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Published in The Seattle Times online on Sept. 22, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Sept. 25, 2022
Roosevelt alums create film to prompt ‘difficult’ talks about race
By Clay Eals
It probably was intended purely as creative expression, but today it holds potent symbolism.
When Roosevelt High School students designed their 1968-69 yearbook, on the title page and on each of six section-introduction layouts they paired two versions of a large photo — the first appearing conventionally and the second in a reversed, negative format, as in this week’s “Then.”
Thus, in the first version, the faces of students at the largely white north-end school appeared as just that, largely white. In the reversed version, the faces became dark.
It was the first year in which Seattle Public Schools implemented its Voluntary Racial Transfer Program, an effort to avoid litigation over a perceived failure to integrate schools as mandated by the famous 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down “separate but equal” education.
As shown in Roosevelt’s 1969 yearbook, the program had a relatively small but visible impact there. Of 1,865 students, about 75 (or 4%) were people of color, many bused from southern neighborhoods. One of those was Lea Vaughn, a biracial sophomore whose parents (father Black, mother white) chose for her to bus from the Central District, near Washington Park, to highly regarded Roosevelt and back.
Vaughn, a retired attorney and emerita University of Washington law professor, is at the core of a grassroots nonprofit, Roosevelt Alumni for Racial Equity (RARE), formed via Zoom during the national upheaval over the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
With a 21-member multi-ethnic board, RARE provides scholarships for students of color and has produced an engaging half-hour documentary, “Roosevelt High School: Beyond Black & White,” which aired twice this year on KCTS-TV and is available online.
With historical data and footage, along with provocative observations from 20 alums, educators and present-day students, the film seeks to “stimulate difficult discussions about race and education.” Interviewees conclude that despite Seattle’s efforts at voluntary, then mandatory busing, racial equity in city schools remains elusive.
They also characterize a perceived “Seattle nice” as “performative, not reformative” and address the “baked-in” effects of racist covenants and redlining in real-estate sales and rentals that the city finally upended in 1968. Startling is a 1936 Kroll map that codes areas of Seattle as green (“best”), blue (“still desirable”), yellow (“definitely declining”) and pink (“hazardous”).
Today, Vaughn lives in a Ballard neighborhood that her family would have been disallowed to inhabit when she was young. But she asserts, “I think because we used busing as the Band-Aid to not face redlining, we never really dealt with it.”
Clearly, the complexities of race bolster the longtime name of Roosevelt’s yearbook: “Strenuous Life.”
Thanks to Lea Vaughn, Peggy Sturdivant and the members of RARE for their help with this installment!
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.