Interview with Wally Webster
Civil rights movements
African American colleges and universities
A National Park Service funded project to document the history of African American contributions to Hanford and the surrounding communities. This project was conducted through the Pacific Northwest Cooperative Ecosystems Unit, Task Agreement P17AC01288
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: We ready? Okay. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Wally Webster on July 20, 2018. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I’ll be talking with Wally about his experiences living in the Tri-Cities and working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?
Wally Webster: Wallace Webster. I go by Wally. That’s W-E-B-S-T-E-R, is the spelling of my last name.
Franklin: And what about the first name?
Webster: The first name is W-A-L-L-A-C-E.
Franklin: Great. Thanks, Wally.
Franklin: So, tell me how—well, let’s talk about, let’s start by talking about your life before Hanford. When and where were you born, and where did you live before coming to the Tri-Cities?
Webster: Okay. I was born in a small town east of Mobile, Alabama, called Theodore. And if you go down there, they say The-do. But I graduated from high school. I immediately left Alabama and made a very quick stop in Oakland, California, and then headed for Pasco, Washington.
Franklin: And what—
Webster: So I’ve been here since 1962.
Franklin: 1962. And what year were you born?
Webster: I was born in 1944.
Franklin: Okay. And what—so you said you had graduated—went to school in Theodore, Alabama. I wonder if you could talk about your education there, back in Alabama and kind of the prevailing situation there.
Webster: Okay. That’s a good point, because it lends to my activities in Pasco. I went to school in a segregated school system. I graduated from high school. It was still segregated at that time. So, when I graduated from high school, I knew then that there was a better place that I could live. I didn’t know where that was, so I went to Oakland, California for a short period of time to live with my brother. Then I get an opportunity from my uncle to move to Pasco. In fact, he asked me to help him drive to Pasco. When I helped him drive to Pasco, I didn’t go back to Oakland. So that’s how I got here. And again, I was very, very familiar with segregation whether it was de facto or institutionalized. When I got to Pasco, I was surprised at the de facto segregation that I found in Pasco, which was very, very similar to what I experienced in Alabama.
Franklin: More similar to Alabama than in Oakland?
Wallace: Yes. I didn’t stay in Oakland very long, so I can’t speak a lot to Oakland. But when I got to Pasco, all the black people, or 90% of the black people living in east Pasco. The schools that—the elementary school was Whittier School. It was completely black, with the exception of maybe a few white students that came from the north side of Pasco. That didn’t seem right. I thought I was leaving that behind me when I took the Greyhound bus and left Alabama. Matter of fact, it was somewhat disturbing after a while and learning the city, that I became very active—and some people would say an activist—but I became very active in helping, or doing something about breaking down that system.
Franklin: Yeah. What did your parents do in Alabama?
Webster: My mom was a stay-home mom. My dad was a laborer and a minister. He worked at an air force base. It’s closed now. It’s called Brookley Field Air Force Base in Mobile, Alabama, which was about ten or twelve miles east of Theodore.
Franklin: What was your father—what were your parents’ levels of education?
Webster: My dad was quite literate but he only went to the eighth grade, and my mom was probably the sixth or seventh grade. They had five kids and four of the five got advanced degrees from universities. And the older one, he left home and became a construction laborer and became a journeyman painter and drywaller. Of the five of us, as I said earlier, we all got advanced college degrees and they insisted on us getting an education and doing better in life than what they were doing.
Franklin: Was Theodore—so Theodore was a segregated town as well?
Webster: Yes. And it was segregated from the standpoint of all black people lived in one section of Theodore and all the whites lived in another section. Sometime that may have been across the road, but there was a dividing point. When I was going to school, a school bus would pick up the white students that lived down the road from me, but we all had to walk to school. So I saw that kind of discrimination all of my life.
The one thing that I will point out is you become acclimated to that condition after you’ve lived in it a long time, and it became another way of life—or a way of life. You don’t really understand it until you go someplace else and see the difference. Maybe the first eye-opener I had was the very short time I lived in Oakland. It was more integrated than where I lived in Theodore. Then when I came to Pasco, I was more shocked, because I could see identically to what I saw and experienced and lived in, in Alabama.
Franklin: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned your uncle asked you to help drive a truck up here. Did you have family in the area?
Webster: In this area?
Webster: He was my only.
Franklin: And how did he get here?
Webster: As I understand it, and I think I’m probably 90% accurate, when he got out of the military, out of the Army, he joined the labor movement. At that time, the labor movement, or migration, was from the Oakland military installations down there up to Hanford, where they were constructing all kinds of buildings and programs here. And then they migrated on up to Anchorage, Alaska and worked there during the summer months and then they came back to this area. He decided that he no longer wanted to migrate with the construction industry. He worked construction here for a while. But he built a building and in it he housed three businesses. One was a restaurant, the other one was a pool hall, and the other one was a beer tavern.
Franklin: Was this in east Pasco?
Webster: In east Pasco.
Franklin: Okay. Do you remember the names of these places?
Webster: Yes, it was Jack’s Grill and Pit, was the name of it.
Franklin: And that was, the three businesses were Jack’s Grill and Pit?
Webster: Yeah, and they were all under that title. And they had separate walls and separate buildings. When he came down to Oakland, it was about October, I think, and he came down to the World Series, as a matter of fact. I think the Giants and the Dodgers were playing at that time. And then I came back up here with him.
Franklin: Wow. What were your first impressions when you arrived in Pasco?
Webster: Well, I liked the city, I liked where I lived. Like I said earlier, once I got here, I never did go back to Oakland. So I liked it a whole lot better than I did Oakland. But as I got to learn the city, I became more aware that it was not much different from where I came. And as I studied it more, and got to know more people, those individuals came from the same states and cities that I was familiar with: Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana. They had come here, also, with the labor migration. I couldn’t understand for a long time why all of the black folks was concentrated east of Pasco, which was on the other side of the railroad tracks. So as I got to talk to more people and got to learn about them, I quickly learned that many of them were very pleased to have a job and to work and make a living for their families, and accepted the housing that was available. That housing was in east Pasco.
Franklin: Right. And they kind of accepted—for a time, accepted the de facto segregation.
Webster: Oh, absolutely, yes, yes.
And I’ll tell you, the thing that I liked about east Pasco, a great deal, which was similar to where I lived in Theodore, we all knew each other and knew each other very well. I don’t know if there was a person in Pasco at that time that I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me, after I’d been there for six or eight months or so. So that’s how I got to know who they are, where they came from, who their families were. And then it became obvious that something was wrong.
And a little bit more about myself, when I first got to Pasco and enrolled at Columbia Basin College, on the way up, my uncle was talking to me about my goals and opportunities and what I wanted to do in life. We had thirteen, fourteen hours together to do that. And I said I wanted to go to college, because that’s something my dad and mom had popped into our head. But I left home before I enrolled in college. So he took me to Columbia Basin College in January, that was the beginning of the quarter. After meeting with counselors and talking to them, I was told that I was not college material. That my education was not up to par, and they didn’t think I could make it through college. That was very disappointing to me.
I met a gentleman that I admire to this day. He heard my story. He was an administrator or coach or something at Columbia Basin. He talked to me about majoring or taking accounting. He explained it this way: he said, it can take you three hours to work a problem; it could take the next person 30 minutes. But if you come up with the same answer, what difference does it make? As long as you have the fortitude to stick with it and get it done. You also can check it to make sure it’s accurate. That’s what steered me into accounting, finance. And I spent 30-some years in banking and finance.
Franklin: Do you remember his name?
Webster: His name was Sig Hansen.
Webster: Yeah, S-I-G. I never will forget his name the rest of my life. He was probably one of the most inspirational individuals, from an education or career that I’ve met in my life.
Franklin: And did you graduate from CBC?
Webster: Twice. [LAUGHTER] They didn’t have a WSU campus out here at that time.
Franklin: Sure. What did you get degrees in?
