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Black Wine Professionals Demand to Be Seen

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TJ Douglas and his wife, Hadley, own Urban Grape, a thriving wine shop in the South End neighborhood of Boston. Before the pandemic, a regular internet customer with whom Mr. Douglas had had many discussions online about wine, walked into the shop for the first time.

The customer, who was white, had come specifically to meet Mr. Douglas, whom he did not know was Black.

“He looked at me and walked right past me to an older white man who worked for me, and thanked him for all he had done,” Mr. Douglas recalled. “The employee pointed toward me, and the gentleman turned around and looked shocked. He had never thought of buying wine from a Black person before. He also looked extremely embarrassed.”

“I had to go above and beyond to make him feel comfortable for the way he was perceiving me,” Mr. Douglas said.

Mr. Douglas’s experience is typical. Talk to wine professionals who are Black in this overwhelmingly white industry, and you will hear similar stories of invisibility over and over, no matter how different their jobs, backgrounds or places of work.

These are stories about feeling dismissed by white people who cannot associate them with the expertise, knowledge or authority they have earned through their work.

Whether writers, sommeliers, retailers, farmers or winemakers, Black people in the wine world face a barrage of slights, whether small, possibly unconscious hostilities or overt racism. As a result, getting ahead requires a constant, fatiguing effort to pull against the friction of discrimination that slows what for whites would be a natural career progression.

I spoke with nine Black wine professionals, to listen, with the hope that their shared experiences might result in a deeper conversation and understanding among their peers in the wine world.

Julia Coney is a wine writer and educator based in Houston and Washington, D.C., who regularly leads tastings and teaches wine classes. Yet as a consumer, she said, white servers or merchants are always ready to instruct her, to show her how to hold a glass and to explain to her why she ought to swirl it.

In restaurants, they steer her to cheaper wines or sweeter choices that fit their stereotype of what she might enjoy.

“They dumb things down for me,” she said. “I’ve seen both innate prejudice and innate assumptions about who has the power and the discernment. I’ve been told I look like the help.”

She has grown tired of the tokenism, of being the only Black person invited to a tasting or on a sponsored trip to a wine region. She is sick of seeing the wine industry toss money only to white social-media influencers. So she has created a database, Black Wine Professionals, in hopes that white gatekeepers who say they want to diversify will use this tool. And if they won’t take action, she said, she will.

“They keep regurgitating the same person, and new people never get a chance,” Ms. Coney said. “People might ask me on a trip, and I’m going to look at the racial breakdown. And I’ll offer my spot to someone else.”

Stephen Satterfield calls himself a “recovering sommelier.” He says wine is still one of his great loves, but he has left the business twice because of what he termed “a sense of cultural isolation.” Mr. Satterfield, who is based in Atlanta, now publishes a quarterly food magazine, Whetstone, and is host of a podcast, “Point of Origin,” that explores the intersection of culture, food, politics and diversity.

“I found people had the range to talk about nothing but wine,” he said of life as a sommelier. “I found that especially problematic as a Black person, because I felt I could never be fully seen or understood in the industry beyond my ability to adapt to standards of decorum, language and posture.”

This feeling, he said, was especially apparent in trade tastings, essential events in which producers, wine buyers and other gatekeepers meet, socialize, taste wine and form essential business relationships.

“Imagine if you were the only white person in that same environment full of Black people,” Mr. Satterfield said. “Trying to taste wine in that kind of head space, it was an exhausting sort of emotional labor that white people wouldn’t even notice. In trade tastings, you see the invisibility.”

Madeline Maldonado is the beverage director at Da Toscano, an Italian restaurant that opened in Greenwich Village shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic. She, too, has had difficult experiences in trade tastings.

“They would treat me like a novice, and you internalize that,” she said. “We spend so much of our time in those interactions, you end up feeling less-than. It’s not good for your mental health. It feels lonely.”

Once, at a restaurant where she worked, she stopped next to a white couple to make a passing comment about an excellent bottle on the table. “The man responded, ‘What do you know about wine?’” she recalled.

“When you see other people of color, there’s that look of relief,” Ms. Maldonado said. “We don’t always talk about it, but through our body language, there’s that sense of, ‘I see you, you see me.’”

