Federal Way Flashback: Black man fights racist housing policies

In December 1962, 29-year-old Boeing engineer Harold Booker, his wife Verda and their two small sons moved into a home overlooking Steel Lake in the 30200 block of 20th Ave. S. in Federal Way.

A photo of Harold Booker featured in the Tacoma News Tribune in 1992.

In December 1962, 29-year-old Boeing engineer Harold Booker, his wife Verda and their two small sons moved into a home overlooking Steel Lake in the 30200 block of 20th Ave. S. in Federal Way.

Booker and his family were no ordinary newcomers to Federal Way: they were African Americans moving into a virtually all-white community.

The period before the Bookers moved into their new house was fraught with complications. At the time, Federal Way real estate agents refused to sell houses to African Americans. Harold and Verda, in their inquiries regarding existing for sale homes in Federal Way, were usually not met with explicit racism. Rather they were told that the houses had already been sold when in fact they were still for sale.

Tired of receiving the run around from real estate agents, Harold and Verda decided on a new method of securing a home in Federal Way. Vic Weber, Harold’s close white friend and colleague at Boeing’s Auburn plant, sold the Bookers a plot of land he owned overlooking Steel Lake. Weber then helped arrange for a contractor to build a house upon the land.

There was some noticeable hostility among Federal Way whites toward the Bookers after they settled in their new home. In one instance, the Bookers’ oldest son, kindergarten-aged Harold Jr., was chased around his school playground by white classmates screaming the n-word at him.

As he tried to flee this attack, Harold Jr. eventually fell and suffered an enormous cut on his head. Meanwhile, in July 1963, the Booker family spent an afternoon, as guests of Vic Weber, his wife and children, at the newly opened outdoor swimming pool in Federal Way’s Marine Hills neighborhood.

Subsequently, there was an uproar among some of Federal Way’s white residents over the fact that a black family had used the pool. In particular, much hostility was directed at Vic Weber and his wife for facilitating the Bookers’ visit to the pool as well as for having black friends in the first place.

In the July 24, 1963 edition of the Federal Way & Midway Beacon, Harold and Verda wrote a strongly worded letter in response to what they called “the pool incident.” They attacked racism and asked persons protesting their presence at the pool to ask themselves “what causes this instability in my life that an afternoon of friendliness between families of different races can disturb me so?”

In a May 2013 telephone interview, Harold Booker stressed to me that while his family was exposed to racism after they moved to Federal Way, they also received a large amount of support from Federal Way’s white residents.

Perhaps the most noticeable sign of this support was the formation of the Federal Way Committee for Human Rights. The Federal Way Committee focused its energies working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Urban League to fight racial discrimination in Federal Way real estate sales.

Apart from Booker, the group was virtually all white. Its members included Dr. Bertold Bruell, who had established Federal Way’s first family doctor practice in 1951; Jeanne Burbidge, future member of the Federal Way City Council; and future Federal Way school board member James Kenney.

While Harold and his family felt increasingly welcome in the Federal Way community and participated in many community organizations, reminders of racial discrimination in American society were never far away. Such a reminder occurred in the fall of 1969 when Harold was rejected as a member of the Fraternal Order of Elks’ newly chartered Federal Way chapter on the ground that he was not a white male. The Elks, like most fraternal organizations at the time, practiced racist membership policies.

The Federal Way Elks accepted Booker’s membership application without incident but the national organization red-flagged it, noticing that Booker had indicated on it that he was a “black Christian.”

In response to the visit of three Elks officials to his Federal Way home in late 1969 to return his $25 membership fee, Harold penned an essay entitled “Three Men on a Mission” that was published in the Seattle Times and other local papers. His essay ferociously attacked the Elks’ racism.

Booker received an outpouring of support from the Federal Way community. Ten Federal Way Protestant and Catholic churches formed the Federal Way Ecumenical Parish to oppose the Elks’ racism.

A majority of the Federal Way Jaycees voted to refuse to join the Elks until it changed its racist policies; a large minority voted to join the Elks and change its racist policies from within.

When the Federal Way Elks held their inauguration ceremony at the Seattle Center Arena in early March 1970, over 100 people from Federal Way and surrounding communities protested the event.

Booker’s stand against the Elks undoubtedly played a role in the denial (for one year) in 1970 by the Washington State Liquor Control Board of a Class H Liquor license for the state Elks organization.

The national Elks organization formally repealed its racial exclusionary policies in 1973: Booker never joined the organization.

Today Harold Booker lives widowed and in retirement in Seattle. He offers pro bono legal services to the less fortunate (he earned a law degree in the 1970’s).

The activism of Harold Booker and the Federal Way Committee for Human Rights undoubtedly played a significant role in eroding racist housing policies and making Federal Way the racially diverse place it is today.

Chris Green is a member of the Historical Society of Federal Way. For information, call 253-945-7842. “Federal Way Flashback” is the Mirror’s new monthly feature.

 

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