Webster: Well, one was applied science and the other was business, with a business emphasis, yeah.
Franklin: Oh, that’s great. What was the first place you stayed in after you arrived here?
Webster: It’s no longer there, but I stayed at 725 South Hugo Street in east Pasco. It was A Street going towards Sacagawea Park. That’s where my uncle, not only had he built a business with three entities in it, he also had built an apartment building on the hill up there that had three or four apartments in it. The one apartment, he built especially for himself to live in. So I lived with him.
Franklin: Your uncle sounds like quite the entrepreneur.
Webster: Yes, no question about that. He left here after Urban Renewal purchased his property, and went to California. He went to Oakland because we had a lot of relatives in Oakland. He went there and opened a couple of businesses. So, yes, he was definitely an entrepreneur.
Franklin: So it was basically an apartment.
Webster: Yes, it was an apartment.
Franklin: An apartment in a building that he owned.
Webster: Yes, yes. It was an apartment building with four units in it, and he lived in the major unit in that building.
Franklin: Gotcha, gotcha. What was the hardest aspect of life in this area to adjust to?
Webster: Well, after I started Columbia Basin College, I never will forget for the rest of my life—this. I was in a business class, a business machine class. I had never operated a full-key add machine at that time. So I’m struggling. And this young lady sitting behind me came over to help me put my hands on the right home keys on this machine. She just came over, and she leaned over, and her hair fell kind of on my shoulder. A white female. And I can remember—I became so petrified that I could not move. My whole body froze. Because I was conditioned in Alabama that not only didn’t you look at a white woman, especially, but to have her hair hanging over your shoulder, across, is tantamount to being lynched. That was an absolute no-no. And I never will forget. It frightened her, it frightened me. We remained friends for a long time after that, but that was one of the things that helped me understand that I had been preconditioned to something that I had to get over.
The second thing was—I mentioned Whittier School. I went to a segregated school, and I knew you can get comfortable. And I knew that when I left there and I went over to CBC, they told me that I was not up to par with my education. Something said to me that these kids are probably not up to par, either. So there has to be a reason why all black kids are going to school here and all white kids are going to school someplace else. Well, I know that a few of the parents were comfortable sending their kids to Whittier because it was close to home, they were afraid that if—because I was advocating close the school down, as opposed to bussing white kids in. They felt that it would drop the property value, also. Not only convenient as having their kids going down the street, but property values. But I was able to prevail in the thought and we pressed upon the school board, we marched, we demonstrated with enough parents, and they made the decision to close Whittier School. Later they tore the building down. But I just did not feel that they could get the right education.
And then in this process, I learned that a lot of people were not registered to vote. This is a story—I guess the statute of limitations is expired now. But I was only, at that time, I was 17 or 18. But I was not old enough to vote. The voting age at that time was still 21. Went to a couple of the—well, the two major parties, the democrats and republican parties to get a voter registration going. The democrats in this case said I was too young to register people to vote. I learned from that experience. I went to the republicans and they agreed that I could register people to vote, but I could not sign the application as the registrar.
So I took it upon myself at that point to conduct a voter registration drive, and we registered more people—I would basically hang out where my uncle’s business was and went in the community some organizations. I don’t recall this day how many people we registered, but it was definitely in the hundreds. That was one way of getting people engaged in changing the environment in which we lived.
In Alabama, you could vote, but you had to play a poll tax. You had to pass an exam, then pay a poll tax to vote. And here all you had to do was go down and fill out the application and then turn it in.
Franklin: I think that the poll tax and the exam is something that’s so foreign to a lot of people these days, especially younger generation. Could you talk about in a little more detail about what that was, and how that stopped black people from voting?
Webster: Yes. Think of it in the context of your earnings, number one. Even if you were educated enough, or learned enough about the exam through some basic classes to pass it, they impose this tax. This tax was compounded. So they’ll look at your age, for an example, and say, oh, you’re 50 years old, so we’re going to charge you a dollar a year since birth. Now your tax is $50, for an example. So before you could get your voter registration approved, you had to pay the $50. And it increased every year thereafter. Well, if you’re only making enough to put bread on the table and pay the rent, that wasn’t your number one priority. So it discouraged—and it was intended to discourage. Each county kind of set their own tax levels. Some may be $.50; some may be $2 a year. But they raised it to a level that it discouraged African Americans from voting.
Franklin: And there was no poll tax on whites.
Webster: There were—now, I’m going to assume there were poll tax on whites. I don’t know the answer to that, to tell you the truth.
Franklin: Okay. And what about the exam? Was it—what kinds of, from your knowledge, what kinds of questions and things were asked of people?
Webster: Yeah. As I recall from listening to my father and others that took the exam, it was more white history. You learned about General E. Lee, you learned about the Civil War and why it was fought, but not that it was a war that was fought to end slavery; it was a war that was fought to preserve the economy of the South. So it was more, if I may use the term, white history, than who were governors at this point in time, the legislators, the senators, as opposed to African American history.
Franklin: Mm-hm. It must’ve been—I can’t imagine the feeling of being black and having to answer questions about why the Civil War was fought in order to vote.
Webster: Yeah, yeah. And I’ll tell you another thing that—you just triggered a thought. We would always get our books and materials and school buses and everything else, they were kind of the hand-me-downs. They came from the whites. Those books that had anything in it about black history, those pages were torn out before we got the books. I can remember, some people in the community would go and order books directly from the publisher. But we didn’t take those books to school; we took the books that had the N-word written all through it and everything else. Drawings of lynchings on front pages of the book, on the blank sheets of it. Those are the books that we learned from. So after a while, you just kind of—it just kind of rolls off.
Franklin: Right, it becomes normalized.
Webster: Yes. Exactly, exactly.
Franklin: Yeah, that kind of terror. Wow. You’d mentioned earlier that when you came here and you started to talk to people, there were people from Texas and Louisiana and Oklahoma. Were most of the people—African Americans you met in east Pasco—were they all recent migrants from the South?
Webster: There had been somewhat recent, but generations came with parents. Because, mind you, I came in 1962. A lot of those people had worked at Hanford for 40 years at that time, or longer. But if you stop and think about it, if you have a family, and you have migrated to Pasco, and you’re working every day, and you’re earning two or three times more than you were earning when you were in Louisiana or Texas, and you were able to bring your family, you felt pretty good about it.
Webster: And you got pretty comfortable. And you did not necessarily think about upsetting the apricots, so to speak. So they became conditioned. It was nothing—you didn’t take a second thought about having to go shop at Grigg’s Department Store to get what you want, and you go underneath a railroad track and up to go to Grigg’s. You just did it. And you earned enough money to be able to go to the department store.
Franklin: And you didn’t have to go in a separate entrance.
Webster: That’s exactly right.
Franklin: But if you went to Kennewick, you could go during the day, but you couldn’t go at night.
Webster: Yes, yes. Yeah, Kennewick was branded at that time by one of the regional NAACP/civil rights leaders as the Birmingham of the Northwest. Locally it was referred to as the sundown town. You could be there during the day, but by sundown you had to be out. It was basically, for all practical purposes, it was segregated. Just like Birmingham. It didn’t even have an east Pasco. It was white almost 100% all over.
Franklin: Right, because covenants had kept—
Webster: Yes, yes.
Franklin: Had kept African Americans from purchasing a home.
Webster: Until the Fair Housing Act was passed, they had these covenants of first right of refusal. So if I was selling to—if one of the owners decides to sell to a black person, someone could step in and say I’m exercising my right of first refusal and buy the property. But if they were selling it to a white person, they would not exercise that right. So they used that as a means to keep it segregated.
Franklin: Yeah, it wasn’t until the mid- to late-‘60s, right, where the first African Americans—
Webster: Yeah, right.
Franklin: The Slaughter family.
Webster: The Slaughter family, yeah. And that was done a little bit as a challenge to the covenants, to see if the Fair Housing Act would be enforced. So it was kind of a demonstration to that, a challenge to that.