As a wine server, André Hueston Mack reached the peak of his profession as head sommelier at Per Se in New York in 2004. He is now an author and entrepreneur, with his own Oregon wine label, Maison Noir, and, with his wife, Phoebe Damrosch, a small empire of shops in Brooklyn under the umbrella name & Sons Hospitality Group.

As a young sommelier, he said, he met people who assumed he knew nothing about wine. He decided to use their feelings for his own purposes.

“I get to choose how I feel about things,” he said. “I choose to use that energy to keep pushing forward, to be relentless.”

He has endured many slights: A retailer in Texas asked him whether Maison Noir came in 40-ounce bottles. Another, in Colorado, followed him around his store, apparently fearing he might steal something. Some diners at Per Se told him to send over the real sommelier.

“I chose to make those moments empowering,” he said. “I’m constantly helping people pick their jaws up off the floor and their feet out of their mouths.”

Zwann Grays, the wine director at Olmsted in Brooklyn, was lucky enough to meet a number of Black women who served as mentors and role models — people like Lee Campbell, who has excelled in all parts of the wine business, Marquita Levy, the sommelier at Chef’s Club New York, and Beth Baye, a buyer at 67 Wine in Manhattan.

“It has 100 percent made all the difference,” Ms. Grays said.

Her issues have come not so much in restaurants as in areas where the wine industry congregates.

“Trade tastings are the worst — I’ve felt the cold, the not-seen space,” she said. Repeatedly, she said, she has received the bare minimum of consideration while, all around her, white wine professionals are treated with courtesy and given full attention.

“It’s so dismissive,” she said. “There’s a natural respect for white wine culture and a natural disrespect for Black people in the wine industry space.”

Tammie Teclemariam, a freelance food and drinks writer in Brooklyn (who has contributed to Wirecutter, which is owned by The New York Times), calls herself a “wine unprofessional” to set herself apart from what she sees as an exclusionary industry.

“Just the nature of what wine is makes it really hard to separate it from racism,” said Ms. Teclemariam, whose recent tweet of a photo of Bon Appétit’s editor in chief helped spur his resignation and a reckoning over institutional racism at the magazine.

“In order to trust a wine person, you have to respect their humanity as someone who can physically enjoy and understand an experience as well, or even in a more nuanced way, than you. That’s the whole humility of wine appreciation, and I think it’s hard for some people to relate to me equally even on a sensual level.”

Rampant class and generational issues play a part as well in what she sees as wine’s old-boy network and bro culture. Adding racism to the mix creates an impregnable wall, she said.

“The fact is in order to really be a trusted voice in wine, most Black people have to be co-signed by a white person or celebrity alliance, or else be in constant recitation of their work history,” she said.

Invisibility is not just a problem for Black wine professionals in America. Winemaking stretches back four centuries in South Africa, a nation in which discrimination and racial violence were long sanctioned by apartheid.

After that system was swept away at the end of the 20th century, Ntsiki Biyela became South Africa’s first Black female winemaker. In 2016, she established her own label, Aslina Wines.

When she arrived in 1998 at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape to study wine, she did not speak Afrikaans, a major language of the region. Her fellow students asked why she had even bothered coming there.

“It wasn’t the question, it was how it was asked, with that underlying part of saying, ‘You’re not welcome here,’” she recalled by email.

As she moved into her career, it was difficult at first to interact with growers from whom she wanted to buy grapes. “They didn’t want to deal with you: ‘You’re Black, what do you know about wine?’” she said.

One of Ms. Biyela’s biggest challenges has been to build an audience for wine among Black South Africans, who have not traditionally consumed wines. A major problem she has identified is the language used to describe wine, which is full of obscure flavor references that are not always familiar to many Black South Africans who are not well-versed in European winespeak.

While the white-dominated wine industry in South Africa sticks with the standard language, virtually ignoring a huge group of potential customers, Ms. Biyela has worked to find references that are more commonplace. Instead of saying a wine smells like truffles, she said, she might say it smells like amasi, a sort of fermented milk.

“When discussing with Black people, I would explain that since I got into the industry I have managed to associate the flavors of the wine to what I know,” she said. “You don’t have to go by what the back of the label says. You can create your own things.”

