll be helpful for young people to know there are creative approaches to history as you reveal in your work on people at the margins. And oftentimes there’s not a lot of traditional archival documentation available. How did you go about research when you often lacked documentary evidence?
Professor Megan Asaka: This is was a huge challenge and it was very hard and took a very long time.
I started the research in grad school and I continued on after grad school and to when I got my job at UC Riverside. It was a years-long process of research and it was very difficult. In some cases, I had to be really creative about where I was looking for records and also what I was considering as an archive. I have moments in the book where a building is an archive. We think about a building that stood in 1920s, and imagine the conditions then and people’s experiences and the living environment
When I couldn’t find records of these groups, I’d considered their buildings, their living conditions, and then try to imagine it from there, and then be creative about what I was looking for and where I looked. For example, I found fire department records, and that happened when I found information about Japanese hotel operators. I never would've originally thought of the fire department in researching a hotel business, and that ended up a valuable archive for me.
I also drew on the scholarship of historians who wrote about similar topics. And I think the cutting edge of history right now is work on the margins of history itself, such as [studying] people who didn't leave a lot of records, or their only records are mediated through the police or through other agencies. It’s about how do we make sense of that and what do we do with the tiny amount of information that we have. I drew from that scholarship. For example, historian Nayan Shah has written a lot about transient men. He talks about how historians have privileged stationary people and middle-class families because those are the people that leave behind records. Whereas, if you're moving around and you're poor and you're an immigrant, there aren't many records that can tie you into one place, which is how records are produced.
I was able to also use some of that scholarly work to think through how I was going to write the book, while also being creative about where I was looking and what I was considering to be an archive. But that was a lot of work. I'm working on a project now on Japanese American farmers after World War II, and it's so much easier to trace the history. If you go pre-war, and some of these families by then were in the same place for 30 years, you can trace them in census records. It’s much easier to look at people who were in one place over time.
It was difficult and took a long time to piece together the history for my book. To find records and then piece the research into a larger story was also a challenge. You have little glimpses here and there, but thinking about how it all works together was also difficult.
And it wasn't only the research, but the interpretation of it too. That was hard because I had to figure out where the different industries were located, and then how the workers were getting there. That was actually what I started with. I was able to figure it out, but it was a very time-consuming, lengthy research process and interpretation process.
Robin Lindley: You did a wonderful job without a lot of obvious resources. You're also a talented storyteller. Your book deals with several groups ignored and stigmatized people. I was struck by your comment in the introduction that the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II, this “racialized exclusion,” is a key to understanding Seattle. What do you mean?
Professor Megan Asaka: The wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans is often treated as an aberration, an exceptional moment, that had to do with Pearl Harbor. And there was this wartime hysteria and nationalist fervor, and the Japanese Americans looked like the enemy and they were targeted. And once the war was over, it was back to normal. That has been for a long time how the incarceration has been talked about, both on the national level and in Seattle.
I actually started this project wanting to write about Japanese American history, and that was the entry point for my dissertation. I wasn't thinking that I was going to write about other groups or that I was going to write about the life of workers. I wanted to tell a different story about Japanese American history because it always bothered me that the incarceration was treated as an exceptional event. I knew, based on my family's experience, that there was a much longer history that helps to explain why Japanese Americans were removed and why local officials and the general public in Seattle supported it. That always bothered me. But the more that I researched, the more I was required to go back to how much Japanese-American experiences related to other groups, including Chinese Americans, Filipinos, and Native Americans, and how they all shared this experience of marginalization, exclusion, and displacement.
I began to realize that this wasn't just a Japanese American story. This was actually a bigger story, and the entry point for me personally was the incarceration of Japanese Americans. But then I began to connect it with these different groups who all shared the experience of racial segregation and physical exclusion in the city. They shared also their status as marginalized workers. I started broadening the scope beyond Japanese Americans because I kept seeing so many parallels with other groups. And not only the shared histories such as social histories, interracial families, and people working in the same jobs, but also their shared history of marginalization and exclusion that was so clear to me. So that's what I meant in the introduction and I wanted to connect something that people often associate with the federal government as actually a local story.
And we can't understand what happened with Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor without actually going back to the origins of the city and without understanding the city’s role in the workforce, their relationship with other groups, and more. All of those questions arose, and it became a much bigger project as I researched and thought about it.