Franklin: Did you meet any Manhattan Project—people who had worked on the Manhattan Project that had come up for construction and had stayed in Pasco?
Webster: I met a number of them that have passed on now, of course.
Franklin: Of course.
Webster: And had an opportunity to interact and talk with and, matter of fact, two or three of the individuals who were my—I consider my strongest supporters, had come up through the Manhattan act.
Franklin: Who were they?
Webster: One name, E.M. Magee. He was head of the NAACP. Another one was Luzell Johnson. He was a very, very quiet, unassuming man, but very powerful. When he spoke, people listened.
Franklin: He helped found Morning Star.
Webster: Yes, yes, exactly right.
Franklin: Right? In his home with his wife.
Webster: Very wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man. Another one, his name was Ray Henry. When I call these names, a lot of times, these may not be the formal names on their birth certificates, but these are the names we got to know them by very affectionately. But I’m pretty sure his name was Ray Henry. E.M. Magee, Luzell Johnson, I’m pretty sure those are their correct names. Those three individuals were very, very helpful in keeping me grounded as a youngster.
Franklin: What did you know or learn about the prior history of African American workers at Hanford?
Webster: Well, I knew that there was a shortage of labor, and I knew that they went to the states where there were high populations of African Americans and brought that labor to Hanford. Subsequently, I learned from some of the declassification of information back relating to that time, that there was a systematic strategy to get the work done, but not to bring social justice along with it.
What do I mean by that? When they brought African Americans here, they maintained the segregation. They maintained the separate chow halls and eating facilities and living facilities. They would post signs, this particular chow hall is for Negroes and this for whites. And they basically kept whites as supervisors. So they brought the segregation system, picked it up and moved it here in tact. Because, as I understand it, they wanted to build buildings as opposed to do social engineering. So that’s another reason why blacks were in east Pasco, is that’s where they each agreed that they could go and live, as opposed to Kennewick, and Richland, which was a government town. There were a few blacks in Richland, but very, very few that met the criteria for living in Richland.
Franklin: Right, and that criteria was a job with AEC—
Webster: At a certain level.
Franklin: --at a certain level, which would’ve been a challenge to say the least, for most African Americans to have that education and to prevail on the standard hiring practices of the 1940s and 1950s.
Webster: That’s exactly right. There was not the predominate number of people coming in from the labor supply that they were looking to build the plants out there.
Franklin: But there were several black families in Richland, is that right?
Webster: Yeah. Yeah.
Franklin: Could you name them?
Webster: You know, I don’t know all of their names. I think the Wallaces were one. I don’t know names, but I do know there were several black families. I did not know them personally, to be honest with you.
Franklin: Sure, sure, sure. Let’s see here. We kind of—oh, I wanted to—from your perspective, thinking about the African Americans that came during World War II to help build Hanford and who stayed, what were their most important contributions in the areas of work, community life and civil rights?
Webster: Well, number one is, this does not necessarily relate to civil rights, but I saw a very, very strong sense of family, a very strong sense of community. Even though by my perception, it was a segregated community. But there was a very strong sense of community. There were a lot of African Americans who worked at Hanford after it was built, and they were part of the downwinders. I don’t know if you got into that a whole lot, but they were part of the folks who were contaminated and were actually compensated for their illnesses from working out there.
Franklin: Was that because of the location of east Pasco, or were they—was it due to exposure on the job?
Webster: Both the job and where they lived.
The one other thing that I really appreciated, even though they went to an elementary school that was segregated—and it’s part of this family values—there were siblings who their kids were encouraged to go to the high school—which, Pasco then only had one high school. And was encouraged to go on to college. There were Pasco-ites that went on to the NFL and there’s some wonderful things as a result of the experience that they got here at Hanford.
So, I don’t mean to say that the quality of life was so bad that they couldn’t overcome the challenges. But I saw challenges in my generation that I thought was not necessary. And I thought we had overcome in other parts of the world.
Franklin: Did you feel that—you’d mentioned how Pasco kind of surprised you that Pasco was so much like Alabama. Did you think, leaving Alabama, that you were leaving that kind of segregation behind?
Webster: Oh, no question. When I left Alabama, I was so determined to leave—and I was very young and I can think back now how my parents must’ve felt with me saying I’m leaving home. I had a fried chicken in a cardboard box, my mom cooked a pound cake, and I bought a loaf of bread. That was my meal. And then when I bought my ticket at the Greyhound bus station from Mobile, Alabama to Oakland, California, I had $29 left. With those kinds of resources, going from one part of the world that you’d never been in before, going to another part of the world you’ve never been before, it took some determination and something to say you have the motivation to leave here. I guess from TV and other places, I decided to pack up and leave. Then when I got here, and again I found the same thing that I was experiencing in Alabama, I thought, my goodness, why did I make the sacrifice?
But I could see, just because I was able to go over to Columbia Basin College, and the fact that I could walk n the front door and go in the registrar’s office—even though the counselor told me I would never ever matriculate in college. That was an incentive. And I’ll tell you something else, when I got my master’s degree, I went over and I took a photocopy of it and I left it in his office. He wasn’t there, so I just left it in his office. But the thing that I appreciate most is arriving in this town of Pasco, the east side, and getting the level of support that I had as a newcomer. But I think they saw me as a teenager, as a youngster, who wanted to do something. And all the folks just said, let’s get behind him and do something, because he’s trying to do something positive. Yeah.
Franklin: That’s great. Kind of still a segregated environment, but one that maybe had more opportunity than the South for you, and for others?
Webster: Yeah, but you know, in the South, there’s one thing, at least when I was growing up: you had an opportunity to go to college, but you went to, again, a segregated college.
Franklin: To an HBC?
Webster: To an HBC. You had an opportunity in many times to be a professional, whether it was a school teacher or an administrator. You didn’t have the options of being a medical doctor unless you went to another school in another state. Like in Alabama, my brother wanted to go to medical school and back in the days, they would pay you—the state would pay, if you would accepted in medical school, let’s say in Tennessee or something, to an all-black school. They would pay the tuition, because they didn’t want you going to University of Alabama, for an example. So they would pay your out-of-state tuition to go there.
Franklin: Why would that be?
Webster: To keep it segregated. It was segregation. “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” You’ve probably—
Franklin: George Wallace, right?
Webster: That’s exactly right. So to keep it segregated, they would pay for you to go to another state. So it was—people who lived here were aware of that. And I think they just needed someone to be an advocate for change.
Franklin: Yeah. Did you attend church?
Webster: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I was a member, active member of New Hope Baptist Church, which was right up the hill from Morning Star.
Franklin: Right. How long did you go there for?
Webster: I’m going to say probably ten years.
Franklin: What role did church play in the community?
Webster: The church was the foundation of the community. Almost everything positive came out of the church. I’ll give you an example. I felt that in order—it’s kind of going back to England and where they have piazzas, the places you can go and congregate and community, things like—I thought that Pasco needed a place, a neutral place, where people could go and they could call it a community center. And I could see the value of people gathering. We had a little place over in east Pasco called Kurtzman Park. It was a little building there. And I thought that we could do better.
So I studied up and found that HUD had what they call block grants. They would give block grants for certain amounts of dollars depending on your application. I worked and worked and worked and got the city, the city manager, Mar Winegar, one of the finest city managers I think that ever held a city manager job anywhere, agreed to work with me in helping to complete an application. We completed a HUD application and got some $440,000-$450,000 to build what is now known as the Martin Luther King Center in east Pasco. The central labor council owned the land where that building is. We worked with them, and they deeded that land as part of the in-con contribution to match the HUD block grant. We were able to put that together.
The way that we—part of Mar Winegar’s help and assistance—we were able to work out a strategy where the Pasco Parks and Recreation would somewhat manage the building. But to get the revenue, we went to get the various state agencies and other organizations to rent space in the building to help maintain it. So DS&HS, I think, had a small office there. Employment, security, had a small office there. Central Labor Council had a small recruiting office. So there were different offices in this building to help maintain it.