As a young man, Carlton McCoy Jr. received a scholarship to culinary school. His grandmother told him he would need to change the way he spoke, cut his hair and wear new clothes, he recounted in a recent Facebook post.

“It crushed her to say it,” said Mr. McCoy, who grew up in Fairfax Village in southeastern Washington, D.C. “She told me that ‘they’ would never accept me that way.”

Years later, Mr. McCoy is a master sommelier and the president and chief executive of Heitz Cellar, a historic Napa Valley wine producer. But he still knows he is an outsider, with life experiences unlike those of most of the people he encounters professionally.

“They don’t know what it means to walk into a restaurant and be asked if you’re in the right place,” he said. “You are the only one in the room. You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

“The fact that I’m in that room, that I’m at the head of the table, I’m proud of that. We should wear it like a badge of honor, being the only one, and create another seat for somebody else.”

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CHOP Made Seattle Look Like a Real City

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The street art emanated from CHOP's core in the way the light from a star diminishes as it spreads further into the night of empty space. by Charles Mudede
Memories of Utopia...
Memories of Utopia... Charles Mudede

At around 4:00 p.m. on June 28, here I am walking down the stretch of 13th Avenue between Pike and Pine. My destination is around the corner. My thoughts are completely disconnected from my surroundings. I'm thinking about Hannah Arendt. About how she blamed the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Soviet Union on the failure of European social democracy to become as global as capitalism. I read Arendt that morning because of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America demonstration that occurred at Magnuson Park the day before. The event climaxed outside of Mayor Jenny Durkan's home. She was not there. But her gate was defaced.

As I walk down 13th, I'm trying to figure out what in Arendt's idea works and what doesn't. Suddenly, something pulls my thoughts out of the self inside of me and throws them onto the street around me. I stop. Hannah Arendt and social democracy dissolve. The street says: I have been here before, but not here in Seattle. It's another city that I visited either in a dream or in the real world.

It takes a moment or two for me to realize it's Berlin.

I was there in 2014 for two weeks, and I stayed in a hotel in the Mitte, Hotel Motel One. The breakfast was cold boiled eggs and cold cuts and cold tomatoes. But that's not what transports me to the capital of Germany. It's instead all of the graffiti on the walls next to me. There is almost nothing like it in most of Seattle; but many of the streets in Berlin are covered almost completely with graffiti. Before it was cleaned up and gentrified, New York City was once like this. The same goes for London. Berlin, however, never cleaned up, never became respectable. It kept alive what makes a city feel like a city. The democracy of its surfaces.

We be in the city!
"We be in the city!" Charles Mudede

Why was this street in Seattle so much like walking down a street in Kreuzberg? Because of CHOP/CHAZ.

This section of 13 Avenue, which suddenly sunk me in time (6 years) on June 28, is on the outskirts of an autonomous zone that came into existence the day after the Seattle Police Department abandoned the East Precinct on June 8, 2020. It captured the nation's attention for almost a month. And during this time, it was densely covered with brilliant and bad graffiti—on the sidewalk, the street, the boards, the brick walls, the mailboxes. The street art emanated from this core, between 11th and 12th on Pine, in the way the light from a star diminishes as it spreads further into the night of empty space.

What made Seattle a real city for a moment is now being returned to what makes it not a city. Clean, privatized surfaces and middle-class respect of property. And indeed we can say that this is what really triggered the downfall of CHOP, Durkan's strong middle-class attachment to property, particularly her own.

If one looks at the timeline of events that occurred after her gate was defaced on June 28, they will see Durkan ordering action against the Kshama Sawant, who participated in the DSA demonstration. In fact, her letter demanding that the Seattle City Council investigate the POC socialist is filled with a white-hot outrage that, even for her, is exceptional. Then on the morning of July 1, it's down to business. Durkan, who visited CHAZ/CHOP only two weeks before and had nice things to say about it and Marcus's garden, issues a red-hot executive order to vacate the area. The "weeks of violence," the "shootings," the "deaths of two teenagers"—enough is enough. The police marches into the autonomous zone and removes its park people, tents, and art. In no time, they reclaim their station. Before it's 10 am, CHAZ/CHOP becomes a thing of the past.