Robin Lindley: It comes across strongly in your book that Seattle was segregated from the founding of the city in the 1850s when white settlers displaced the Native Duwamish people from their homeland. You mention how white settlers treated the Duwamish and other Native people and describe a ghetto for Native Americans and other non-whites called “The Sawdust,” to the south of what is now Yesler Street. What struck you about this early exclusion and racism?
Professor Megan Asaka: What struck me was that white settlers displaced [Native people] and were appropriating their land. This is the story of that time. Yet the city needed them as labor and they were the first workforce and they provided labor to the city. Coll Thrush touches on this issue in his book Native Seattle, and he talks about the Duwamish as the city's first labor force. That was striking to me and that helps to explain the particular form of segregation that evolved in Seattle because it wasn't just that they were just displaced but the city founders wanted them far away from the city but actually had to keep them close because they needed them as workers. They needed them far enough away to separate them from the white settler residential district, but close enough to actually use them as workers--to work in their homes as domestic servants and to do the laundry, to cook. And to build the buildings and to work in the sawmills. What really struck me was how they were very present in the city. We tend to think that they vanished away, and yet they didn't.
And the other thing that struck me was how much Native people shared with the Chinese workers. It was very different because the Chinese were coming as immigrants, but they shared something in terms of their marginalization in the city. They were both pushed into the same areas. I felt through the research process, especially for that first chapter, how much Chinese American history is interwoven with Native American history, and you see this very clearly in Seattle. They were working in the same jobs, they were competing over the same jobs, and they were also subjected to very similar forms of discrimination and segregation and policing in the city. So, it struck me how intertwined these two communities were, and especially how much Chinese American history and Asian American history was intertwined with Native American history in a place like Seattle. That was surprising because I didn't know that going into this research, but I kept seeing the similarities and the parallels.
Robin Lindley: Do you see the founders of the city in the years before 1900 as white supremacists who forbade non-whites from living north of The Sawdust area?
Professor Megan Asaka: It was very intentional and very clear. It was intentional to have this dividing line that protected the settler residential district from Native peoples and other workers. And it happened in a variety of ways with various municipal laws and policies. And again, the settlers were the ones who were in the positions of power, especially in the early years. And it happened through petitions, for example, that I talk about in the book when the sellers came together in the 1850s and said that the Duwamish cannot have their reservation that they wanted near the Black River, which was where their ancestral homelands were, because they were needed for labor. And so, they intervened and went against what the Duwamish wanted and there were many examples of that.
I also found examples of the Chinese moving into the northern district, and the residents who were living there, even as early as the 1860s, banded together and said you can't be here. You have to go back to the south end. You have to go back to The Sawdust. And vagrancy laws were very explicit. I wanted to highlight that because oftentimes the story that you hear about Seattle, as well as the west coast in general, is that racism was more covert--it was hidden and we didn't see it. But actually, it was more overt than I thought, especially through the actions of people living in the residential district who were literally trying to expel people such as the Chinese. And settlers also burnt down Native homes in certain areas of the city.
What my book tries to unpack is that whiteness means different things at different moments. And there was this effort to divide and to separate white people from workers and other quote unquote “undesirables.” And in that process of trying to divide, it reaffirmed an emerging racial hierarchy,
Robin Lindley: Thank you for sharing what you learned about racial disparities. What was bringing the Chinese to Seattle before 1900 and early on in the 20th century?
Professor Megan Asaka: It's interesting and I feel there's not a lot written about Chinese American history in Seattle compared with other cities like Vancouver, San Francisco, etc. Seattle had a smaller Chinese population certainly than San Francisco, but they were an important workforce certainly in the Puget Sound region very early on.
Initially, the Chinese came to Seattle a bit later than they did in San Francisco, where they came in the 1850s because of the gold rush in the late 1840s and 1850s. They came a to Seattle about a decade later in part because there was a gold rush on the Fraser River in Canada, and from there, they came to Seattle. In the 1870s, the Chinese were becoming an industrial workforce, whereas before, they were certainly a workforce yet they worked running laundries and as domestic workers and at the sawmills and on steam ships.
