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It’s a piece of forgotten history, maybe even disregarded history, but a story of people chasing the American Dream like the rest of the immigrants that made their way to the Pacific Northwest, nonetheless.

If you take a left off Third Avenue onto Water Street, heading south you would find yourself in the middle of African American history in Ellensburg. In its heyday, the “Restricted District” was a three-block by seven-block district ranging from its eastern border on Pearl Street to Water to the west, from Third Avenue south to Manitoba and the railroad tracks. It was roughly bounded by the New York Café to the Cascade Lumber Mill (a former woolen mill).

RESTRICTED DISTRICT

Modern-day boundaries have shifted, times have changed, but if you trace the footsteps back in Ellensburg history to the early 1900s, the Restricted District once had an estimated 800 minority residents of African American, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American decent. Remnants of the former district are still visible, though their original purpose may have been lost to history. The small homes on Water and Capitol are some of the oldest structures in the neighborhood.

Local historian and lecturer Ty Phelan uncovered the forgotten history of the African American community during the research for his book “Darkhorse: The Jimmy Claxton story.” Claxton was a baseball pioneer who was one of the first African Americans to integrate semi-pro, minor league, and professional baseball in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Oakland, and Reno prior to World War II.

TURBULENT TIMES

The Jimmy Claxton story covers the ups and downs, on and off the diamond, during his 40-year career in the midst of baseball’s most turbulent times. It is dedicated to his refusal to accept segregation on any field.

Those turbulent times include a piece of Ellensburg history, Phelan said, and he is willing to share what he learned during a time when modern history is on the verge of repeating itself.

“It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about people that came to the Pacific Northwest looking for the American Dream,” Phelan said.

In 1928, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was located at 404 S. Main. The Rev. Webster B. Williams lived at 402 S. Main. The Second Baptist Church at 107 S. Main, began to grow in popularity. As the church numbers increased, housing became a concern, Phelan said, and town officials herded minorities into the Restricted District.

MINORITY OCCUPANTS

The district housed nearly 1,000 occupants during peak agricultural seasons, complete with female boarding houses, apartments, Chinese laundries, squatter cabins and two African American churches. Historically, it wasn’t so much a thriving community as it was a surviving community.

“In various agricultural seasons, people would move in to work in the orchards, and then leave when the crop was harvested,” said Phelan. “The housing had multiple families in one apartment or house. The District people worked at the hotels, the railroad, laundries.

“The African-Americans were a basically blue-collar workers around town. Ellensburg had an African American newspaper. It had a Black baseball team. There were two churches. As far as I know, the Chinese community had its own newspaper. The Huie (Pak and Hong) family owned and operated the New York Cafe Chinese restaurant for years. It was all minorities, but it was a thriving community.”

LEADERS

Some of the more prominent citizens in the African-American community included barber Arnold Robertson (1855-1927), railroad fix knocker George Catlett, 9th Cavalry Sergeant John Golden (1880-1951), a sergeant who rode up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.

Golden’s wife, Alice, (1865-1926) was a very popular local seamstress who passed away in 1926. She is buried at Brick Road (IOOF) Cemetery. John Golden moved to California after retirement, and is one of an estimated 100 buffalo soldiers buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery.

The Rev. James Gratton family home was at the corner of Capitol and Main Street where the current Circle K is located, Phelan said. Gratton passed away just six days short of his 100th birthday. His widow, Dorothy, penned a blistering editorial in the Daily Record rebuking the community for her family’s shabby treatment, Dec. 19, 1956.

CITY HALL

Historically, City Hall was never a friend of Black pioneers in Kittitas Valley. The former elementary school was as segregated as any institution near Central Washington University and did not allow the first African American students to enroll until 1941, nor a Black graduate until 1951. There are very little historical ties to the neighborhood, Phelan said, and those that do exist are negative.

With the deaths of prominent local black citizens such Arnold Robertson (1855-1927), James Shepperson, and Alice Golden (1865-1926), the once thriving Restricted District began to fade away.

After World War II, much of the former Restricted District was sold to industrial and business interests. The small shacks that once peppered the district were consolidated onto a few properties near Capitol Avenue at or near the current location of the Early Bird Café. The last African American residents of the Restricted District were the Gratton family.

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