A 1950s Couple Fought For Civil Rights By Renting Out Rooms In Their Home
Editor's Note: This post, which contains recollections of the civil rights movement, contains a racial slur that some might find upsetting. Just a heads up.
We’ve all experienced the uncomfortable feeling of being told to move on. Maybe it was a school bully, or perhaps it was a job you really wanted but didn’t get. For Marion West and her husband, Ray West, it was when they bought a house.
The year was 1952. Marion and Ray met when they were students at the University of Washington. Ray, an African-American born and raised in Mississippi, and Marion, a white woman raised on a farm in Sumas, Washington, were an unlikely pair.
Students of color had a difficult time finding housing close to the university. So, the Wests decided to meet this need. They bought an old 16-room mansion right in the middle of Fraternity Row, just steps from UW’s main campus; a place where students, no matter the color of their skin, could rent a room. Marion had to be the one to make the purchase.
“It was a restricted area at that time and blacks couldn’t buy in that area and I knew at the time it was difficult for non-Caucasians to find housing near the university and it was very important because more were going there. They didn’t need a long commute to get there,” recalls Marion, who is now 90 years old and lives in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle.
Word began to spread among friends and fellow students of color that there was a house, close to campus, that would not turn them away. The house was much more than shelter in a convenient location. In the large living room next to the fireplace, politics were discussed and debated; Ideas were shared. There, among the fraternities and sororities, the Wests threw lots of parties.
“We’ll I’d say [it was] very intellectual, but it sounds very egoistic too,” says Marion with a laugh. “But it was. It was kind of an intellectual center right in the middle of Greek Row, and of course the interracial aspect was very much a part of that.”
Not only were there African-Americans renting rooms, people from all over the world called the old mansion home; students from China, Korea, Iraq, people from countries in Africa.
During all of this, Marion and Ray were starting a family. They had three young children. A boy and two girls. Their daughter, Kathleen West, the middle child, spent the first few years of her life in this international salon of sorts. Her early impression of the world was that everyone looked different and often sounded different too.
“I recall standing in a little hallway looking into the kitchen and seeing people who I wasn’t sure they were Asian. But they had long braids and things and traditional clothing and they were cooking and talking in a language I didn’t understand. And I remember just looking at them and listening and trying to figure out what they were saying," she said.
The tenants bestowed gifts on the children. Kathleen was given a pair of red silk slippers that were given to her by a man from Iraq.
"It was really rather glorious because there was so much flavor in all of the different languages and clothing styles, everything," she remembers. "It was really rather harmonious, a lot of the time.”
Kathleen was unaware that the people who surrounded her inside the home might not have been welcomed elsewhere. As a child, she had no concept of race and was not aware she was biracial.
“[It] just never even dawned on me that there was race, until I was five and I went to school and people began to ask me questions, which I didn’t have answers for.”
Kathleen was often asked if she was a "nigger," a word she’d never heard before.
“So I was trying to figure it out and I recall being at a friends house and I saw a big map of the world and on it said Nigeria and I thought it said Niggeria. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s why I’m a nigger, I’m from Niggeria. I’m going to go home and ask my parents!’ They stopped and looked at me horrified and then they just started talking to each other and I went upstairs,” she remembers.
As the safe haven of interracial harmony was thriving inside the house, the world outside was not so kind. Kathleen says that her father, usually a happy guy, would sometimes look very serious and worried when he answered the phone. Her mom, Marion, says that’s because a lot of threatening phone calls were made to the house. Some of them were death threats.
“We were not welcomed on Greek Row as you may imagine,” says Marion. “Bad things happened, they threw rocks at the house and fire crackers — little harassments every now and then.”
Kathleen remembers cans being tied to their car. She says there was a march outside of the house. But the incident that made it clear that the family and the tenants of the home were not welcome in the neighborhood was when a wooden cross was erected in the front lawn in the dark of night, and then set on fire.
“That’s correct,” says Marion, “A year or two after we moved in, the children were sleeping on the sleeping porch right across from where the cross was burned. That’s kind of an horrific thing to happen.”
Kathleen was awake. She heard something outside. “And. I looked out and saw people actually digging. I told my brother Ray, there are people in the yard. Ray, there’s a fire in the yard. We saw this big blaze and we ran in to tell our parents. I didn’t understand why it happened. I had no clue why it would happen to us.”
The house was clearly a target. The tenants of the house started to get scared. They began to move out. The Wests lost their rental income and had to sell. On top of all of this, Ray lost his job with the YMCA. Kathleen says he was falsely accused of having ties to the Communist Party.
The family ended up moving topublic housing in Holly Park in South Seattle. Government food filled their cabinets. With three kids to provide for, the family was under a lot of stress. Marion and Ray eventually divorced.
Both continued their quest for a more equitable world and kept working for the civil rights movement. Ray was eventually appointed to Seattle’s Commission on Fair Housing. He died in 1996. Marion become a teacher. She also worked for a federal program called Model Cities, which set out to rebuild slums across the country, including in Seattle.
When Kathleen thinks back to the house in the University District, what her parents did at that time in our nation’s history, and the price they paid for taking that risk, she is just starting to grasp what a unique experience her parents provided her.
“I didn’t realize until probably a year ago, how different that house was compared to most houses even in the world," she says. "When you’re ostracized at school when you’re different from everybody. When you go to civil rights marches and people glare at you, but your parents do it anyway, you don’t realize that you were born into a place that was so forward thinking until you reflect as an older person and you look back and you go oh my goodness, this was so different I feel so honored to have been born into that.”
If you’d like to see the West’s home in the U-District, well, it was torn down and replaced with a new building. It’s a fraternity now. Several blocks away from that spot, is a brand new apartment building with a food bank on the first floor. It’s called the Marion West Apartments.
It’s just for people who are 18 to 24 years old, who don’t have a lot of money, but who could really benefit from an affordable place live, close to their jobs and school.
This story originally aired on Aug. 20, 2016.