But by the 1870s, in that post Civil War period, the whole country was industrializing, and that's when you see more Chinese migration and the Chinese then became more of a backbone of the industrial workforce. And there was a transition away from employers relying exclusively on Native labor and then turning towards Chinese labor because of the way that Chinese labor was structured with employment agents and labor contractors who worked with railroad companies, canneries, and the lumber industry to recruit and manage Chinese workers. During the Fraser gold rush, there was a trickle of Chinese workers, and it started to get going in the 1870s.
But the Chinese population was never as large as the Japanese population which was much bigger because Seattle had a direct shipping route to Japan. In the early years, the Chinese workers were coming through Vancouver and hence, Vancouver had a larger Chinese population. People would come from China to Vancouver, or from wherever to Vancouver, and then take smaller steamships to Seattle. And, of course, you had anti-Chinese violence in the mid-1880s that drove a lot of Chinese people out of the Puget Sound region. Some returned and remained in Seattle and I wouldn’t imply that the Chinese community disappeared, but the violence had an effect on the community over time.
Robin Lindley: And then there's a wave of Japanese migration in the early 20th century. What was bringing Japanese to Seattle?
Professor Megan Asaka: The Japanese migration again was much bigger for two reasons. First, Seattle was aggressively trying to initiate a trade relationship with Japan. Shelley Lee writes about this in her book Claiming the Oriental Gateway on Japanese Americans in Seattle and their relationship with Japan. Seattle was pursuing this commercial relationship with Japan and initiated it through shipping routes.
The other reason too was for workers. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, and there was anti-Chinese violence a few years later, and employers needed a new source of labor. Japanese workers became, in some ways, a replacement for Chinese workers whose population had dwindled because of immigration restrictions and anti-Chinese violence.
That's why the Japanese came to Seattle in an era when Seattle's economy was expanding in the late 19th and early 20th century. And this labor force from Japan enabled Seattle's economy to really expand dramatically. And when they came, they didn't have any rights in the US, and the companies were able to expand based this marginalized labor force.
Robin Lindley: And the Japanese seem more successful compared to other non-white populations. They were business owners. They owned many hotels in Seattle eventually. And they also were farmers. I was struck by the hierarchy between ethnic groups, and you write that many Japanese immigrants felt superior to Filipinos and Chinese. Perhaps that was because Japan also was expanding its empire and industrializing like the US. What did you learn?
Professor Megan Asaka: I wanted to make clear in the book the differences between the various Asian groups. I write about the Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino experiences, and they did share a lot. Yet there were many differences. One difference was that Japan was a powerful empire, and the United States was careful in how it dealt with Japan. And Japan had more influence in shaping the lives and opportunities of its overseas communities than was true for other groups. And we see that Japan intervened in immigration laws and pressured the US to allow Japanese women and children to come to the US, which meant that Japanese men were able to have families and that they were able to open businesses that revolved around a family workforce like farms and hotels--unlike their urban counterparts.
The relationship between Japan and some Japanese immigrants is a little taboo but that's changing. But for a long time after World War II, many in the Japanese American community disavowed any ties with Japan. They denied any ties with Japan. They said we're one hundred percent American. That’s because they were basically treated as the enemy during World War II. And that was the whole logic of incarceration after mobilization. And so, they denied any relationship to Japan. That was false. There were many early transnational ties that were suppressed. We have more historical distance now and scholars are interested in that piece of Japanese American history.
But Japanese people in Seattle had a more privileged position economically over other groups, especially other Asian groups. And there were discriminatory attitudes against other people, especially Filipinos, but also Chinese as well. That came from the prevailing racial ideology of Japan. We have to understand them not as being the same as people in Japan, yet they did maintain transnational ties and were very much affected by and participating in those networks.
I wanted to emphasize those tensions between the different groups. People didn’t talk much about this. There’s a tendency to want to say we all got along, and we all recognized that we were struggling together. There's an element of truth to that, yet it papers over much of the complexity of what I found important when doing my research. I think this also helps to explain why, on a national level too, Japanese Americans were seen as more threatening than other Asian groups. Because of the role of Japan and the rise of the Japanese empire, Japan was seen as a threat and, by extension, Japanese people in the US were seen as more threatening too.
Robin Lindley: I was struck that some of the Japanese owned hotels had a policy of refusing to serve African American and Filipino customers. It seems that the dominant white culture in Seattle influenced that discriminatory response.