And now Trump is claiming to be the inspiration for the CHOP crackdown, which makes sense because, despite all of the lefty things she claims to stand for, she is at root all about property, about its protection, and its sanctity. When we examine her response to the defacement of her gate by a bunch of socialists, we can see it has a connection with that gun-toting couple in St. Louis.

The St. Louis couple responded to what they perceived as a direct threat to their property with a silver pistol and a military-grade assault rifle. Durkan, on the other hand, responded with a department of men and women armed to the teeth. She did the same as the St. Louis couple, but at a scale so grand that even Trump is trying to put his name on it.

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2 days ago
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Sawant Responds to Jenny Durkan, Cites Citizens' Call for Durkan to Resign

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Sawant didn't just issue a response, she dropped a dis track. by Nathalie Graham
Sawant didnt pull any punches.
Sawant didn't pull any punches. Courtesy of Seattle City Council

Councilmember Kshama Sawant just released her response to Mayor Jenny Durkan's letter that asked the Seattle City Council to open an investigation into Sawant. She appeared thoroughly unruffled by Durkan's admonition.

As one Twitter user aptly put it, Sawant didn't just issue a response, she dropped a dis track.

"This Mayor has no standing whatsoever to now disingenuously call for 'the urgent need for government to work together,'" Sawant said in a statement provided to The Stranger.

This was after she claimed that Durkan "has utterly failed working people and communities of color in this city," hit back at the Seattle Police Department's use of force and tear gas deployment during this month's demonstrations under Durkan's watch, and pointed to the eight people who were killed by police violence—and the zero officers who have been prosecuted in these incidents—during Durkan's administration.

Sawant then segued into how more than 20,000 citizens have signed onto a petition called for Durkan's resignation. I'm not sure which one Sawant is talking about, but this petition I found about recalling Durkan has over 31,000 signatures. This is "a measure of outrage ordinary people feel at Durkan and the rotten status quo over which she presides," according to Sawant.

Sawant cited the SPD contract—sans consent decree—that Durkan approved and defended (but Sawant was the lone no-vote against). There was a condemnation of gentrification, a call for more affordable housing, and a plug for her Tax Amazon legislation.

In closing, Sawant said:

"Durkan’s attack on my office is an attack on the grassroots campaigns we’ve participated in and helped lead alongside many others, and the progressive victories we have all won together. While her words are directed at me and my elected office, I don’t take it personally. In reality, this is an attack on working people’s movements, and everything we are fighting for, by a corporate politician desperately looking to distract from her failures of leadership and politically bankrupt administration. Our movement will respond accordingly: we will fight with even greater unity and determination."

Full statement here:

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s establishment has utterly failed working people and communities of color in this city. She bears responsibility for a torrent of violence by Seattle police, including the use of brutal weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets against the Black Lives Matter protest movement. Under her watch, eight community members have been killed at the hands of Seattle police, with zero officers prosecuted.

Bankrolled by corporate cash in her election campaign, Durkan has used her position to doggedly protect Amazon’s corporate tax haven while working people shoulder the overwhelming burden of society. She has just declared budget cuts of nearly $300 million, which will only exacerbate human suffering, especially in communities of color, dishonestly claiming that the cuts are “unavoidable.”

This Mayor has no standing whatsoever to now disingenuously call for “the urgent need for government to work together.”

Socialist Alternative and my Council office are proud to have marched, rallied, and organized with thousands of community members and activists in recent weeks to demand #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd, #BlackLivesMatter. Our movement is demanding racial and economic justice, long withheld by a pro-corporate political establishment, whose leader currently is Mayor Durkan.

As a measure of outrage ordinary people feel at Durkan and the rotten status quo over which she presides, more than 20,000 Seattleites have signed petitions calling on her to resign or be impeached. That is why Mayor Durkan’s shameful attack today is not surprising.

I am proud to work with young people of color to demand that the City #DefundPolice, and redirect at least half of the bloated $409 million police budget – which Mayor Durkan championed – to urgent community needs as decided by community organizations and coalitions. I stand with the movement in demanding that all protestors be released and all charges dropped.

