The building that now houses the Northwest African American Museum used to be the Coleman School, which was a part of the Seattle public school system from 1909 to 1985. When the school was decommissioned, it was shortlisted as a potential site for an African American museum by a task force assembled in 1984 by then-mayor Charles Royer, which was planning for such a museum.
However, an expansion to Interstate-90, which now runs underground beneath the building, threatened to result in the building’s demolition. A subgroup of the museum task force, consisting of Omari Tahir Garrett, Michael Greenwood, Earl Debnam, and Charlie James, broke into the building in November 1985 with the intention of occupying it until its future could be secured.
This started what many claim to be the longest act of civil disobedience in United States history. The occupiers remained in the building for eight years, relying on neighbors and donations for food and access to showers. The building was cold during the winter and the occupiers paid for a gas generator to supply heat. During this period, they used the space to display artifacts and artwork as well as to host community activities such as forums on AIDS and racism.
In 1993, the occupation ended when the City of Seattle agreed to fund the museum, creating a not-for-profit organization and board of directors to oversee the project. The planning process was highly contentious though, as the occupiers disagreed with members of the new organization about the direction of the museum. The future of the museum remained uncertain until 2003, when the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle announced that it had raised enough money to purchase the building from Seattle Public Schools. It purchased the museum and developed it into a complex containing 36 units of affordable housing as well as the Northwest African American Museum, which opened in 2008.
Today the museum has become a highly respected museum in its own right in addition to having a unique history. In 2019, it was a finalist for the National Medal for Museum Service Award as well as one of seven institutions selected to be part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History’s Standards and Excellence Program.
Know Before You Go
The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is $10 for adults.