Professor Megan Asaka: Yes. It’s complicated because there were tensions between different Asian groups because of what was going on with Japan and the Japanese empire. But there was also, within the dominant society, a racial hierarchy. “Undesirables” were not permitted in Japanese businesses so that the owners would not be seen by the people in power as similar to [other marginalized people]. So that was part of it too. And yet, at the end of the day, the city saw them as the same anyway.
There were efforts by some Japanese to distance themselves and to exclude African Americans and Filipinos or try to distance themselves from others, especially from Filipinos. But they still experienced incarceration. They were still viewed in the same ways as these other groups.
In my last chapter on slum clearance, I reflect on how [Japanese] were trying hard to say we're different, and yet they weren't really that different. That was a point I wanted to make—it didn’t change how the dominant society saw them. In my opinion, it’s only by building solidarity with other communities that you can actually become powerful. But Japanese Americans didn't do that for reasons that are totally understandable, and that’s an undercurrent of the book.
Robin Lindley: It’s such a challenging history. You also write about the migration of Filipino workers and the role of US imperialism. You state that Seattle was seen, at least according to one historian, as a “colonial metropol.” How do you see the wave of Filipino immigration to Seattle beginning in the early 20th century, and this idea of a “colonial metropol”?
Professor Megan Asaka: It’s Dorothy Fujita-Rony, an Asian American Studies scholar at UC Irvine, who I quote on Seattle as a “colonial metropol.” She wrote a great book about Filipino migration to Seattle within this broader context of US imperialism. She found that Seattle was an important hub of Filipino migration, in part because of the military presence and because of the education network. The University of Washington actually recruited a lot of students from the Philippines. And she sees Seattle as a main hub within the broader US empire of drawing Filipinos in the same way we would think of London as an imperial metropolitan hub for the British Empire as well.
I wanted to stress that one of the things that distinguishes Filipinos from the other Asian groups was that they were coming to the US as American colonial subjects. They were US “nationals,” a category created after our colonization of the Philippines to signify that they weren't citizens and they weren't aliens, but had this in-between status. They were able to migrate to the US. They had US passports during a period when immigration was pretty much cut off from Asia and restricted around the globe. And so they came as another labor force during a time in which labor from abroad was heavily restricted. And other Asian groups weren't coming from American colonies. That makes the Filipino experiences very different from other groups.
And, as colonized people, they actually shared many commonalities with Coast Salish people, with Indigenous peoples, not only in terms of the work they were doing, but also in the experience of colonization. Being forced to learn English, for example.
I wanted to make the point that we tend to think about Asians--Japanese, Chinese Filipinos--as one group, yet I found that if you look back in time like in the thirties, the Filipinos had much more in common with Native people than they did with other Asians that we tend to think about today. I wanted to emphasize that how we think about racial categories today doesn't necessarily make sense and we can't use the same categories that we use today and put them on people in the past. We have to think about the categories as fluid and meaning something very different in different moments in time.
But Seattle was a huge hub of Filipino migration, and they came when jobs that had sustained previous generations of migrant workers were declining. And the city's economy had really transformed to other industries like Boeing, which became the largest employer at this time. And Filipinos were restricted from most higher paying jobs. And they were coming during the Great Depression, which was devastating for the communities that I talk about in the book.
The Filipinos were often forced to travel really long distances in search of jobs. They were going from Northern California to Alaska to eastern Washington and back, and all in one season. In some ways, they experienced migration in a more intensified way than the other groups of the previous generations.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that insight on the challenges of Filipino migrants. I hadn’t heard the story of Profanity Hill. Who lived and worked there? Why was it considered a slum? It’s now First Hill and probably among the most spectacular places in Seattle for a view of Puget Sound.
Professor Megan Asaka: Yes. I know. My chapter [on Profanity Hill] was actually the chapter that I worked on longest because the 1940 census was not made public until 2012. I had started the research very early on in grad school, about 2009. Once the census came out, I revised that chapter because I could see who was living on Profanity Hill in 1940 and I didn't have that information before.
Profanity Hill was once a place where many white settlers lived, like Henry Yesler who had his home there after he moved from the waterfront area. And it was seen as a very desirable area because of the views of the sound. And many old Victorian mansions had been built there for wealthy Seattleites.