And it became a community center. And not only did the community need the services of the agencies that were there, but it became a—but to answer your question, all of that came out of the basement of Morning Star Baptist Church. Reverend Allen was the pastor at that time. So I think if you point to almost any significant accomplishment, the genesis of it came from the spiritual and religious community.
Franklin: It functioned as a meeting place.
Franklin: In the community.
Webster: That’s where the people went. I mean, when you wanted to do something, you go where the people are. On Sunday morning, that’s where you’re going to find them, and that’s where you make your point. You convince the pastor that it’s worthwhile, and then they’ll let you get up and make announcements and talk to the congregation where you’ve got a captive audience. That’s how you got your message across. So it was—because you didn’t have a newspaper or TV channel or radio station or any of those, except for a routine newscast or something. But if you wanted to tell your whole story, you had to go to the church.
Franklin: Right. How would you describe life in the community, in east Pasco?
Webster: It was probably one of the best lives that I have lived. And I say that because everybody cared for one another. People lived in harmony. Didn’t have much, so it wasn’t economically driven; it was more social- and spiritual-driven. Everyone was treated with respect. You’d hear very few disagreements. You didn’t have what they have today with solving disagreements, you know, with violence. It was probably one of the best places I’ve lived in my life.
Franklin: What did you do in your spare time?
Webster: Now, or then?
Webster: Then? I didn’t have any spare time, because I was going to college at the time, and I was also very active in the community. I was president—I went on to become president of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. I was president of the Tri-City chapter although I was very young, but again—
I want to make this point, something that I did not experience in Alabama. There were white people of quote-unquote high stature with very high moral commitments to help bring about this change. When I say that, I’m talking about lawyers and educators and scientists out here on the project who helped to bring about this change. You know, if I named—if I started naming like the Ed Critchlows—I don’t know if you’ve—the Critchlow, Williams and Ryals law firm, I think, is still in existence here in Richland. A guy named John Sullivan was a lawyer. Dick Nelson was a scientist here in the Project. I mean, there were just a number of people who migrated to this area from other places, highly educated, technical backgrounds, could see the same thing that I saw and was willing to give their time and knowledge and energies to bring about this—the Brouns, Dick and Nyla Brouns. They gave of their time and talents and financial resources to help bring about this change. That was one of the better learning experiences I’ve had.
Franklin: And you said that was different from Alabama.
Webster: Yes. I mean, I never saw, in my generation, and certainly years later where there were whites in the North that was part of the Freedom Ride and other movements, Martin Luther King’s movement, that came to the South. But you didn’t find folks that lived in Theodore, Alabama helping to bring about a change for black folks in Alabama. So that was my first opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with white people to bring about this change.
When we were marching on Pasco, for an example. Pasco City Hall was a totally white city hall that was supposedly serving the whole city. There was not a police officer, or anyone in public works, engineering, or any of those places. So, we were marching on city hall for employment opportunities. The Pasco Police Department, for example, had never had—at that time, had not had any people of color working. I applied for a grant that paid the salary of the first police officer in Pasco, on the Pasco Police Department.
Franklin: There were also some issues between the Pasco Police Department and residents of east Pasco. There was some tension there, in that relationship in the ‘60s?
Webster: As I recall, not to the extent that you have today, and not for the same reasons that you have today. I don’t recall any shootings of unarmed black people or anything like that. I look back and I think there probably was some collusions on the part of the police department and some of the elicit activities that were going on, you know. Because some of these things operated in broad, open daylight, that if you had a police department that was cracking down on them, it wouldn’t have been possible.
Franklin: I was just looking back on an old interview with James Pruitt. I don’t know if that name is familiar to you.
Webster: Yeah, Jim Pruitt? Yeah.
Franklin: He had been—Jim, yeah, sorry. In the interview, the interviewer keeps calling him James, and he’s like, Jim, my name is Jim.
Webster: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Franklin: He had been—he was appointed as a liaison between east Pasco and the police department, because there had been some excessive force arrests or something to that nature—or, it just seemed like there was a relationship that was a little rocky there for a period of time that would’ve warranted a liaison, right? Or was it just that maybe there was no interface between city government and east Pasco?
Webster: I think it was more that than—I’ll be honest with you, I don’t recall. I just don’t recall where there were racial tensions or anything like that between the police. I just don’t recall that. And I do—I know Jim well—knew him well. It was more during the Urban Renewal and when that was going on. I think you may have talked to Webster about that. It was more during that time, when we were looking at bridging the gaps, the communications gaps and all that, because Jim was a liaison, I think, at the time that I got the grant to hire our first police officer. So I don’t recall that it was racial tension as we know it today.
Franklin: Sure, sure, sure. But there’s certainly—a big part of your efforts was a big push to make the city more representative of its citizens.
Webster: Yes. Streets and sidewalks were an example. Things that we didn’t have that the west side had. Education, where kids could go to school and get the same quality of education that the west side got. Those were kind of—jobs where they could—not just the labor jobs at Hanford, but jobs working in the City of Pasco, whether you were working for the surveying group or—as a matter of fact, I think I went to work for a while as a member of a survey team in city hall, going out surveying streets and looking at improvement districts and stuff like that. So it was that kind of—but we had to push city hall and city management to move on those areas.
Webster: And that was pushed with a lot of leather on the streets.
Franklin: And you mentioned that you had been president of CORE, the Tri-Cities chapter of CORE.
Franklin: And CORE was a pretty young organization at that time, right?
Franklin: And did it draw from all the three cities?
Webster: Yes. Oh, yes. Matter of fact, a number of our meetings were actually held in Kennewick. A lot of the organizing and strategizing meetings were held in Kennewick. And many of the folks that was part of it came from Richland as well. And a number of them worked on the Hanford Project in very professional managerial roles.
Franklin: Yeah, yeah, I’ve interviewed several folks who were involved with that. You mentioned the Brouns and then we had interviewed the Millers here—
Franklin: And Jim Stoffels who was secretary.
Webster: Right, right, right. The Millers, especially. They were involved as a family. I guess so with the Brouns. But I can remember the Millers were involved as a family. They were right there every day, working side-by-side. And we organized marches. We went from Pasco to Kennewick to emphasize the sundown.
Franklin: Over the bridge?
Webster: Over the bridge, over the bridge.
Franklin: Was that the green bridge?
Webster: Yes, it was. It’s kind of comical now when I look back. We were marching over, arm-in-arm and walking across, and there some cars on the other side of the bridge, they were standing there with the rebel flag on them, and they were raising the engine, and you can hear the engines roaring. I was arm-in-arm with Jack Tanner, who was the regional NAACP president at that time out of Tacoma, very influential lawyer at that time, and went on to be a federal court judge. I looked over at Jack. I said, Jack, what are we going to do? Because we thought they were revving up these engines to just run the cars. And he looked at me and said, can you swim? [LAUGHTER] I never will forget that. I said, no, I can’t swim in that water! Across the Columbia River. And he said, well, let’s keep on marching then. Okay, so we just kept marching and went on to the other side.
Franklin: Wow. How did that feel to see that symbol, which you must’ve grown up seeing the Confederate flag all over the place. How did it feel to see that in Kennewick and Pasco, in Washington State, where—
Webster: I’ll tell you. By that time, I was somewhat sensitized to what’s happening here and learned about. But it took me way back. I mean, it took me to the guys that was riding around on horsebacks with hoods over their heads with same flags. I mean, the only difference was that these individuals were in muscle cars with flags on them. But it was scary. It was scary.
Franklin: That symbol was meant to—
Franklin: --intimidate you, right?
Webster: Intimidate, no question about it.
Franklin: They weren’t showing up to promote Southern heritage.
