For the third month in a row, John Houston, 69, and his growing group of supporters were registered and waiting to give their public comments to the Renton School Board.
For the third month in a row, the Renton School Board heard about what happened to Houston and his family 55 years ago — and were once again questioned on what the Renton School District was going to do about it.
On Wednesday, April 5, the first person to give comment was James “Jim” Houston, John’s older brother. Jim, 73, spoke about his life in Renton as a young Black man in the 1960s. He talked about his and John’s father, George, their mother, Rachel, and the nearly 10-acre property they bought in the Renton Highlands that their family hand-tilled and turned into a successful pig and livestock farm.
“My dad never would have sold his property,” Jim Houston said. Jim’s three minutes to speak were almost finished as he began to talk about the Renton School District wanting to buy land in the Highlands, and he continued on, even after his microphone was turned off.
“My dad never sold the property, he didn’t know how to read, he didn’t know how to write,” Jim said before being reminded again that his time was up. “He didn’t want to sell the property. We got shanghaied, hoodwinked out of our property and you made a bunch of money off of it […] Where is the school? You never built one!”
Jim is referring to a part of Renton history that has been told many times — through an archivist assigned by the Renton Historical Society and at the Black History Month Unity and Perseverance Forum in February, to name a few.
“My father signed his name with an ‘X’”
George Houston was born in 1906 in rural Louisiana and was a sharecropper in the Jim Crow South before moving to Renton and buying 10 acres of land with his wife Rachel and their family. The year the Houstons bought the 10 acres in what came to be known as the Highlands — a swampy, undesirable area of Renton that John says was the only place in Renton where Black families could own homes and buy land — was also the year that John was born, in 1953.
Over the next 14 years, the Houstons worked the land and put everything into making it livable and profitable.
“We had families come from the center of Seattle to buy pork from us,” Houston told The Renton Reporter in March. “We sold eggs, we did whatever we could to pay for that land.”
The Houston farm had become a successful pig farm, but soon the Renton School District asked George and Rachel to sell their land, which they refused. As time went on, the family home on the property had burned down twice.
Jerry Evans, a retired principal and longtime close friend to Houston, was a witness to the aftermath of the second fire of the Houston home. In a written statement to the Renton School Board, Evans said that his father had taken him and Houston to a Seattle Totems hockey game the night of the second fire, which Houston says took place in 1965.
“We had a great time and returned that night to a horrific scene as John’s house was on fire and the fire department attempting to put out the fire. It was told to my father and myself it seemed to be a fire bomb of some type,” Evans wrote in the statement.
According to Houston, the official causes for the fires were never determined and the school district, again, asked George and Rachel to sell the land to them. Once again, the couple refused.
Then there was the explosive, which has been described as a bomb or a stick of dynamite. Regardless, John says he remembers it being set off on the family’s porch sometime in 1966.
“They came back again after the bomb and made an offer, which my parents refused again,” Houston said. “And right after that came the threats of eminent domain.”
Eminent domain allows the dispossession of private property for public use under special circumstances, with financial compensation.
“My father had a third-grade education, he couldn’t read or write. My mom had a seventh-grade education so, very limited. They had no money to hire an attorney. So my dad gave up,” said Houston.
As time went on, the story of what happened to the Houston family spread, leading eventually to the first few Renton School Board meetings of 2023.
At the April 5 meeting, Jim Houston was becoming more frustrated. When his three minutes were up, and his microphone was turned off, the volume of his voice began to rise and the people around him in the audience began to clap.
Next, John Houston was asked to give his public comment. The clapping died down as he spoke to the school board.
“My parents would never sell the place. It was how we ate, how we kept clothed. It’s all my dad knew. He couldn’t work for anybody else, he worked for himself,” Houston told the school board and crowd. “I’ve seen letters, I have seen correspondences about ‘eminent domain wasn’t used’ — no, it wasn’t used. But the threat of eminent domain is much worse at times than the actual going to court. The threat after two houses burn down, after a bomb set off in our front door, the threat of eminent domain. And that’s what the school district used.”
At the meeting, Houston said that the fires and the explosive were circumstantial and that he wouldn’t explicitly say if they were connected to the district at the time.
“I do know that right after the bomb went off, Renton School District came with the eminent domain threat,” said Houston, who has been a mentor and youth counselor in Renton for many years.
The Houstons were pressured to sell their land, and it ultimately splintered the family. George moved to Moses Lake while Rachel and the rest of the family stayed in Renton.
“My parents divorced and he moved two hundred miles away. My mother then had to work two jobs, cleaning houses during the day and a janitor at night to take care of me and my teenage siblings. My family was destroyed by this,” Houston wrote on a Change.org petition.
Houston says that he and some of his siblings struggled with addiction in their adult lives and that he only saw his father three times after their parents’ divorce.
“My dad, he was literally done. He had gone through the same thing in Louisiana, sharecropping,” Houston told the Reporter. “You never outright owned your land with sharecropping and he came out here thinking it would be different for his wife and kids and the same exact thing happened that happened in rural Jim Crow South.”
The Middle School That Never Was
On June 24, 1965, the Renton School District officially adopted a resolution to acquire land in the Highlands to build a middle school.
Resolution No. 497 stated that the district’s board of directors “found it necessary to acquire additional real estate as site for a new middle school building” and that they are “unable to agree with the owner thereof, after bonafide efforts to do so.”
