United States History H300b
20 April 2008
A Call to Action:
Desegregation in Seattle Public Schools
In a progressive society, interaction between people of diverse ethnicities should be
a vital component in every student’s educational experience. It is with this exposure in the
classroom that children are prepared for the pluralistic society that awaits them in their
adult lives. Seattle, like every major city in the U.S., came to this logical conclusion in
December 1977 when the school board adopted the “Seattle Plan”, a system that sought to
desegregate the Seattle Public Schools and at the same time, bring about an end to the
segregated education that furthered attitudes of black inferiority and indifference. However,
the marvel of Seattle’s desegregation story does not lie in desegregation itself, but in the fact
that school officials satisfied a “homegrown problem” with a “homegrown solution” (Pieroth,
The push for desegregation actioned by the Seattle Public Schools in the late 60’s
was the byproduct of a comprehensive effort to end the racial imbalance in institutions
across the nation. However, the reality is that de facto segregation – segregation as a matter
of custom, is just as real as segregation imposed by law. This said, it is important to
understand that the history of segregated schools in Seattle is rooted in the decades of
discriminatory housing and employment practices that confined the African American
population in Seattle to substandard neighborhoods and subsequently, inadequate
education. However, probably the grimmest reality is that the “Seattle Plan”, the system that
once governed my educational experience, is inherently flawed in that it perpetuates a
model of “desegregation” that is unequal for a select few and helps to further segregationist
tendencies. This system that garnered so much praise for its peaceful execution and lack of
court intervention is not without its shortcomings and I’ve come to the conclusion that
desegregation, in its “Seattle Plan” format, while well intentioned, contributed heavily to the
disparity in African American achievement, incited white-flight, and left the blacks to
shoulder the burden of integration (Tate, “Bussing”).
The ambiguity of this topic leaves us with a million places to start, but perhaps the
best place to begin is with the history of segregated Seattle and how the racist dynamic
within institutions across the city contributed to the stifling, relentless environment for
which blacks were forced to endure. I blame it on the restrictive codes. After 1926, when
the U.S. Supreme Court legalized their use, racial deed restrictions were in heavy circulation.
Restrictive covenants were implemented in order to keep white neighborhoods minority
free. And because these restrictions were enforceable contracts, any owner who violated
them risked forfeiting their property (Gregory). As such, land developers, realtors, and
neighborhood associations wrote racial restrictions in certain property deeds that made it
illegal to rent or sell property to no white persons (Clark). The language in these covenants
is so unequivocally racist; one such example comes from a deed in the Queen Anne
neighborhood: "No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction
shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property” (Gregory). And according to district
rules, children were forced to attend their neighborhood schools; consequently, black
schools were concentrated to mainly one area of the city. The Lake Washington Ship Canal
had become a de facto racial dividing line, with students of color concentrated in schools
south of the canal (Tate, “Bussing”). Black schools in the Central District of Seattle had less
funding and inexperienced teachers which contributed to lower test scores and higher
dropout rates. Many argued that this failure within black schools was a result of the
“neighborhood school concept” that perpetuated de facto segregated schools through
residential stratification and adherence to district rules (Clarke).
The foundation of acceptance for district wide desegregation was built slowly and
with considerable caution thanks in part to the Supreme Court’s critical 1954 ruling in
Brown v. Board of education (Pieroth, 50). In this ruling, the court essentially dismantled
Plessy v. Ferguson and held that separate is inherently unequal and as such, segregated
schools are fundamentally unconstitutional. At first, Seattle, like many other cities in the
north, doubted that the ruling had any practical application to its schools considering that
Seattle had not maintained a de jure segregated school system (Pieroth, 50). However, in a
lawsuit on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people
(NAACP) against the Seattle School Board, Philip Burton, a civil rights attorney, cited Brown
v. Board of education and sought to end segregation in Seattle area schools. The case was
settled out of court in 1963 when the school board decided to support a program allowing
students to voluntarily transfer from school to school in order to ease the racial imbalance.
