Where are the Black people in Anacortes history? Does Anacortes even have a Black history? Esther Hall Mumford asked a similar question before writing her book, Seattle’s Black Victorians 1852-1901, published in 1980.Mumford said: “I had thought I was really well acquainted with the history of early Seattle, but of course [African Americans] are absent in most everything that was written [about early Seattle] prior to 1980.” This omission applies to Anacortes history as well.
Yet in old newspapers and photographs of the Anacortes Museum collection, the presence of Black history can be found. The stories of early Black Americans are often hidden inside the well-recorded stories of White America. Take this 1891 piece by the American, reviewing every detail of the new Anacortes Hotel. The paper noted, “the cuisine department will be in charge of an experienced chef, and a force of colored waiters from San Francisco will attend to the wants of patrons at the tables.”
As is the case with the Anacortes Hotel article, the work open to Black Americans in the Pacific Northwest was mostly menial labor, with jobs as cooks, waiters, and manual labor of other types not providing upward mobility. “Early in the history of Seattle there wasn’t an awful lot of prejudice; but there wasn’t an awful lot of opportunities either. When the job competition becomes acute, then you notice the difference in the way the Negro is treated,” stated Mattie Vineyard Harris (mother of Homer Harris, groundbreaking football player) in one of the oral histories at the core of Mumford’s book.
In one of the earliest photographs of Anacortes eateries, an apron-clad Black man poses with staff and patrons of the Vienna Restaurant in the 1890s. In the boom days of 1890, the whole population of Anacortes grew from a few dozen to two thousand, only to contract to a few hundred by 1892, after the bust. Most of the boomers left without any trace, but many are memorialized in 19th century photographs and newspapers.