Thelma DeWitty

Thelma Dewitty’s class at a Seattle School
Thelma Dewitty’s class at a Seattle School

The war brought lasting racial changes to Seattle. A flourishing Japanese-American community, 8% of the neighborhood in 1920-30, had trouble finding housing in West Seattle after the war. Although Grace Suyematsu’s father lived long enough to see his son Arthur return from serving in the Armed Forces, the family did not resume its floristry business or return to live in West Seattle.

Defense industries offered jobs to African-American workers at Boeing, the shipyards, and the Bremerton naval yard. The city’s African-American population grew by 5,000 between 1945 and 1950. Most of the war workers did not stay in Delridge after the war, however, and the school remained predominantly white. The Hansens and their neighbors, the Williams, moved into the High Point housing project. One black family and one Filipino family lived on Pigeon Point, but it, too, remained largely white.

Delma Carpenter remembers the mixed reception Native American children received in the 1940’s. Her family had moved to Delridge from Alaska, and she generally found friendly neighbors, especially the time she was late to school: “I was running my little legs off to try to get there in time and I fell and I skinned myself on both knees. I was just standing there crying and feeling hurt and sorry for myself because I knew for sure I was going to be late then because I didn’t think I could run anymore, and some lady came out and hushed me and wiped off my knees and put bandages on and gave me a stick of gum…”

Her brother, however, had an opposite experience. He had a Caucasian friend, and they visited each other’s homes after school. “And the next day the kid comes in and says ‘I can’t play with you anymore.’ And my brother says ‘Why?’ and he says ‘Because you’re a dirty Mexican.’ And my brother said ‘I’m not dirty!’ So he came home and he told my mother that he was Mexican and this boy couldn’t play with him, and my mother said ‘You’re not Mexican, you’re Indian.’ So he went and told his friend and they were so happy and they played and got along great, and the next day the kid came back and said ‘You’re worse.’”

The Seattle School District responded to population pressures and changes. Because of a shortage of teachers, the district relaxed its rule requiring married women to give up their jobs.  The music teacher, Dorothy Hoff, “was carrying a baby…and we just thought that was so wonderful!,” recalls Iris Nichols. “This teacher carrying a baby. That was pretty neat…. None of our other teachers were ever pregnant.”
Also, in 1947 the board hired Thelma Fisher DeWitty and Marita Johnson as the first black teachers in the system. DeWitty had graduated from high school in Texas, gone to college, and been given an out-of-state grant to attend graduate school in Washington because blacks weren’t welcome at the University of Texas. When she was hired by the Seattle School Board, five principals requested her, including Lester M. Roblee at Cooper. She was assigned a second grade class there.

“The reception so far as I could see was cordial,” Dewitty said in an oral history interview in 1976. (10) “It was later told to me that some of the teachers were told, I mean, all of ‘em were told when I would arrive, and if any of them objected to working with a Black, they could leave.” The children would be assigned in the usual manner. One mother did object to the principal when she found out her daughter’s teacher was black. When Roblee refused to move the girl to another class, and when the daughter cried about moving, she remained. At the end of the year, the mother told Dewitty how much her daughter had learned “and that she was glad that I had been her teacher.”

Pat Schille has clear memories of sitting in the front row in DeWitty’s second grade class a couple of years later. “She was so calm and so organized and so thorough about everything that you just learned.”

There were some bumps in the road, however, including a PTA talent show in which Schille’s mother wore blackface and sang Eddie Cantor’s “Dear Old Mammie.” “Mrs. Dewitty kindly pulled my mother aside, at another PTA meeting, and explained to her why that would be offensive. My mother was horrified, she had no clue.” Dewitty taught at Cooper for six years before being moved to Laurelhurst

As integration of the teaching staff occurred and rules about marriage changed, gender separation was still common for students. Only boys could be on the projection crew for movies, but the safety patrol soon added girls. Rainy Day Girls, who were used to supervise lower grade students on rainy days, to give the teachers a break, were only girls—“We were future teachers!” Karin Freeman explained.

A blizzard and an earthquake both struck Seattle in 1949. Cliff Davidson was on the waterfront with his buddies when the earthquake struck. They were throwing caps with ball bearings wrapped in aluminum on the railroad tracks. One of his buddies said, “Watch this!” and when he threw his, the whole world started shaking. The tracks were bucking, and the boys could hear windows blowing out of the buildings on Spokane Street. They sat on a knoll and watched the top of the radio tower break off on Duwamish Head.

10. DeWitty, Thelma. Interview with Esther Mumford. Washington State Oral History Program, Office of the Secretary of State, Olympia, WA. 1976.