Initially students were not provided transportation by the district, but rode city buses and
were transported in carpools. However the results proved fruitless, there was very little
movement between the blacks in the south and the whites in the north (Tate, “Bussing”).
After “voluntary reassignment” collapsed, the school board introduced other
fruitless endeavors aimed toward desegregation, none of which worked. Then in May 1965,
a new plan brought to the forefront by Seattle’s Urban League was introduced. It was called
the Triad Plan; its aim was to desegregate all tiers of the school system by matching up
white schools with black schools and essentially creating a mix between the homogenous
communities (Clark). Nevertheless, the Triad Plan did not appeal to school board members.
The unenthusiastic response from the school board, coupled with years of empty planning
resulted in increased pressure from the NAACP on the school Board. Later that year, NAACP
president, June Smith, cautioned the school board to take action before a boycott of the
Seattle public schools was enforced. She stated: “If the Seattle School Board does not devise
a long-range school integration program and begin implementing it next fall, we will have to
dramatize our concern in the form of direct action” (Clark). By June 1966, a successful
boycott of central area schools was carried out to protest the lack of movement in the area
of desegregation. For two days, boycott leaders urged families of black students to keep
their children out of school as a means of protesting the school boards indifference toward
integration. Not to be confused with a holiday, both days of the boycott provided each
student with a true educational experience; they were sent to freedom schools where they
learned about black history, life, and culture. Ultimately, nobody truly wanted the boycott to
happen. Officials did not wish to intimidate school authorities but rather provoke them into
some sort of positive action. In the end the boycott proved to be a great success because
people were beginning to acknowledge the issues concerning de facto segregation (Clark).
Faced with the threat of further legal action from advocates of integration and due
to increased pressure from the NAACP, the Seattle School Board set the city on the path
paved by the Brown decision when it adopted a policy for creating racially integrated
middle schools. This policy is what ultimately made the Seattle Plan possible (Pieroth, 50).
The Middle School Desegregation Plan was implemented by the school board on November
11, 1970, the first mandatory, non-court ordered plan employed by the board. Meany-
Madrona Middle school was a perfect example of the effects of this policy. Housed in the
central district, Meany-Madrona was desegregated by creating Middle schools out of three
predominantly white junior highs in the north end and mandatorily assigning students
between buildings. This was the first phase, in the three phase effort to desegregate the city
by 1973, however, phase two and three were never administered due to intense opposition
in the white community toward mandatory desegregation (Siqueland, 13).
After several more years of debate and with the threat of yet another lawsuit
looming over their heads, the School Board tried once again to initiate a more effective
integration program. At the time Seattle was a very prideful city, it wanted nothing to do
with court intervention, and wanted nothing less than to see civil unrest due to outside
influence. The school board responded with what is known as the Seattle Plan, a
comprehensive desegregation program recommended by Superintendent David Moberly.
The plan drew from the Urban League’s Triad Program, and essentially clustered
elementary schools into grade reconfigured pairs or triads. It also introduced the idea of
“feeder programs” that assigned students from elementary school to middle school, then to
high school (Siqueland 3; Tate, “Bussing”). However, probably the most important
component of the plan was the expanded bus system that included all schools throughout
the district (Tate, “Bussing”). At 2:00 in the Afternoon on December 14, 1977, the seven
members Seattle School Board voted six-to-one, to adopt the administrative guidelines for
the Seattle Plan for the Elimination of Racial Imbalance. This action caused Seattle to
become the largest metropolitan school district in the nation to end public school
segregation without a court order (Siqueland 4; Tate, “Bussing”).