Webster: No, oh, no, no, no. It was to intimidate. But it was intended, in my judgment, to say to us, we’re going to keep Kennewick white. That’s what—and we’re going to challenge you on it. And, not in our backyard.
Franklin: You know, if I could share an anecdote real quick with you, a few weeks ago I went to the march for immigrants here in Richland.
Franklin: And we were marching right by the courthouse, did a big loop around Howard Amon Park. And a gentleman in a truck—I thought this was really interesting—with a Confederate flag and an American flag, was rolling down the street revving his engine, yelling obscenities, flipping us the bird. Which, to see those two together is strange enough, but then to use that as a symbol of intimidation against immigrants. It still is clear as day what the intent of that symbolism is.
Webster: Right. And in the South, I think even to this day, the Civil War was just like it was fought last week.
Webster: I mean, with the rebel flags and the sentiments and beliefs and values is just like it was yesterday. And how those kinds of feelings can be carried forward for generations is just amazing. It’s amazing to me.
Franklin: Yeah. Do you remember any other particular community events, from—during those years in east Pasco?
Webster: You know, we had a number of—I’m trying to, you know, there’s—it’s kind of coming back to me now. I can’t remember the incident, but we had a number of meetings in Kurtzman Park that was very tense meetings. As a matter of fact, what used to happen is Carl Maxey from Spokane, prominent civil rights lawyer in Spokane, other lawyers from Seattle, would come to Pasco, because we didn’t have any African American lawyers here at that time, and help us with civil rights issues. I remember I was having a meeting in Kurtzman Park where it got pretty heated, just among the—I don’t remember the issues, but there was one bombing that took place here in east Pasco. It was this gentleman, who lives in Richland, had built a business—
Franklin: Right. I interviewed him. Oh, shoot.
Franklin: Yes, Dan Carter.
Webster: Had built a business, janitorial business as well as he had a ceramic store. And somebody set off a bomb. We were all in Kurtzman Park, having a big powwow when that happened, because everybody jumped and ran. Not to say there were not some very tense times back in those days, but I don’t remember any killings or anything like that that were associated with our movement or anything.
Franklin: When I interviewed Dan and a couple others, they had alluded to—there was a disconnect or a tense relationship between African Americans in Richland and African Americans in east Pasco. And sometimes the two—not that they didn’t see eye-to-eye, but that people in east Pasco kind of felt that those in Richland or from outside the area who were trying to help were kind of outsiders or maybe they didn’t understand the Pasco issue. Would you say that’s the case?
Webster: I would say that’s somewhat true. There was this feeling that African Americans that came to Richland came after the African Americans in Pasco had really built Hanford. So they were being recruited for the best jobs, and they had the best quality of life. And often did not relate very well to the people of east Pasco. And, yes, that’s when this intra conflict started to exist. Although there were individuals in Richland that related very well. But it was more of an economic divide, and a social divide than a racial divide.
Franklin: Right, right. Kind of a class thing.
Webster: Right, that’s exactly right. Right, right.
Franklin: Related to kind of violence or destruction of property, I had heard in an older oral history, someone said that Luzell’s daughter had tried to move to Kennewick and someone had—the house had burned down.
Webster: Yeah, there were a number of incidents that happened right after the—and before the Civil Rights Act. I remember one individual—excuse me—who moved to Kennewick and it was Jones. Her last name was Jones. And they moved to Kennewick. She worked for the telephone company in Pasco. Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone had an office right on Lewis Street. At night, we would take turns driving immediately behind her from the time she got off at Bell to the time she walked in the front door. So somebody would be with her. We would not let her go home by herself, because of all the threats and stuff like that.
Franklin: Wow. Like phone, telephone and mail?
Webster: And notes left on her car, and you name it.
Franklin: Wow, wow.
Webster: Yup. Rocks thrown against the doors of her house. They were trailblazers, in a sense, like the Slaughters, some of the first ones to live in Kennewick.
Franklin: Right. Wow. I guess kind of a happier shift, do you recall any family or community events or traditions, including sports and food, that people brought from the places they came from?
Webster: [LAUGHTER] Yes. We had some big events in the park and folks had their specialties, whether it was their black-eyed peas or their fried chicken. You know, there was another business that we had that she would always provide the chicken. There was the chicken shack.
Webster: Virginia’s. Virginia.
Franklin: Virginia’s Chicken Shack.
Webster: And then, believe it or not, she was in a building. She lived in one portion and the Chicken Shack was on the front. She didn’t start serving chicken until maybe 10:00 or 11:00 at night and would go all night because of folks that went to the tavern and everywhere else that would go there after hours, right? But then across the A Street, down further in almost like a private home was another lady, her name was Sally. I can’t tell you what her last name, but it was Sally’s, and that’s where you went and got all the barbecue. I mean, this lady would barbecue for days. So all of those things would come to the park. And then we would have the Juneteenth gathering. You probably got the history on that, on Juneteenth, but that was a time to come to the park, celebrate, put the benches out, bring your best dish, and people just kind of congregated, just from everywhere in the Tri-Cities.
Franklin: That was the celebrating the arrival of the news that slavery—
Webster: That’s correct, had ended. Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Franklin: Right. And that was not exclusively but primarily a Texas event, right?
Franklin: But there were a lot of—
Webster: Some in Oklahoma, but mostly in Texas, yeah.
Franklin: Right, because there was a pretty big contingent of families from, especially from Kildare that had moved up and—
Webster: Mm-hmm, you got it.
Franklin: --and brought that tradition with them.
Webster: Yes, yes. And it’s kind of celebrated throughout the African American community to this day. But the point is that that was a major day in the park that people got together and brought their foods and their specialties there.
Franklin: Okay. So we talked a lot about opportunities. You—so I wanted to shift kind of to some of your work—I don’t exactly know your timeline, so I don’t know where to start, but I wanted to talk about your work at Hanford, but also your work with the Urban Renewal. So I don’t know which one of those is a better one to start with first.
Webster: Well, Urban Renewal was first.
Franklin: Okay. Let’s talk about that first.
Webster: It was going on at the time that I was the executive director of the Benton-Franklin Community Action Committee, which was in the late ‘60s, ’69, probably, to ’73, somewhere in that timeframe.
Franklin: You were doing all of this in your late 20s, huh?
Webster: Oh, oh yeah.
Franklin: Like 20s and early 30s.
Webster: Oh, yeah, and my teens.
Franklin: And your teens.
Webster: Yeah, early teens and early 20s. As director of the Community Action Committee—the Bi-county Community Action Committee, that was more of a continuation of some of the work that I had done as a teen in Pasco. As a matter of fact, I was offered a job almost the day I—I left as a teen because I got inducted into the military at the time—the draft. I should say, I got drafted into the military.
Franklin: Right, for the Vietnam War.
Webster: Vietnam War. And then when I got out and came back to Pasco, discharged and came back to Pasco, I was immediately offered this job as the executive director of the Benton-Franklin Community Action Committee.
Franklin: What years were you gone?
Webster: I was gone from ’65 until ’69.
Webster: Yeah. So in April of ’69 I became director of the Community Action Committee and again, continued some of the work that I was doing. Of course, that program was federally funded; it was part of the Economic Opportunity Act in the Johnson Great Society program. So you were limited in terms of how you could get involved in partisan politics, but city government and all those things were not considered partisan. They were considered non-partisan so I could be very active in those activities and working with the various organizations. So we created neighborhood councils and we were trying to get neighborhood councils to address issues in their specific neighborhoods.
One of the neighborhood councils that I worked closely with was the East Pasco Neighborhood Council. And there, we worked closely with the Urban Renewal, which, Webster Jackson headed that. There was tension and conflicts there from a program standpoint. Not necessarily from individuals running these programs, but from a program standpoint. The Urban Renewal program did not have a major component to it in terms of what was being renewed. We knew that they were buying houses that they considered to be dilapidated and moving people out, but there was no housing being developed to give people an option to stay in the neighborhood or another section of the neighborhood. So all those people who were in east Pasco next to the railroad track and somewhat west of Oregon Street or west of Wehe Street were being, property being purchased under the Urban Renewal program, like I said. But there was no replacement housing. So it became more and more industrial. We were kind of fighting to get housing.
