Black History Month: Artists Who Called Seattle Area Home
You don’t need to live long in the Seattle area to know it’s home to two African Americans who are among the world’s greatest entertainers—guitarist Jimi Hendrix and composer Quincy Jones. But you might be surprised to know of other renowned Black artists who were either born here or lived here at some point.
As we celebrate February’s Black History Month, United Way of King County recognizes 10 African American artists from the Seattle area (other than Hendrix or Jones) who made impacts on their respective industries. Some were known for showcasing the triumphs and highlighting the struggles of the Black experience, and as we seek to do at United Way, they embodied what it means to embrace community.
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
The renowned painter was known for his portrayal of African American life, including his 60-panel “Migration Series” that colorfully illustrated the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to other parts of the country. Lawrence was born in Atlantic City but ultimately moved to Seattle and became a professor at the University of Washington from 1971-1986.
Tina Marie Bell (1957-2012)
The Seattle-born singer/songwriter was the lead for Seattle-based band Bam Bam, which was one of the founders of the grunge genre. As a Black woman in a music scene that had few women or people of color, Bell overcame racial hostilities to help pioneer the grunge sound and was dubbed the Godmother of Grunge.
August Wilson (1945-2005)
One of the nation’s greatest playwrights, Wilson chronicled African American experiences in the 20th century, including his popular 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” which featured nine works in that city’s predominantly Black Hill District. Wilson earned the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for “Fences” in 1987, and upon moving to Seattle in 1990, he won his second Pulitzer for “The Piano Lesson.” While living in Seattle, Wilson staged many of his plays at Seattle Rep.
Octavia Butler (1947-2006)
The first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation grant, Butler was a trailblazer in a field that was once overwhelmingly white and male. She is best known for her novel, “Kindred” (1979), a narrative about a Black woman who travels from 1970s Southern California to the South before the Civil War. Though born and reared in Southern California, Butler spent the last seven years of her life in Lake Forest Park.
James W. Washington Jr. (1908-2000)
A renowned painter and sculptor, James W. Washington Jr. was a self-taught artist who moved to the Seattle area from Mississippi and studied under artist Mark Tobey at the Northwest School. His work reflects his religious roots and African American culture. His home and studio in Seattle is now the Dr. James and Janie Washington Cultural Center. In 1992, the City of Seattle designated his home as a cultural landmark.
Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016)
An accomplished blues and jazz singer, Anderson was born in Houston but moved to Seattle as a teenager and, like Quincy Jones, attended Garfield High School. She eventually signed with Jones’ record label Qwest, recorded two albums that received Grammy nominations, and performed at such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
Ray Charles (1930-2004)
The incomparable music legend moved from his home in Tampa, FL, to Seattle as a teenager (reportedly to escape the racially hostile South). Though he stayed only two years, Charles cut his first record here. It was here that Charles honed his music sound that ultimately made him an international star, earning him 12 Grammy Awards, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He and Jones also met in Seattle and forged a friendship that would last their lifetimes.
Bertram Philander Hendrix (1866-1934) and Zenora Moore (1883-1984)
You may have never heard of Bertram Philander Hendrix and Zenora Moore, but you have heard of their grandson, the aforementioned Jimi Hendrix. Both Hendrix and Moore were vaudeville performers who met on the road and got married while touring in Seattle. Initially they sought to make the city home but found it challenging to gain steady work. They relocated to Vancouver, BC, where all their children were born, including James Allen Ross Hendrix, Jimi’s father.
Blair Underwood (1964-)
The Tacoma-born, Emmy Award-winning actor’s credits include popular television series such as “L.A. Law,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Cosby Show,” and “Knight Rider.” Underwood also starred in such films as “Set it Off,” “Rules of Engagement,” and “Madea’s Family Reunion.” He is a trustee of the Robey Theatre Company, which develops and produces plays about global Black experiences.