The plan was based on a complicated formula that defined segregation in terms of
the ratio of white to nonwhite students in the school district. The new Seattle Plan divided
the District into three zones. They were:
Zone I – Franklin, Ingraham, Ballard, Queen Anne/ McClure
Zone II – Hale, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Garfield
Zone III – Queen Anne/Blaine, West Seattle, Cleveland, Rainier Beach, Chief Sealth
Each zone included schools at all grade levels and included schools that were attended by
mostly minority students and others attended by mostly white students. Additionally, in
each zone there were fixed assignments, meaning schools were linked in groups of two or
three and students would go to those set schools (Seattle Public Schools, 1). The Seattle Plan
peacefully went into effect in September 1978. Support for the plan was very high. A broad
coalition of political leaders and community groups including the NAACP, the American Civil
Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, Chamber of Commerce, and the urban league
were very optimistic about the new plan (Tate, “Bussing”). However not everyone jumped
on the desegregation band wagon; six weeks after the plan went into effect, an anti-bussing
initiative sponsored by the Citizens for Voluntary Integration Committee passed with the
approval of 61 percent of the city’s voters, but it was later declared unconstitutional and
thrown out (Tate, “Bussing”).
The Seattle Plan was met with many successes however it wasn’t perfect and I’ve
come to the conclusion that it was responsible for furthering problems within the school
district. White Flight was a major issue that resulted from the plan. Essentially, “White-
flight” is a colloquial term for the demographic trend where working-class white people
move away from racial-minority suburbs or inner-city neighborhoods to white suburbs and
exurbs (“White Flight”). White parents were taking their children out of public schools in
Seattle to prevent their children from being bussed out of their neighborhoods. In the first
year of district-wide busing, the number of white students dropped by nearly 12 percent
(Tate, “Bussing”). The district wanted to appeal to the whites, in order to do this the school
board introduced options like advanced placement and classes for the gifted. Most of the
students who benefited from the options where white, and thus, segregated classrooms
persisted even under the Seattle plan (Tate, “Bussing”). In an interview, Donald Felder,
principal of Interagency Academy expressed concerns about the discrepancy between black
and white educations. He says, “In the name of trying to get integrated schools, white
families were offered the best of the best if they’d bring their kids to school with children of
color” (Tate, “Bussing”). In this way, the Seattle plan perpetuated ideas of black inferiority
because whites where given better opportunities and evidently, thrived.
Seattle’s desegregation plans were genuine, I’m sure, and Seattle’s story may have
reflected the sentiment of a community who legitimately wanted equality, however the
results were disproportionate for the simple fact that race still played a major role in the
school system. In practice, the plan was a test to see how well you were able to manipulate
the system and avoid integration (Tate, “Bussing”). A five – year review of the Seattle plan
showed that only half the students in mandatory assignments were showing up; the rest
were either moving out of public schools or exploring the options program (Tate, “Bussing”).
The history leading up to the adoption of the Seattle Plan is a chronology of togetherness,
where city leaders gathered toward one common goal of affecting change in the community.
However, in the end, we came up short and once again it was left up to the oppressed to
shoulder the burden of inequality.
Clarke, Brooke. "Seattle School Boycott of 1966." Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History
Project. 01 Apr 2007. 20 Mar 2008
Gregory, James. "Racial Restrictive Covenants." Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History
project. 01 Apr 2007. 25 Mar 2008
Pieroth, Doris. "With All Deliberate Caution: School Integration in Seattle, 1954-1968."
Pacific Northwest Quarterly 73:250-61.
Seattle Public Schools, Report of the Superintendents Task Force on Desegregation Planning.
1. Seattle: 1972.
Siqueland, Ann. Without A Court Order: The Desegregation of Seattle Schools. 1. Seattle:
Madrona Publishers, Inc., 1981.
Tate, Cassandra. "Busing in Seattle: A Well-Intentioned Failure." HistoryLink.org: The Online
Encyclopedia of Washington State History. 2002. 25 Mar 2008
Tate, Cassandra. "Mandatory busing of Seattle middle school students begins on September
6, 1972." HistoryLink.org: The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History.
2002. 25 Mar 2008 <http://www.historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=3939>.
Tate, Cassandra. "Seattle School Board adopts a limited mandatory busing plan on
November 11, 1970.." HistoryLink.org: The Online Encyclopedia of Washington
State History. 2002. 25 Mar 2008
Turnbull, Lornet. "Homeowners find records still hold blot of racism." The Seattle Times 03
June 2005 25 Mar 2008
"White Flight." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 23 Apr 2008. 23 Apr 2008