If February had 31 days, it would still be Black History Month. And anyway, we ought to study this essential part of our shared American history throughout the year. So here’s a local contribution from our not-so-distant past:
Virgil Clarkson, a retired African American Lacey city council member and three term Mayor, has long been known as a local leader — in fact, the Lacey Senior Center bears his name. But what most people may not know is how his civic leadership in this community began.
Following several years of military service, Clarkson came to Olympia in 1965 to work for the state Department of Natural Resources. At the time, he says there were only 15 black people in all of Thurston County. Clarkson recalls one family in Rochester, another off Marvin Road, and a handful of retired military people in Lacey. There were a few other black state employees — including the curator at the state museum — but they commuted from Tacoma or Seattle.
When he first arrived, Clarkson’s boss helped him find a room to rent near the Capitol. But when Virgil’s wife joined him here, and they went looking for a house, they were turned away time after time, and told obvious lies. Only after great difficulty were they able to buy a house on Boulevard Road.
Soon after the Clarksons’ arrival, a young African American pregnant widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam came here to be with her sister, who worked as a housekeeper at the old St. Pete’s hospital on the west side of Olympia. The widow had a sizable military death benefit for her husband, but when she sought to buy a house, the first real estate agent she went to refused to serve her, and assumed that she was on welfare.
Clearly, housing discrimination was rampant — and legal. In spite of longstanding civil rights campaigns for what was then called “open housing,” there was a wall of white resistance. In 1964, open housing ballot measures in both Seattle and Tacoma were defeated by large margins — in fact, the Tacoma measure went down three to one.
By 1968, Clarkson and his wife had become active members of the Methodist church and several service clubs. Clarkson’s boss at the Department of Natural Resources had introduced him to local leaders, taken him to social events, and even to the Olympia Opera Society.
Clarkson became the person state officials went to for help recruiting people of color to state employment. And when new black families came to Thurston County, the Clarkson home was where they went for advice about how to find housing and which local businesses would or would not welcome them.
At church, the Clarksons became friends with Jim Dolliver, an aide to Governor Dan Evans. Dolliver shared Clarkson’s concern about open housing, and set up a lunch at The Spar with Clarkston and Mike Layton, a reporter for the Olympian. (Layton later became a beloved columnist for the Seattle Post Intelligencer; Dolliver became a state Supreme Court Chief Justice. Both Dolliver and Layton have since passed away.)
At that lunch, Layton asked Clarkston to arrange an evening meeting at his home where Layton could hear stories from others in the local black community — which in 1968 was still small enough to fit in the Clarkson living room.
Clearly, Layton got an earful. The meeting went on for several hours; Layton stayed until 3 a.m.
The next evening, April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. That devastating news shared space in the Olympian with a series of articles on local housing discrimination by Mike Layton. Together, they were a call to action.
Clarkson took time off from work to make copies of a petition for local open housing ordinances. Within two days, over over two thousand people signed them.
The following week, Clarkson and his allies spoke and presented copies of the petitions at the Lacey City Council. The Council passed an open housing ordinance that very night.
They took the same petition to the county and the cities of Tumwater and Olympia. All three referred the issue to committees, but passed ordinances within a few weeks.
A week later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal civil rights act, which included a provision forbidding housing discrimination. Seattle also finally passed a local open housing ordinance — but because they still couldn’t be sure of majority public support, they included an emergency clause that foreclosed a possible referendum.
The local ordinances didn’t have strong enforcement mechanisms. And even the federal law couldn’t change racist practices and attitudes overnight. But it was an important turning point for our community, and for our nation. It helped set us on course towards full equality and inclusion. That destination is still in the distance half a century later. But remembering how far we’ve come — and those who helped get us this far — inspire us to keep moving forward.