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Tacoma's mayor remembers Harold Moss: A civil rights icon, trailblazer, father figure

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, left, and Harold Moss in 2018. Moss died Monday night at the age of 90. Woodards describes him as a father figure to her.
Courtesy of the City of Tacoma
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, left, and Harold Moss in 2018. Moss died Monday night at the age of 90. Woodards describes him as a father figure to her.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards says the feelings she gets talking about her mentor, friend and adoptive father Harold Moss, who died late Monday at the age of 90, are still raw. Even so, she feels compelled to talk about him — now more than ever.

“We lost that giant,” Woodards told KNKX in an interview Tuesday. “He was such an icon in this community and I feel like, especially during these times of the civil unrest that is happening in our country and in our city, I feel compelled to to talk about the fact that we are not anywhere where we should be. But it was people like Harold Moss who put us where we are today.”

Moss was Tacoma’s first Black City Council member, the city’s first Black mayor, and the first Black Pierce County Council member. More than that, though, Moss was a fixture in the city’s fight for civil rights. He and his wife, Willibelle, faced racism in their search for a home in the city in the 1950s. The experience motivated them to fight the discriminatory practice in real estate known as redlining.

Moss joined the NAACP and helped found the Tacoma Urban League, before launching into a political career. Woodards says the latter happened organically.

“(He) just got up every day and tried to make community better,” she said. “He didn't start out saying, ‘I want to be mayor of the city of Tacoma.’”

While his community activism was rooted in the South Sound, he earned respect from leaders from all levels of government, across the region.

“Harold’s commitment to civil rights and ending the scourge of redlining already left an indelible mark on our region before he ever entered into electoral politics,” U.S. Rep. Denny Heck said in a statement posted to Twitter following Moss’ death. “His decades of service to Tacoma and Pierce County are a testament to his deep love for the people who call the South Sound home.” 

Woodards considered Moss more than a mentor and a friend — he was like family. He hired Woodards away from the Urban League. “That is the time he became my dad,” she said, holding back tears. “And so in the end, while Tacoma lost a civil rights icon, last night I lost my dad. That's what he is to me. He is a man who didn't lead by what he said, but he led by what he did. And he was an incredible shining example of what it means to give your heart and soul every day to community and be so richly blessed because of it.”

Woodards calls Moss a bridge builder. It’s why, she said with a laugh, that the city literally named a bridge after him. The East 34th Street bridge started bearing his name last year, an honor that’s typically reserved for people who are no longer living

Woodards says an honor like that is fitting for someone who has done as much as Moss did for Tacoma, particularly Tacoma’s Black community. He was at the center of Tacoma’s civil rights movement. 

“Harold Moss is the reason that we can eat in any restaurant that we want to. The fact that we can walk into a bar. The fact that we can buy a house in any neighborhood. The fact that someone like me now can be the third African-American mayor of the city of Tacoma,” Woodards said. 

“He was the John Lewis for the city of Tacoma. He was fiery. And when he spoke, he spoke with passion and clarity and fire. And he wasn't afraid of a good fight. He wasn't afraid to get into good trouble.”

Despite all that, she said he was never “unobtainable or untouchable.” He was a regular man who was born in Texas, grew up in Detroit and joined the military at 21, Woodards said. 

“You can be ordinary and still have extraordinary impact,” she said.

Kari Plog is an award-winning reporter covering the South Sound, including Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Before transitioning to public radio in 2018, Kari worked as a print journalist at The News Tribune in Tacoma.
Posey produces, reports, and edits stories for Sound Effect. Before joining the Sound Effect team, Posey worked as a producer at KUOW and WNYC. She has also worked for The Moth and StoryCorps. She holds a certificate in documentary audio production from Duke's Center for Documentary Studies and a certificate in non-fiction writing from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She lives in Seattle with her wife, her daughter, and a fluffy dog.