I am proud to stand with African-American clergy in the Central Area, who are demanding that the city reverse its policies of racist gentrification, which have only intensified under Durkan’s watch, and fund the construction of at least 1,000 new, affordable homes in the neighborhood to allow Black people to return, as part of the Amazon Tax legislation in City Council.

I am proud to unite with environmental justice activists of all backgrounds, to demand that the city establishment make good on its promise to fund the Green New Deal, instead of the empty gestures we have seen from the Durkan administration.

Durkan’s attack on my office is an attack on the grassroots campaigns we’ve participated in and helped lead alongside many others, and the progressive victories we have all won together. While her words are directed at me and my elected office, I don’t take it personally. In reality, this is an attack on working people’s movements, and everything we are fighting for, by a corporate politician desperately looking to distract from her failures of leadership and politically bankrupt administration. Our movement will respond accordingly: we will fight with even greater unity and determination.

Read up on Durkan's letter calling for an investigation on Sawant here.

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3 days ago
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Nikkita Oliver, Black liberation and the limits of electoral politics

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This is how journalists so often think about emergent figures in electoral politics. Whether it’s a vice presidential candidate on a failed ticket or a young senator whose rise was as swift as it was unexpected, we often think in terms of political narrative; how, we wonder, will this person leverage newfound political capital into greater electoral success? 

Hear Mark and Nikkita talk about the future of Black Lives Matter on our Crosscut Talks podcast.

But that, it turns out, was the wrong way to think about Oliver's future. Rather than fixating on electoral success, she has put her energies into community organizing and her work with Creative Justice, a program that offers alternatives to incarceration for young people. When protesters first took to the streets last month to speak out against systemic racism and killings by police, she was there. On June 3, she stood on the steps of Seattle City Hall before a sea of protesters, toe to toe with Mayor Durkan.

As she and I discussed in this week's episode of the Crosscut Talks podcast, Oliver delivered to the mayor a list of demands on behalf of the protesters. Among them was a call to "defund the police," a measure that has been largely dismissed by Durkan but is being seriously considered by the Seattle City Council.

It has been a startling development for a city government that has long been committed to incremental reform. Even Oliver, who didn't include defunding the police in her 2017 platform, has been surprised at the shift.

"Mostly what I feel right now is that we have a significant opportunity to make a huge leap forward into a radically different future, something I did not think was going to happen in my lifetime," she told me. "In fact, in law school I was regularly told by my professors that incremental change was the only option, and yet here we are in 2020 talking about defunding the police as a mainstream conversation."

My focus on electoral politics in the wake of Oliver's 2017 defeat revealed a lack of imagination on my part, or perhaps it was a lack of knowledge about how Black liberation actually works. My ignorance perhaps reflects a larger problem with the bubble that has formed around newsrooms that are predominantly white and, though independent, woven into the institutional matrix that manages power in this country. We are at times too focused on the official avenues of redress and lack the curiosity, or life experience, to see another way.

Certainly Oliver's run for the mayorship elevated her message. But it's looking more and more like winning at the ballot box isn't a requirement to effect real change in this city.

This story was first published in Crosscut's Weekly newsletter. Want to hear more from reporters and editors like Mark Baumgarten? Sign up for the newsletter, below.

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3 days ago
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8 Washington counties carry a racist legacy in their names

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There are other tributes closer to home that might be worth reconsidering, if not toppling. Few think about the men behind the names of some of Washington’s 39 counties. When you do, a disturbing pattern emerges. At least eight are named for slave owners, white supremacists, people who sought to extend slavery in the United States or who tried to ban Black people from the Pacific Northwest altogether.

Until 2005, that list was one name longer. King County was originally named for an Alabama slave owner, William Rufus De Vane King, who happened to be Franklin Pierce’s Democratic running mate in their victory in 1852. Pierce County was named after the president and neighboring King County was given his vice president’s moniker. Fortunately, a bipartisan effort to change the designation of King County to honor Martin Luther King was made, though not without a struggle. It took nearly two decades to make the change official after it was adopted.

A hand-colored lithograph announces the 1852 campaign of Franklin Pierce and William Rufus de Vane King for president and vice president. In Washington state, Pierce and King counties were originally named in their honor. (Nathaniel Currier/National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)

King County no longer honors a virtually unknown slave plantation owner but rather a Black icon of civil rights. Even so, the name change was uncomplicated by the fact that the name of the county didn’t have to change, only who it was honoring.