Matter of fact, as part of that, Mister Romney, George Romney’s dad who ran for vice president or ran for president—
Franklin: Oh, right, George Romney—for Mitt Romney.
Webster: From Michigan. Mitt Romney’s dad physically came to Pasco—
Webster: --to meet with us. Yes, yes, I’ve got photos with him. Because we were concerned about that displacement.
It just so happened that that program lasted longer than I did, and I didn’t see it through. But I believe to this day that was probably one of the biggest failures that I encountered in the sense that, for me, that we didn’t see it through well enough to say if you buy this house, then you should have another affordable house to move in and hold the community together, as opposed to dispersing a community. A lot of people went to rentals and moved out of the area and so the neighborhood that we knew as east Pasco was basically, from a homeownership standpoint, was basically cut in half, if not more.
Franklin: Wow. Yeah. I had heard that from a couple others that had been involved in Urban Renewal.
Webster: It’s all big industrial stuff now.
Franklin: Yeah. But it’d succeeded in getting rid of some of the very questionable and dilapidated housing, but it’d fragmented the community.
Franklin: And didn’t replace that with better housing.
Webster: Right, yeah. Yeah, because a lot of people had taken—I wouldn’t say a lot, but some had taken their railroad cars that had been surplused I guess, and got them hauled in and joined them together. And they were putting them on cinder blocks and they were living in some of these places.
Webster: Very warm and nice and comfortable inside, but very limited space. But it was home.
Franklin: Right, it was a home, and they fought to—it’s not like the government was allowing them to get home loans. But now the government was coming in and saying, well, you know, you got to get rid of this.
Webster: And buying it out, but no real place to go.
Franklin: Was there pushback? From people in east Pasco?
Webster: There was pushback, but not from an organized pushback that I would’ve liked to have seen or that I think would exist today.
Franklin: Mm, it was just individuals?
Webster: Yes. And again, I was a young kid, you know? I didn’t quite understand the whole dynamics and everything that was going on, so I couldn’t provide what I feel today is the leadership that that issue should’ve gotten to get the results that you were looking for.
Franklin: Right, right. That’s a sad but kind of common story in American cities with Urban Renewals, is describing that same effect, is a lot of the attention is paid to the clearing-out but very little is paid to—
Webster: The building-up.
Franklin: And finishing the program.
Webster: That’s correct, that’s correct.
Franklin: And then what did you do—you mentioned you didn’t finish with the Community Action Council, or you didn’t finish with the program, what did you move on to?
Webster: Well, when I left there, I worked for a while after I got out of the CAC on completing the application and providing the infrastructure and the funding for the community center. I guess it’s called the Martin Luther King Community Center now. Got that all completed, got the construction.
But at that time, I moved on to Central. As I mentioned, I got two AAs from CBC. Then I had an opportunity to move on to Central and finish undergraduate and graduate there. And after I left Central—and I also worked at Central. I was their first community affirmative action director, in helping to bring about diversifying their faculty. That went well.
Then I came back to Hanford and worked at Boeing Computer Services as a employment manager. And had the opportunity to work there for quite a while, before I moved to Seattle and went into the banking business, and that’s where I retired.
Franklin: You said at Boeing you were a—
Webster: Employment manager.
Franklin: Employment manager. What’s—
Franklin: And was your job, was it a similar, for affirmative action type job?
Webster: That was included, but at that time, we were on an employment build-up. I had the authority, with the limitations of security clearances, et cetera, to offer jobs to individuals onsite as we went around the country interviewing. We had selection criteria of course, and if we felt that a person—and the competition drove a lot of that as well. Because if you’ve got to come back and wait to explain and help a manager understand why this person is good, someone else has hired them and they’re gone and no longer available. But we had the authority to offer the jobs right onsite, whether it was in San Francisco or Texas or wherever we were recruiting.
Franklin: Were there many African Americans in similar positions to yours at Hanford, or was the workforce becoming more diversified?
Webster: Yes. At Hanford, the workforce was becoming more diversified, because I think that was driven a lot by the Department of Energy. There were two gentlemen, well, actually, three, that worked in the human resources area at Department of Energy. And these individuals were also active in the community, who drove a lot of that. I don’t know if you’ve heard the name Bob Hooper? Bob Hooper, Fred Rutt. I’ll get Chandler’s last name—first name here in a minute. But Fred Rutt, Bob Hooper, were in the employment area for Department of Energy. They influenced these contractors to do the same thing. As a matter of fact, Bob and Fred were also involved in community, like CORE and the Central Labor Council, which we worked very closely with in apprenticeship programs and recruiting there.
Then after I left, I left Boeing and went to—at that time, Rainier Bank, and I went into Rainier Bank in Affirmative Action. They were operating under a consent decree. But I had an agreement, after reading the consent decree and talking to executive management, that if I can meet the requirements—get the company to meet the requirements of this decree, which had to be signed off by a judge—that I would be able to go into the mainstream banking. We had a handshake on that. And the president of that bank, when the judge signed off on the decree, which was about two, two-and-a-half years later, I moved right into the mainstream of the bank. That’s where I stayed until I retired.
Franklin: Wow, wow. I wanted to ask you—you sent me a few newspaper articles, by mail, and thank you very much. There’s one of you receiving an employment application. Do you remember that photo? I wish I had brought it.
Webster: I think that was where I was leading a group to get employment applications.
Franklin: I think at the city.
Webster: At the city. That’s where we marched down to city hall and, as I mentioned to you, the city did not have people of color working. And in a challenge, they would tell me that we don’t have anybody working because no one ever applies. So I went and gathered up about ten people and we all went down to city hall at the same time to make applications for jobs that they had available. That’s when the photo was taken of us at the counter, applying for jobs, yeah.
I was—whether you’re talking about a voter registration drive, whether you’re talking about unemployment, whether you’re talking about school desegregation, I always thought there had to be an endgame. There had to be tangible results to say that you’ve done something. It wasn’t enough to march from Pasco to Kennewick or march around city hall or go to a schoolboard meeting and have placards in your hand. I had to be able to see African American teachers being hired. I had to see students going into a different class and graduating. I had to see people getting a job.
Man, I’m trying to remember the name of the company. It was a company when you go out to West Richland that relocated. They were processing potatoes and potato chips and all this—
Franklin: Lamb Weston?
Webster: Yeah. I went out there and was talking to the manager and he said, we don’t discriminate. We’ve got x number of jobs, and if you bring the people, we’ll hire them. The next day, I showed up with a carload of people and they walked in, and they did just what they said they would do. They hired them. And those folks had jobs. So, that’s how I tried to measure my success: on the results, as opposed to the activities.
Franklin: Right. If you had to summarize the major civil rights issues for African Americans at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities during your time here, what would they be?
Webster: Summarize the activities?
Webster: I would say, number one would be at the top of the list would be education for younger people in the elementary level. Second would be jobs, more than just minimum wage kind of jobs. I worked very closely with Hanford to do that. Bob Hooper, Chuck Chandler—I remembered his name—and Fred Rutt were very helpful in paving the way. A guy named Ralph Eckerd who headed up an electrical company here, but also sat on a labor board, was very instrumental in helping to get apprentice employed on the way to journeyman. Being able to become a journeyman, not just in electrical, but in any other field. Matter of fact, they were instrumental in having an office in that neighborhood center in east Pasco to be able to recruit. And then they hired an African American guy to head that office to go out and do the recruiting for them. So employment was another major factor.
I also think the voter registration and the participation in civics played a major role that resulted in both an African American woman being appointed and an African American man being elected to the Pasco City Council. Then after that, another African American man being elected and then becoming mayor.