But over time, the area of the Sawdust and the south end started to expand and push eastward up the hill. People moved from the crowded waterfront area and the city center and into Profanity Hill so the elite started to leave the area because the workers were getting close. And there was a population of a very mixed group of people who were moving to that area for a variety of reasons. It’s interesting that Profanity Hill was called a slum, and indeed it gained the name Profanity Hill after the elite left and multiracial communities moved in.
Yet this was one of the only places where people could move that was open to anyone. There were no restrictions on the housing. And also, it had more space than the more crowded conditions near the waterfront and the Pioneer Square area. And they wanted more space. For example, many Japanese Americans had gardens. And this area didn’t have quite as much activity. And a lot of single men who had once worked in the seasonal jobs and other people including single women, female heads of households, and interracial families found permanent places to live on Profanity Hill. It became a place where many people who couldn't find housing elsewhere moved to leave the more crowded waterfront.
The housing conditions were not stellar, and yet I do think calling it a slum was unfounded. I found in my research no technical definition of a slum in any federal or state or local law. That was deliberately left very open to interpretation. It was deemed as slum because people in charge of this Seattle Housing Authority basically saw it as an expendable neighborhood and wanted to clear it away and build something else on top of it.
I wanted to tell that story and humanize the inhabitants. I think people have largely accepted what the housing authority has said about that area having terrible housing conditions without trying to understand why people moved there and what it meant as a really important place for a lot of people. And many of them were renters who didn't have much power when the city came and told them they had to move.
I felt their stories were never really acknowledged and a stereotype of the inhabitants of Profanity Hill led to a sense that it was probably in their best interest that the neighborhood was cleared. And yet many people were displaced and then were excluded from new housing in the Yesler Terrace development. So that was an important point I wanted to make in the book that not only slum clearance happened, but that the people who were displaced were not allowed to live in this new housing project that was developed because they didn’t conform to what the city believed to be model tenants: white families, married with kids.
Robin Lindley: Your account of the displacement of people who were seen as expendable is heartrending. How do you see Seattle now in terms of the issues you reveal such as segregation, discriminatory local policies, racial tension and hatred, and the treatment of non-white and working people? Has there been progress in some areas? What else could the city do now to improve the situation for marginalized people?
Professor Megan Asaka: The story I tell is obviously one of a past Seattle and yet what I wanted to emphasize is that history reverberates into the present.
One of my main motivations for writing the book was to combat the nostalgia that I see about Seattle history – that somehow it was “better” in the past compared to now. The importance of critical history is that it offers a way to learn from the past, to understand the forces of inequality, exclusion, and marginalization and how those are persisting.
Even from a very practical policy perspective, there are lessons in the book that I hope are useful. The chapter on Yesler Terrace, for example, is a case study of a public housing project that was in some ways very radical, very progressive for its time – I don’t think we would even see this kind of project today – and yet the way it was implemented reinforced, rather than disrupted, racial hierarchy and exclusion. It didn’t have to be that way, though, and I hope readers can use the examples from the book to imagine a different path forward.
Robin Lindley: Your revelatory book takes the reader to some dark places in the history of an American city. Some of the material you present on the treatment and conditions of the groups you cover are gripping and heart-wrenching. But you’ve restored a history that most of us know little about. Where do you find hope after your years of research on this book?
Professor Megan Asaka: In a way, writing the book did give me hope because at the end of the day this project is about people making the best of what they had in difficult circumstances. It was difficult and yet also gratifying to uncover and illuminate these stories of persistence and of people continuing to pursue autonomy and create beautiful worlds of their own.
While I wanted to highlight the forces of inequality and power, the book is also about how marginalized people did not allow these forces to completely define them. They lived full, interesting, and complex lives and in doing so they resisted and refused to conform to what dominant society wanted to them to be, which was invisible, expendable labor. I hope the book can open up new ways of thinking about the past and who we consider to be “worthy” of historical analysis and reflection.
Robin Lindley: It’s been a pleasure talking with you Professor Asaka and learning about your creative and original perspective on Seattle history—through the eyes of marginalized and largely forgotten people. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and congratulations on your groundbreaking book, Seattle at the Margins. Best wishes.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, illustrator, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, visual culture, and art. Robin’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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