Diversity: Local leaders wrote Federal Way’s chapter of Black History Month

Baruso: February is Black History Month, but let’s not forget Federal Way’s rich history.

Annually, February is the month we celebrate achievements of African-Americans and the roles they played in United States history. Black History Month first began as Negro History Week, a brainchild of historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African-American leaders.

In the month of January, we celebrated the life and teachings of one prominent African-American: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Partnering with the Federal Way High School Betterment, Service and Unity club and the Federal Way School District, the city of Federal Way together with the Federal Way Diversity Commission presented the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration for the first time at the Performing Arts and Event Center. The celebration consisted of local Federal Way High School performers and guest speakers who inspired and challenged all those present to reflect on their own morals and beliefs with inclusion, tolerance, patience and the embracing of diversity being the main focus.

The celebration also included an award for a man who gave so much to our community and local region. The Representative Roger Freeman Memorial Award, named after the late Federal Way City Council member and Washington State representative Roger Freeman, is given to a student who practices Freeman’s life of justice, diversity, compassion and integrity. The student is given the award after submitting an essay to the city’s Diversity Commission, and it must include the four attributes of Freeman. However, some students have asked “who was Roger Freeman?”

For those who don’t know, Roger Freeman served the residents of Federal Way as a City Council member from 2010 until 2012 and then as a District 30 representative from 2013 until his death in 2014. Before being elected to the council, Roger spent three years on the city’s Human Services Commission. In his short time as a state representative, he served on various committees, such as technology and economic development and transportation, and as the vice chair on the Early Learning and Human Services Committee, always keeping youth and their well being at the forefront of his legislative efforts. He worked hard as a lawmaker to stand up for those who weren’t represented in our government, especially children. By trade, he was a lawyer and often did pro bono work and specialized in defending parents who were trying to keep custody of their children after their removal by social workers. He sponsored successful legislation to help parents with disabilities keep their children, as well as to fill a gap in medical insurance coverage for injured firefighters and police officers. As a “junior legislator,” Roger sponsored and helped six bills pass into law – an act hardly heard of from someone so new in the House.

There were others before Roger Freeman who helped pave the way for African-Americans in Federal Way and in our state government.

John Newington Conna was born enslaved in Texas but was a free man by the time the Civil War started. During the Civil War, he served in the 1st Louisiana National Guard, an all-black Union regiment, and in 1883, he and his wife, Mary, traveled to the Northwest by rail and purchased 160 acres of land north of Tacoma, which later became part of Federal Way. Politically active, Conna became the first black appointee in Washington state as sergeant of arms. By 1893, Conna had begun practicing law for the United States Treasury Department.

In 1933, Harold Booker was born in Spring, Texas. He received his undergraduate education in Texas at Wiley College of Marshall, and he received his master’s degree in organic chemistry from the University of Washington in 1955. In 1956, he and his wife, Verda, who later became a first-grade teacher in the Highline School District, settled in King County and, in December of 1962, amidst discrimination, moved to Federal Way. That year he became active in the Federal Way Civil Rights Movement, and in 1963, because of a discriminatory incident at a local swimming pool, Harold started the Federal Way Human Rights Committee. Members of the committee included many prominent white community members, including Jim Burbidge and his wife, Jeanne, our longtime and recently retired City Council member. In the late 1970s, he obtained a law degree from the University of Puget Sound. He moved to Seattle in the early 1980s and has provided pro bono legal services to senior citizens and lower income residents. In May of 2015, he was presented the Key to the City by Mayor Jim Ferrell in recognition of his and his family’s efforts in promoting human rights and social justice in Federal Way.

The first African-American elected official in Federal Way was Eric Faison, who took office in 2001 and won re-election in 2005. Before being elected as a Federal Way City Council member, Faison was on the city’s Planning Commission. At the time of his departure from the City Council, he held the position of deputy mayor. He now serves as the assistant city manager and executive director for administrative services for the city of University Place. In 1997, Faison was admitted into the Washington State Bar Association and is a practicing attorney and specializes in corporate law, to include securities and finance.

Diversity is strong in our community, and each man mentioned above in their own right served our city and area with distinction and honor. Yes, February is Black History Month, but let’s not forget that our own rich history, our diverse city and the culture of Federal Way would be empty without those who sacrificed and had a vision of today’s Federal Way. Don’t just celebrate in February; celebrate our diversity every day.

Gregory Baruso has lived in Federal Way for 15 years and has been a member of the city of Federal Way’s Diversity Commission for more than 10 years and is currently serving as chair.

Greg Baruso

Greg Baruso