There probably is no such fix for Pierce County. Its namesake president, Franklin Pierce, was called a “doughface,” a term used in the 1850s and ‘60s for northern Democrats who were Southern sympathizers. Though he was from New Hampshire and was not a slave owner, or even in favor of slavery, he did oppose abolition because he believed it was the wrong way to end the institution and would violate the constitutional rights of Southern states, a fairly mainstream view in his era.

Pierce also acted in ways that advanced the slave owners’ cause. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the possibility of slavery’s expansion into the western territories. Pierce promoted U.S. expansion abroad, too, including the annexation of Cuba. Opponents of slavery saw this as an attempt to acquire new slave territories for Southern interests.

The major proponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, for whom Douglas County in Eastern Washington is named. He was loyal to the Union, but also opposed abolition and wanted to allow states and territories to decide on slavery on their own. The Democratic Party split into factions in 1860, with Douglas running for president against Republican Abraham Lincoln. The Southern branch of the party backed John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky whose running mate, Joseph Lane, was senator from Oregon. A county in Oregon is named for Southern sympathizer Lane. Breckinridge became a Confederate general.

The Douglas, Lincoln and Breckinridge tickets supported the existence of slavery. And Douglas, though he denied it, was a slave master through his wife. She inherited a family plantation with 100 slaves in Mississippi. Douglas denied “owning” slaves, though he managed the plantation personally from a distance, and took from it profits that boosted his political ambitions. Douglas died shortly after the 1860 election, but he represented a large slice of the Democratic Party that was pro-Union at any cost, including tolerating slavery. When it came time to name the Washington Territory in the 1850s, Douglas proposed an amendment that would have named it “Washingtonia.” The two vowels were rejected by Congress in favor of the less euphonious name we have.

Sen. Stephen A. Douglas,
Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, for whom Douglas County in Eastern Washington is named, opposed abolition of slavery and argued it was a states issue. The disagreement split the Democratic Party in 1860, with Douglas running for president against Republican Abraham Lincoln. (Mathew Brady/National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)

Isaac Stevens, namesake of Stevens County in northeastern Washington, was the first territorial governor of Washington, appointed by Pierce. He also was elected to represent Washington in Congress. He is known for “negotiating,” often through violence and threat, tribal treaties throughout the Washington Territory. Brutal treatment of the Indians led to conflicts in the mid-1850s in the Northwest, which led to terrible retaliations. He often criticized the U.S. Army for not cracking down on Native peoples hard enough. Stevens also declared martial law, illegally, to harass settlers who were too friendly with Native peoples.

Stevens managed the pro-Southern, pro-slavery presidential campaign of Breckinridge and Lane, a ticket that believed slavery was a constitutional right and threatened secession if it was tampered with. One of Stevens’ helpers in that campaign? Jefferson Davis. Some Republicans in Washington Territory worried that if that ticket won, it would open up the possibility of slavery here. Stevens, however, remained loyal to the Union after secession, served as a Union general and died leading his troops at the Battle of Chantilly in 1862. Probably more than any other man of his era, Stevens shaped the foundations of what is now Washington State.

Another Civil War Union general is acknowledged in Grant County. Ulysses S. Grant was in Washington early in his career, stationed for a time at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. While Grant is known for his wartime service in defeating the Confederacy, and for his presidency during Reconstruction, in which he fiercely put down the Ku Klux Klan with force, it is little known that he owned a slave and oversaw many more. He married Julia Dent, whose family owned a Missouri slave plantation called “White Haven.” Grant himself lived on the plantation for some years, supervising slave labor. He also owned a slave named William Jones, purchased from his father-in-law. He later freed the man. Grant had grown up in an anti-slavery household. His wife continued to have slaves throughout the war until 1865, well after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Thurston County at the southern end of Puget Sound is named for the Oregon territory’s first delegate to Congress, Samuel Thurston, who played a key role in the shaping of Washington and Oregon in the early years. He argued in Congress on behalf of Oregon settlers who did not want slavery there, but also opposed having any Black settlers, saying that if they came, they would intermarry with Indigenous peoples and create trouble. “The object is to keep clear of this most troublesome class of population,” he argued. Oregonians voted to exclude Black people, and a provision to that end entered the state’s constitution when Oregon was admitted to the Union.

