Tri-Cities, WA has a racist past

There are secrets in every city's history, in every state's shadow. As residents of Washington, we must acknowledge the past harm our state - and even our cities - have done.

I'm a recent resident of Tri-Cities, having moved here in 2017. I've loved our community, and often feel a sense of progressiveness when I'm going about my daily life. But the fact is, I'm white and my perspective is tinted by privilege. The longer I think about the people around me, or the comments I read in community forums, the more I realize that we still have so far to go.

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Yes, Tri-Cities: Kennewick was a sundown town

"There is nothing subtle about the Tri-Cities' reputation for racism and segregation." That is the leading statement on the University of Washington's page on mapping race and segregation in the Tri-Cities, and it's certainly painful to hear.

  • What is a sundown town? It's an all-white neighborhood, common before the Civil Rights Act. The name comes from signs that usually warned people of color to be out of the area "by sundown."

While Hanford brought many jobs to the area, and employed many people of color, there was a strong divide in the community that wanted to keep segregation in place.

In fact, the dividing line was visible to everyone.

The historical Green Bridge marker of Kennewick, Washington
National Park Service

The "Green Bridge" was the line between white and black

The original Green Bridge, demolished in 1990, unified the north and south sides of the Columbia River. Today, it's impossible to think about living in the area without driving across the Blue Bridge or Cable Bridge. They're even visual icons that represent our cities in the world beyond.

However, the Green Bridge served as more than an easy passage across the river: it also served as a line dividing the white community of Kennewick from the black community of Pasco. A sign posted on the bridge warned black people they were not allowed in Kennewick after sunset.

  • Meanwhile, Richland, which was a government-built town for Hanford employees, restricted those homes to permanent employees only - a privilege not given to black people in the Jim-Crow era.

As a result, the black population of Tri-Cities was forced into East Pasco. You can see from the maps below how these laws forced segregated communities. Even in 1990, our community was very segregated - it's only in recent years that we have become more generally diverse.

Statistical data of black population in Benton County
National Historic Geographic Information System (IPUMS) via University of Washington
Statistical data of black population in Benton County, WA
National Historic Geographic Information System (IPUMS) via University of Washington

We've made progress, but we have more to do

You might look at the map above and think "Wow, we've made huge strides in ending our sundown laws!" While Kennewick police may no longer be patrolling the streets at night looking for people of color, however, the past isn't behind Tri-Cities yet.

For example:

  • Last year, Tri-City Herald reported that 1,400 properties have racist clauses in the Tri-Cities.
  • East Benton County Museum pointed out in 2022 that Kennewick has never elected a person of color to its city council.
  • During the summer of 2020, people of color in Tri-Cities said they felt "terrorized" as the Black Lives Matter movement drew out white militia groups.

Take time to learn

The racism of the past isn't just history - it has shaped, and continues to shape, our local community every day. If you'd like to make things more positive in the community, the first thing you can do is learn.

Here are some ideas:

We can do more than know our history - we can use it to transform.

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