Franklin: That was Joe—
Webster: That was Joe. And so I think the voter registration and the awareness of the political scene and what you can do if you have representation in the right place. And the right place was not on the street; the right place was where the decisions were being made, sitting on the council. And I think that was important. I also pushed very, very hard to have an African American appointed to the board of directors of Columbia Basin College.
As a matter of fact, as part of this whole political theme, and the republicans giving me the opportunity to go out and do some registration—and this decision was based solely—solely—on the individual—I opened the first republican campaign office in east Pasco. That office was for Dan Evans, when he ran for governor. Like I say, I don’t know of a politician today, bar none, that was more honest and more fair, more equitable, than Dan Evans.
Franklin: Did that early experience with republicans—or did that—are you a lifelong republican?
Webster: No. And that is—you know, I just told you that I’m from Alabama and grew up and the r-word down there—if you’re African American, you may as well leave town, because you have tar and feathers all over you. So I’m probably as democratic as anybody can ever get from the bottom of my foot to the top of my head. But that was not—and I went to the democratic party first, to register people. When they turned me down, I went to the other alternative with the republicans, and that’s what gave me the opportunity to register people to vote.
But in Dan Evans’ case, he was political in the sense that he was running as a republican governor. But I was not. I was looking strictly at the individual. And the integrity that he brought to the process, and what I felt that he could do. I was never disappointed in that. And I—yes, I took some heat from, even in the African American community, for supporting a governor—well, you show me somebody that’s better. And I believe that to this day that that was the right decision.
Franklin: I was just curious.
Franklin: More than anything.
Webster: Oh, yeah.
Franklin: What were, in your opinion, what were some of the notable successes of some of the civil rights activities in the Tri-Cities?
Webster: Well, I think, number one, is probably the biggest one outside of jobs and having individuals, like heading up the lab in Richland—
Franklin: Oh, Bill Wiley.
Webster: Bill Wiley. I think, if I had to pinpoint what I consider the biggest, was the ability to enforce the Fair Housing laws and get African Americans living in Kennewick. And there are individuals in Kennewick now—and this is our fault, as an African American community—have no idea, when they come to town, they just go right over to Kennewick and rent an apartment and live without any repercussions whatsoever. They don’t have any idea—no—but bringing that about, don’t need the credit. You just need to know that it’s happening, is the most gratifying thing as far as I’m concerned. That they can go and live anywhere in the Tri-Cities that you want to live. All you got to do is be able to pay your rent or pay your house note, and you can live there.
Franklin: What were some of the biggest challenges, or maybe failures?
Webster: Again, I think the biggest challenge that I saw was getting the right people to rally around a cause that—I’m going to use the word “I” at this point—that I felt was most critical at that moment in time. That’s where the Luzell Johnsons of east Pasco came in, to get the right—I call him Junior Smith, he was another one, too—to get them rallying around you and supporting you.
I think the biggest challenge—the other biggest challenge was breaking the barrier between Pasco city government and Pasco residents who were African American. If you just stop and think about it, east Pasco was kind of like a throwaway place. Y’all or they or whoever, you can live over there. The streets were all dirt roads, there were no sidewalks, nothing, you know. They had some sewer and water, but no sidewalks.
Franklin: Well, it didn’t even have sewer or water originally.
Webster: For a long time—originally, yeah. But my day, when I came along, it was pretty much. But there were hardly anyone investing or developing except for down near the railroad tracks when the industrial went in. And to say that we’re part of the city. We want to work, we want to live, and we want to play in this city. And we pay taxes, and we deserve streets, sidewalks, curbs, gutters, et cetera.
Webster: And we deserve employment in the city that we live. Those were the—making that connection was a huge challenge.
Franklin: I had Pastor Wilkins describe it—he described it as, you could tell what the city thought of the black residents in east Pasco because they were on the other side of the tracks, and then he said there was, like, a dump and a highway and then a stockyard.
Franklin: And that’s what they thought of us, because that’s where they put us, was next to the trash and the—
Webster: Yeah, and whichever direction the wind was blowing, you knew it. Yeah, the big stockyard was directly across the street from where I lived. I mean, directly across.
Franklin: Yeah, those don’t smell pleasant.
Webster: No, they don’t. No, they don’t. So we were, like I say, we were the throwaway part of the city. To bring about the sensitivity to change that mindset was a challenge.
Franklin: Yeah. How did—oh, sorry.
Webster: I was going to say one of the things, one of the other elements or factors that played a role was WSU. Glenn Terrell, I don’t know if you heard that name or not. But Glenn Terrell was the president of WSU. He made many trips down and worked with us in east Pasco. He also—I shouldn’t say he, but the Department of Sociology also sent students down to help us formulate ideas and do research and make sure our positions were strong and backed up with supporting data and reasonableness. So, that was before you had an extension or a campus or whatever they call it now, here at Hanford.
Franklin: Yeah. I’ve seen some of the theses produced by the sociology students.
Webster: Yeah, and we worked closely with Bill Wiley who was also a trustee at WSU, right? To help bring to bear some of the resources—human capital. Not necessarily money, but human capital to help us overcome some of the difficulties we were having here at the—
Franklin: How did the larger national civil rights movement influence civil rights efforts at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities?
Webster: Well, I mentioned that I was from Alabama.
Webster: I marched a couple times with Dr. King.
Webster: I’ve heard him preach two or three times. My wife is from Montgomery. And I’m from Mobile. But when I would go up there, we would go and hear him preach. But what really moved me was I was sitting on a bar stool in my uncle’s tavern, watching TV, and was watching the march on Washington. And I felt extremely guilty. I felt like I had walked away from the movement in Alabama. I should’ve been there. I should’ve been marching. I should’ve been, I should’ve, I should’ve never left, I should be there, contributing there, instead of here. That was also that connection, and that connection with CORE, getting James Farmer’s information. All of that was part of the eye-opening experience here. What they talked about on TV in Alabama, I could see it in east Pasco. I could see it in Kennewick. I could see it in Richland. Those were all connected, in terms of the motivation to do something.
Franklin: Wow. From your perspective and experience, what was different about civil rights efforts here?
Webster: I think we had been lured into a comfort zone. We had gotten somewhat complacent with what we had. That had a lot to do with that we were better than where we came. But to say we can still do better took a bit more convincing than I originally thought it would.
Franklin: Like, you maybe felt that some people—like, it was better, so it was good enough?
Webster: Yeah, it was—you know, you and I probably have to really get our heads around the same thing. I’m doing 50 times better than my dad, so maybe I’m doing enough. And so, I’m comfortable. And I don’t need to get involved with Black Lives Matter. I don’t need to get involved with some of the immigration fights that’s going on now. I’ve done that before. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. Now it’s their turn. There are all kinds of ways of justifying being in your comfort zone. And there’s something that’s got to kick you out of that comfort zone and say, you need to be involved today. As long as you’re breathing, you need to be helping to move things forward. And that’s a challenge sometime, depending on how long you’ve been in that comfort zone and your motivation to do something.
Franklin: Yeah. Well said. So, when you left, you left Boeing to move over to Rainier Bank, how come you left the area that had been your home—why’d you move over to the west side?
Webster: That’s a good question, and the answer is not as logical as you might think. We had purchased our first home. We had our—we have two kids, and the baby, my wife was literally nine months pregnant with the second. And here I come home saying that we’re moving.
But what happened was, as part of my employment management job at BCSR, Boeing Computer Services Richland, we interfaced with certain jobs with our professional recruiters. This recruiter called me up one day and said, Wally, I have a client that’s looking for—and he described this Affirmative Action job in banking in Seattle—do you know of anyone? I said, no, I don’t know of anyone. I said, but send me a copy of the description, and I will pass the word around. It was just that; conversation over.
