Bremerton’s segregated wartime housing project hosted a vibrant African-American community
Seattle was the nation’s fastest-growing big city over the past decade, having swelled by over 20 percent. But that pales — proportionately, at least — in comparison with Bremerton in the 1940s.
Bremerton’s population was 15,134, according to the 1940 census. Five years later it had more than quintupled, to more than 82,000.
That growth was the result of the rapid ramp-up of work at Bremerton’s Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. With the outbreak of World War II, small-town local officials suddenly had to absorb and house tens of thousands of workers.
The solution was a quickly constituted agency, the Bremerton Housing Authority, which almost immediately began standing up temporary worker housing projects. By 1943, they had constructed a noteworthy one called Sinclair Park, which included 280 dwellings in prefabricated, one-story paneled homes, arrayed along curving roads above Sinclair Inlet.
The main thing that set Sinclair Park apart from its sibling developments was its population: Sinclair Park was racially segregated.
“It was a segregated property — the vast majority of the residents at Sinclair Park were non-caucasian. And that was the way it was,” says Kurt Wiest, executive director of the Bremerton Housing Authority.
Walking through the site where Sinclair Park once stood — all that remains of it now are the rolled-edge sidewalks — Wiest says the segregation policy was common in defense worker housing at the time.
“They were following the social mores and values of the time,” Wiest says. “But that doesn’t make it right. And I think we certainly learned from that and learned from it rather quickly, because all of the remaining BHA properties shortly after World War Two became fully integrated.”
A PIANO AND A TRANSFORMATION
Notwithstanding the racist housing policies that brought them there, residents of Sinclair Park quickly solidified into a community. They had their own chapters of the Elks Club, the U.S.O. and the NAACP.
And they had a community center. That center, nicknamed The Armory, would loom large is the story of an 11-year-old boy who had recently arrived at Sinclair Park from Chicago with his father and brother.
One evening this boy and some friends sneaked into the community center — they had heard there were pies in there. They found the pies and dug in, and then the boy entered a small room and happened upon a piano.
It was the first up-close experience with a musical instrument for the boy — who was named Quincy Jones. He later recalled approaching it gingerly, and plunking out a few notes.
“Each note seemed to fill up another empty space I felt inside,” Jones wrote in Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones. “I was 11. I knew this was it for me. Forever.”
Jones would go on to become a world-renowned performer, composer and producer. He would work with Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. And it all started, he says, with an old upright piano in the community center of Sinclair Park.
Quincy Jones tells the Late Show’s Stephen Colbert the story of his encounter with a piano at Sinclair Park