The Renton School District board of directors also resolved that, since the land was considered necessary to build the school, the property would be acquired by eminent domain.
The 9.84 acres that the Houstons worked and lived on were officially sold to the Renton School District in 1968, along with an additional 7.36 acres that belonged to John and Gladys Longinaker, a white couple, and their family, who shared a southern border with the Houstons.
Public records, which Houston received in 2021, show that the Houstons’ land was purchased for $44,630.24 while the Longinakers were paid $35,303.68. Eminent domain was not used for the Houstons or the Longinakers.
Later that year, after negotiations continuously fell through, a judge ordered that the property of Steve and Irma Harris — a Black family who lived on 2.45 acres bordering the Houstons and the Longinakers — must be officially seized under eminent domain. Their land was taken and purchased for $12,250 the following year in 1969.
“Right after we sold, City of Renton annexed the land and it became part of the city of Renton,” Houston said. “So everybody gets tax dollars. Everybody gets lots and lots and lots of money, except for my parents who cleared most of that land by hand.”
In total, the Renton School District paid $92,183.92 — equivalent to $781,584.99 today — for the combined 19.65 acres, where they planned to build Apollo Middle School, which would sit east and south of Honey Dew Elementary School. But Apollo Middle School was never built.
In an email, Randy Matheson of the Renton School District told the Reporter that the school district had been working with Houston for a couple of years on the matter and that the school was never built due to large-scale layoffs from Boeing in 1969 and 1970.
“The properties were purchased to construct a new middle school to accommodate the growing number of families moving into district boundaries with the promise of jobs at Boeing as the company expanded its production of the 727 and added the 737 to its fleet,” Matheson wrote in the email. From mid-1969 to early 1970, in what came to be known as the “Boeing Bust,” oversaturation of the airplane market led to massive employee layoffs, where “hourly workers declined from 40,000 to 15,000.”
“With the loss of jobs, families began to move out of the district. The need for an additional middle school was deemed unwarranted,” Matheson wrote.
At a regular school board meeting on Feb. 17, 1972, it was decided by unanimous vote that all bids for the construction of Apollo Middle School would be rejected and delayed indefinitely. Resolution No. 659 was then adopted, which stated that financial difficulties would persist if the school were to be built.
An excerpt from the resolution reads, “The economy and birthrate of the Renton School District has been drastically affected in recent years, with the subsequent effect that the rapid enrollment growth experienced in the past decade has leveled off, with some actual decline, thus providing enrollment projections that seriously question the immediate need for the Apollo Middle School.”
After a measure to sell the property was approved by voters in 1975, the Renton School District closed a deal to sell the land to a developing company called G.M. Associates on May 1, 1980, which led to the building of hundreds of residential homes at what is now Union Avenue and 8th Street.
Three Minutes for Comment
At the April 5 meeting, several more people gave their public comments to the school board in support of the Houstons.
“I am here for justice for the Houston family with my friends,” said Tula Holmes of Renton. “I know you weren’t on the board when that horrible decision was made, but the decision to force that family to sell their land under the auspices of building a school that over decades, never happened and has not happened, but to have sold it for profit to developers, is not justice for the Houston family.”
Holmes’ comment included a reference to other cases throughout the country that are similar to what had happened to the Houstons. In 2022, Los Angeles county officials returned ownership of “Bruce’s Beach” to the descendants of a Black couple from the 1920s, whose beachfront resort for African-Americans was seized by the local government.
“Back then, it wasn’t you,” Holmes told the school board. “But Black families weren’t treated with much justice so this is your time to stand up and show everybody how great Renton is and that you care about justice and you are going to support this family.”
Another supporter used their time to address the previous times that the Houstons had brought the issue to the school board.
“I am very disappointed in the school board’s lack of action related to the Houston land project,” said Mike Keever, another longtime friend of John Houston. “You have an opportunity … as I have pointed out at least a month ago to make Renton a paragon of justice … and you had a month at least, maybe even longer to do something and nothing has been done.”
“They talk about generational wealth…”
At the Feb. 3 Renton School Board meeting, John Houston and his representatives requested access to all Renton School District documents related to the purchase of the Houston property, a meeting with the Houstons and their representatives within 30 to 60 days from Feb. 8, and, finally, reparations to their family in the form of “economical lost based on the value of the property to current date.”
George and Rachel Houston were compensated $44,630.24 for their 10 acres, which is equivalent to $388,213.63 today. Many of the homes that now reside on the old Houston property are currently worth double that amount.
“My two remaining siblings live in apartments and I couldn’t afford to buy a house on that land,” said Houston. “I looked at one townhouse on that land. It was over $600,000 and … we rent apartments. My parents had it set up for us. They talk about generational wealth and that was taken from me and my siblings, my children, my grandchildren.”
Prior to the April 5 school board meeting, Houston said he was told that Renton School District Superintendent Damien Pattenaude wanted to meet one-on-one with him, but no date was set at the time of the school board meeting.
The two men eventually met on April 13, and according to Houston, Pattenaude told him that the school district could not find a mechanism to give the remaining Houstons the reparations they requested.
“The Superintendent appreciated having the opportunity to meet with Mr. Houston,” Matheson said when the Reporter asked the school district for comment on the April 13 meeting.
Houston says that he will continue attending school board meetings to tell his story and that he is now looking at hiring an attorney.
“I love this city, it’s who I am,” said Houston. “It’s part of who I am and I wanted to make it as easy and smooth as possible but it probably will end up that way.”