Thurston was also key in passing the federal Donation Land Act, which allowed white settlers — and whites only — to homestead in the Oregon Country, which then included what is now Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Some have argued that it was more effective than other legal Oregon exclusions in creating a “white” Northwest. Only 30 African Americans lived in the vast Washington Territory by 1860. As one author has put it, “The Donation Land Act was an emphatic endorsement of the color line in Oregon, and the law essentially functioned as an affirmative action program for Anglo-American settlers.”

Jefferson County on the Olympic Peninsula is named for Thomas Jefferson who was a slave owner, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. He believed in westward expansion and was sponsor of the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804-6, which sought to help extend and establish American claims in the West through exploration. Jefferson is said to have fathered up to six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Historians are still grappling with the fact that in modern terms, Jefferson was a rapist. 

Connected to Jefferson was William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame. Clark himself was a slave owner — he owned at least 18 slaves —who brought a Black slave, York, on the land expedition to the Pacific Coast. York was Clark’s “manservant” but was an invaluable member of the so-called “Corps of Discovery,” among other things smoothing the way with Indigenous peoples they met along the way. Despite York’s heroic contributions, Clark did not free him upon their return, which York asked as a reward for his services. He also did not allow York to go to Louisville to live with his wife.

William Clark
William Clark, left, stoutly captured as the governor of the Missouri Territory, years after he first entered the territory in 1804 as the co-leader, with Meriwether Lewis, right, of the government expedition that bore their names. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Clark wrote of York’s efforts to be free: “If any attempt is made by York to run off, or refuse to proform [sic] his duty as a Slave, I wish him Sent to New Orleands [sic] and sold, or hired out to Some Sevare [sic] Master until he thinks better of Such Conduct.” Clark himself beat York for being “insolent and sulky” over his lot. Clark eventually freed York, but his mistreatment has been called “… one of the saddest of the biographies of expedition members. Like so many other African Americans throughout history, he was held back not for lack of talents or ability, but merely because of the color of his skin.”

Clark’s companion, Meriwether Lewis, lends his name to Lewis County, adjacent to Thurston. Lewis was also a slave owner. He inherited a large Virginia plantation as a boy and ran the place when he reached 18. He had 24 slaves. He left the plantation to join a militia, then the Army, and had no personal slaves, though he did agree to let Clark bring one on their journey. He did not like the plantation life and has been referred to as a “loner,” though later he hired a free Black man to be his servant, though he did not always pay him.

Beyond the counties, there are some larger names to consider.

Washington state is named for a slave owner who is also known as the Father of Our Country, George Washington. An alternative name considered for the state was Columbia, controversial today as Christopher Columbus kicked off a brutal European exploitation in the Americas driven by greed and fueled by slavery.  A Columbus statue was removed from Seattle’s waterfront in 2012, and one was toppled recently in Minnesota and another beheaded in Boston. We also have a region-defining river of that name, and a diverse Seattle neighborhood, Columbia City, not to mention a county, Columbia, on the dry side of the state.

Names on geographic features can take a long time to change, but there are successful recent examples of renaming ones disparaging to Black and Indigenous people, such as the Jim Crow names in southwest Washington, or Squaw names that appear throughout the Northwest. The process can be long and complex, requiring local support, an argument for change, extensive research and approval at the state and national levels.

Changing county names is somewhat simpler: It requires only approval of the state Legislature if the county wants to make the change, though such a vote is bound to be politically controversial. It’s up to the folks who live in and those who represent those counties to demand change, defend the status quo or ignore a problematic legacy that colors our state’s map.

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The queer season of Are You The One is a win for reality TV and horniness

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Most dating show confessional booths contain a certain amount of accidental nihilism. A contestant stares wide-eyed into the camera to deliver a thesis about soul mates. Their statements are almost always dramatic, effortful, and interchangeable—sentiments cribbed from clearance TJ Maxx throw pillows, monologues that…


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3 days ago
ok why not
seattle, wa
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