Western Washington is widely known as being a bastion of liberal thinking, but most of us don’t know what secrets lurk in the not so distant past.
Less than 100 years ago the State of Washington, and areas of North Bend and Snoqualmie, were practicing racial segregation in the form of restrictive covenants and by enforcing sundown rules.
In conversations surrounding the recent Black Lives Matter protests, a relatively open secret about North Bend’s Silver Creek neighborhood resurfaced. I personally heard about it 4 years ago and had it in the back of my mind to investigate and write a story someday.
The tale is about a neighborhood’s racial restrictions included in covenant agreement within many Silver Creek homeowner’s deeds. It reads:
“No person of other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or lot except as servants domesticated with any owner or tenant”
The developer of the Silver Creek Tracts in North Bend was Earle J. Roberts. He was born January 14, 1891 in Joplin, Missouri; married in 1911 to first wife Anna; moved to Washington state; and in 1914 had his first child in Seattle.
In 1915 his second child was born in Snoqualmie and a third son was locally born at some point. According to ancestry.com, he was drafted into both WWI and WWII; at some point divorced his first wife; then remarried Sylvia McConkey in 1937. He worked at Puget Sound Power and Light before starting a real estate/insurance business in 1918.
Roberts died on March 3, 1972 and is buried at the Mount Si Memorial Cemetery. His obituary states that at retirement, he donated five acres of land that became a North Bend park that now bears his name.
As of publishing, these are the few personal facts uncovered about EJ Roberts. We also know he was the developer of North Bend’s Silver Creek Tracts in the late 40’s – and as the developer, wrote the restrictive covenant that disallowed property ownership by people of color.
Timeline of U.S. policies that Segregated America
Prior to 1917, city ordinances prohibiting the sale of property to people of color in white-majority neighborhoods or buildings existed. A Supreme court ruling, Buchanan v. Warley, though, said this violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections for freedom of contract.
This court decision gave rise to the use of racial restrictive covenants as a way for segregationists to continue denying blacks home ownership in some areas. Another Supreme court decision in 1926, further solidified use of covenants by declaring that private deeds and developer plat maps were not affected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
In 1934, the practice of redlining began. According to the federal reserve: “This term refers to the presumed practice of mortgage lenders of drawing red lines around portions of a map to indicate areas or neighborhoods in which they do not want to make loans.”
The National Housing Act of 1934 encouraged land developers, realtors and community residents to write racial restrictive covenants to keep neighborhoods from being redlined. Such segregation was endorsed by the government when they refused to underwrite mortgages for homes unless a racial covenant was in place.
Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods. Builders were basically being subsidized for building subdivisions where blacks were not allowed to live based on the beliefs that their presence would cause property values to plummet.
Finally, in 1948, a Supreme Court case (Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1) outlawed racially restrictive housing covenants. However, discrimination in housing continued until the Civil Rights Act of 1968 when Title VIII (or the Fair Housing Act) finally prohibited covenants entirely.
Silver Creek Tracts Subdivision plat approval was dated February 10th 1947.
So, having a little bit of knowledge under my belt regarding the history of US housing segregation and knowing a little about EJ Roberts, I decided to ask my experts their opinion on if the man himself was to blame or if it was a bank practice that required the covenant.
Dr. James N. Gregory is a Williams Family Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington and the Director of the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. Dr. Gregory replied to my email question saying:
“The answer to your question is that Mr. Roberts was under no compulsion to establish a racist restriction. No bank told him that he needed to do so. And most other developers in that region did not. Probably not because they were any less racist, but rather because that region of King County used other means to exclude families of color.”
That seems pretty definitive, but when I asked one of our local historians, he indicated it was possible the restrictions were so common that Mr. Roberts simply did what he was told was normal for that era.
When I asked Dr. Gregory if he thought that was a possibility, he said:
“That part of King County enforced “sundown” rules in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s. Black women could work as maids, but it would be dangerous for an African American man to be in the area in the evening. He would be stopped and questioned by residents and by sheriff deputies. You will see…. that there were almost no Black residents in that census tract”
According to public records, the only Snoqualmie Valley African American found in the census up through 1940 was a man named Manual Udell, whose grandparents and mother were the first black settlers in Snohomish County. His father was a white settler. In 1910 he was living in Cherry Valley (now Duvall) in a logging camp. By 1920 he identified as white. Two other African Americans were working at Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company in the 1940’s.
There is also an oral history of John Antone Jr. where he recalls a family that lived across from Silver Creek in the 1950s. According to the story, the father worked for the Milwaukee Railroad, where the Snoqualmie Valley Trail mill is now located. The next African Americans identified are the Freeman brothers and Angie Baker in the 1960s/1970’s school photos.
So, the questions are: were there no African Americans living here because they weren’t welcome? Or because they just weren’t? Was EJ Roberts merely a product of the times in which he lived, not questioning the way things were done and perhaps a bit intellectually lazy? Or was he a racist fully participating in the segregation of North Bend?
I decided my opinion was a very small part of the equation, as my life and the lives of my ancestors were not impacted by these racist practices. So, I decided to ask POC friends or who are parents of POC children. Here is what they had to say:
Gerrit: “And as I’m sure you’ve guessed already, I’m not an advocate of erasing terrible or even uncomfortable history. We’ve already forgotten our history and are starting to repeat it while thinking we’re helping – so no, leave the park. Thinking it promotes racism is like a homophobe thinking acknowledging the gays will cause others to catch the gay. Conversations lead to reminders, which lead to learning and not repeating.”
Ekow: “I don’t believe in tearing things down immediately because I’m triggered. I would want to know, as you said, if it was a bank-led initiative or whether it was a local covenant to keep the d*****s out. Either way, it’s objectionable, but I would want to know. Also, as you said, even if it was a local decision, I’d need to know if engaged in order to facilitate the development, which isn’t that much better. These measures are partially if not mostly responsible for the ghettoization of minority populations and the wealth gap. IMHO”
Sheryl: “My feelings are that somebody who was racist and whose thought and belief was that people of color were inferior should not be a celebrated name for a park in a community. A park should honor a name of someone who reflects unity, love, and innocence. A park is a beloved gathering place where people come together to show their love of community not a place of separation and hate. As a mother who is raising children of color and knowing that EJ Roberts goal was to keep persons of color out of “HIS” community it breaks my heart to think this park, this community has its dark past. Why do we have his name honored? Why do my children have to go by this park when we go to the Blue Hole to swim? Why is his name such an honored name in our community? North Bend is such a loving community. We have so many amazing wonderful humans that have given their all to bring love and compassion and humanity to this wonderful valley. Why do we have a park named after this man? Seriously when there are 1000 other amazing people out there that we could honor!”
In the end, I still don’t know the answer to the question of renaming the park. If you’d like to learn more about this park you can join the Facebook group that was formed to address this issue and others facing the valley.
Look for Reconciling Racial Segregation in North Bend and join the conversation.
Say Their Names:
- Eric Garner
- Michael Brown
- Tamir Rice
- Walter Scott
- Alton Sterling
- Philando Castile
- Stephon Clark
- Breonna Taylor
 Catherine Silva, “Racial Restrictive Covenants History Enforcing Neighborhood Segregation in Seattle,“ Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/covenants_report.htm