About three weeks later, he calls me up and said, Wally, you remember I talked to you about that Affirmative Action job? I said, yeah, I said, I don’t—you didn’t send me the description and I don’t have anybody. He said, well, we were thinking about you. I said, oh, no, I don’t want to move. That’s not for me. I don’t want to live in Seattle; I’m doing well right here in Richland. He said, what would it take for you to just go over and talk to them? I said, well, I’ll tell you what it would take. Send me over on a Thursday night, I interview on Friday, I get to spend the weekend in Seattle and come back Sunday night. He said, deal.
So I went over and interviewed on Friday. The guy called me up and said, we would like to hire you. Would you consider coming? And I said no. And then about a day or so later he called me up again and said, how much would it take for you to come? And I’m being a smart-butt. I just threw out a number. And the first thing he said, you got it.
Webster: And what do you do? I mean, you’ve made a commitment, right? And he met it. So now I’m—not only that, we’ll do this, we’ll do this, we’ll fly you home every weekend until you have your baby, and then while she’s recovering, you can go home every week, and you can do this, and we’ll buy you a house, and we’ll move you, and we’ll put you up for 90 days while you find another house, and we’ll provide you with a mortgage on your new house and—I moved.
Franklin: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. How were your experiences in Seattle different from Tri-Cities?
Webster: That’s a very good question. As a matter of fact, I’ve thought about that a little bit. I’m not as involved in social organizations as I was here. But I’ve tried to make change from the inside based on my experience. I went through a succession of bank changes. So I sat on Seafirst Bank Foundation, for an example, to advocate for change through grants and stuff like that going. I currently sit on the chief of police advisory committee of the chief in Lynnwood where I live, to help bring about the communications and changes there. I’ve kind of learned that if you’re at the table when the decisions are being made and you can influence them at that point in time, is that you can be more effective than reacting and waiting for the decision to come down and then going to react to it.
Governor Locke appointed me to the Legal Foundation of Washington. At that time I was the only non-lawyer on that foundation. And then Governor Gregoire re-appointed me to the foundation. They distributed $15, 16, 17 million a year to legal aide organizations throughout the state. Being able to influence that, and being able to determine the kind of organizations that would get money to carry out the legal aide for civil issues as opposed to criminal, and who got how much. Like Northwest Immigration Project was one of the major ones that’s now helping to fight the immigration laws that’s being—to be able to be a part of that, to me, is how I have been functioning. And that’s how it’s different from when I was here. I was on the outside, working from the outside. Now I find myself on the inside, working from the inside. If that makes sense.
Franklin: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. And, yeah, because you kind of—you went into that world.
Webster: Yes, yes.
Franklin: Yeah. What surprised you, if anything, when you moved?
Webster: Well, a couple things. Number one, contrary to what most people think, Seattle doesn’t have a “black community.” They think of the central district as the black community in Seattle. But if you walk through the central district, it’s just as diverse as anywhere else you can go. That’s not to say that a lot of black folks don’t live in central district, but a lot of black folks live in south Seattle as well. So that kind of surprised me.
I worked on a campaign of several African Americans, like Mayor Rice, the first African American mayor of Seattle. Matter of fact, he was at Rainier Bank when I went to Rainier Bank. We worked together at the bank before he left to go to run for councilor and then the mayor. So the politics is a lot different.
And it’s different from the standpoint that I don’t think even to this day, that I am part of the nucleus of the political power in the black community in Seattle. I’m still an outsider. Whereas in Pasco, three weeks after I got here, I was inside of the political structure of the black community, if there was such a thing, and able to go and meet with the mayor even though they might disagree, or the chief of police, or the captain of the police department.
Franklin: Well, you know, when I started this project, everybody was like, oh, you got to talk to Wally Webster, you got to talk to Wally Webster. It’s almost like you were still here.
Webster: Yeah. Well, I think that’s because I was involved in so many things at such a young age, and like I said, I measured myself on progress. Whether it was the first black police officer, or whether it’s the East Pasco Neighborhood Council, or whether it’s the voter registration drive, whether it’s the hiring processes in Hanford and with the apprenticeship programs in labor unions, taking somebody out to Lamb Weston to go to work there. I just believed that you go based on results.
I want to brag a little bit and just say the other thing is—not that the other way was bad, and it takes both—but I was not a—and still to this day, I’m not a militant person. I don’t try to threat to get the results that I’m looking for. I kind of use the analogy of water. You may get to the bottom of the cliff, but you can take the path of the least resistance to get there. So you try to manoeuver your way—it may take a little bit longer, but eventually you get there. You get there with less roadkill. And to me, I’ve always—I learned early, it’s not always just the what, but it’s also the how. So I treat people that way. That might be another reason why.
Even though I’ve been in Alabama and faced segregation and grew up going to the other side, stepping off the sidewalk, and keeping my head down, and going to inferior schools—which you didn’t know you were going to an inferior school until you got someplace where you were challenged, right? In spite of all of that, I’m not bitter. I think all of those situations made me who I am today. And I think that made me a better person today. So I don’t know if that’s why, but that’s what I think.
Franklin: Yeah. What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and living in Tri-Cities during the Cold War?
Webster: I think the most important thing for them to know is why they are here and what happened. There was one incident I didn’t talk to you about, and this is—when they were building the Federal Building, we went to talk to the Federal Building to see how many African American jobs were going to be there, and we couldn’t get anybody to talk. Couple of us just sat right down in the middle of the—you know the gates that they put around the building when they’re doing construction and they open them up in the daytime for workers to go in and out? Dozers and everything. We just sat right down in the middle of the street, in the middle of the gateway, demanding to see somebody to tell us how many jobs going to be in this building. Not while it’s in construction, but after it’s finished.
So I would like for them to know, especially those that are associated with Hanford, what went before them to create an awareness that got them there. It wasn’t just their education, the school that they graduated, and the degree that they hold, because there are a lot of people with those kinds of degrees that don’t have a job like they have at Battelle. But somebody paved the way. And they’re standing on the shoulders of somebody. And they just need to know that, as my dad used to say, if you see a turtle sitting on a fencepost, somebody helped him get there. And they got to know that they’re a turtle on a fencepost. They got to know that somebody helped you get there. You didn’t get there all by yourself. Because your legs are too short to wrap around a fencepost, you know?
Franklin: I want to just—that’s an interesting story. So you sat down—you kind of blocked the construction way. What did you find out about the jobs there? Was there a direct action from that, or a result from that action?
Webster: To be honest with you, there were direct actions from the construction employment. But I didn’t get immediate knowledge of a direct from the folks who occupied the office—occupied the building. I didn’t get direct results. But I will tell you that after working in the community with Hooper and Rutt, after coming to work in that building as employment manager for Boeing Computer Services and interacting with everyone there, I was able to influence. I was able to influence who worked there.
Franklin: Was that—
Webster: And there are people working today on this project, that I was telling you that I had the ability to recruit and hire on the spot, whether they were at Southern University or whether they were at Grambling State University or whether they were at some other school in Atlanta, Georgia, when we went to the Consortium of Historically Black Colleges down there, or we were in LA and hiring people there. Competing with Lockheed and others and when they were having layoffs. So I know people on both sides of the outlet today working at Hanford that came from my signing off a piece of paper, make them an offer, here’s an offer, subject-to.
Franklin: Right on. Is there anything else you would like to mention related to migration, work experiences, segregation and civil rights and how they impacted your life at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities?
Webster: I think I’ve said it all that I can recall, but I would like to say that, again, that the Tri-Cities is where I grew up, where I matured as a man and as a person. It shaped my life. It gave me the incentive to do, not only more for myself, but it demonstrated to me what you can do for others, if you just take the time to do it. I am extremely pleased that my uncle plucked me out of Oakland and drove me to Pasco. Very, very pleased and happy that that happened.
Franklin: Right on. Well, Wally, thank you so much for coming and taking the time to interview with us.
Webster: This was a pleasure.
Franklin: Same here.
Webster: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity.
Franklin: Yeah, awesome.
View interview on Youtube.