State Of Race -- Bellevue High, 1964: A Different World

The joke among Bellevue High School teenagers in 1964 went something like this:

How come there's a toll booth on the Evergreen Point Bridge?

To allow only Caucasians over to the Eastside.

"It wasn't meanspirited," recalls a member of that year's senior class. "It was just a lily-white place."

No kidding. In the 1960 census, out of Bellevue's population of 12,809, only 81 people - less than 1 percent of the population - were reported as nonwhites. Three were "Negro"; three "American Indian"; 71 were Japanese, Chinese or Filipino; four were listed as "other."

Bellevue High School's Class of '64 reflected the city. Out of 362 graduating seniors, only a few were minorities. One was a Japanese American. And the only black student was an exchange student, here for just a year from the Belgian Congo.

It's safe to say that in most homes, the typical dinner-table topic wasn't racial strife.

"Knowing that it didn't have a direct, daily, confrontational effect on what we were doing in high school, I was probably more concerned about where my GPA was going to be and whether I had a date for the senior prom," says Jack Doran, now an insurance broker.

To find a minority population of any size, Bellevue students had to cross the bridge into Seattle's Central Area. For some who did, Steve Vaughan was a guide.

Vaughan knew the Central Area well. He had lived there, growing up in Madrona and attending Catholic schools, until his family moved to Bellevue before his junior year. Many of his former neighbors, the ones who taught him to dance and play baseball, were African-American kids who attended Garfield.

"In that neighborhood, if you didn't listen to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, James Brown, the Temptations and Major Lance, you weren't with it," he recalls.

Bellevue was another culture.

"People who thought they were cool listened to Herman's Hermits, wore pants that came up to their calves and white socks, said `gee whiz,' drove nice cars and thought Seattle was a foreign country."

What little most Bellevue kids knew about African Americans came from listening to Motown music and reading the book "Black Like Me."

"I will always think it's amazing that I knew absolutely nothing about American blacks. . . . Absolutely nothing. I can't believe we grew up in that experience," says Judith Shepherd, who is now a scientist at the University of Washington and lives in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood.

"I do feel if my experience had been different, I would be more naturally at ease with a variety of people."

Vaughan filled the knowledge gap, at least a little, by inviting his Garfield friends to watch him practice football in Bellevue and by regularly taking a handful of his new Bellevue friends to Seattle.

"We would go over to Garfield," recalls Gloria (Amick) Morton, one of Vaughan's Bellevue classmates. "You know, skip class. Walk the halls and always go to their games and try to see their cheerleaders.

"The Garfield cheerleaders were famous. Their dance routines were incredible. . . . We'd also go over there because some of the restaurants right around Garfield were so good. Just little holes in the wall."

Neither she nor Vaughan thought much about civil rights.

"I was aware of it . . . the riots in the South, the busing and segregation in the schools," says Morton. "But I don't think I could quite grasp what was going on."

"I was just a kid," says Vaughan. "I didn't pay attention to that kind of stuff. All I wanted to do was work at Pizza Haven, so I could eat a free pizza and party afterwards. I was just boogieing through life."

During World War II, Mike Muromoto's grandparents and parents were interned for several years in an Idaho camp. After the war, they settled in Bellevue and never talked of the war experience.

A lot of Japanese "kept their mouths shut and did their work. They wanted an education for their kids," says Muromoto.

His parents told their son: "Be proud of who you are" and "Do not disgrace your name in anything you do."

Muromoto took the advice to heart.

"I never had any problems with anybody," he said.

All through high school he dated only white girls, since there no Japanese. His mother warned that some parents wouldn't allow their daughters to go out with him because of his race. But, "Most of the parents took me at face value for who I was."

At the same time, his grandmother was uneasy. "She came from Japan. She liked Japanese. She was leery of me dating white girls."

Not until he went to Vietnam did he experience discrimination. It was there that Muromoto was called a "gook" for the first time - by a fellow American soldier who mistook him for Vietnamese.

"I just kind of flushed. My heart dropped. I wanted to grab this guy by the throat and lay him on the ground and beat the hell out of him."

Muromoto shared the incident with a black buddy who just smiled and said, "This happens to me all the time."

For Celine Nkasa Nkenda, America was an exciting and a terrifying place.

While a few of her classmates recall their African exchange student as wonderful and ebullient, others are hard-pressed to come up with any personal characteristics except the color of her skin.

She was sponsored by the First Congregational Church of Bellevue.

"As you know, there was growing civil unrest, and Bellevue at that time was so very white. It just seemed to the group in our church that we needed to do some learning," says Sally Prior, who was Celine's host mom for the year.

Even the magazines Nkasa brought from Africa, with advertisements featuring black faces, were a revelation.

"It hit me: Good grief - we never see that here," says Prior. "The whole experience opened our eyes to what distance there was between us and the black people."

For one thing, in 1964 nobody of Nkasa's race could have bought the house she lived in for her year in Bellevue. When the Priors bought it in 1956, they'd signed an exclusionary clause agreeing that they would only sell it to someone who was Christian - and white.

They disagreed with the clause, Prior said, and later worked to have it struck out. But their attitude at that time was resigned: "It was kind of a shrug your shoulders, well, that's the way it is and this is where we want to be, so we would sign the papers."

One of Celine's neighbors and classmates who offered friendship was honor student Catherine (Walker) Eaton Skinner.

"I remember talking to her and her telling me how cruel the questions were that she got from the kids at school. That she was just amazed," Skinner said. Prior remembers the questions, too. Questions like: "Did you have to put on clothes before you got on the plane?" and "When did you come out of the trees?"

"At that time I felt it was naivete," says Prior. "It wasn't necessarily hatred."

Unlike her classmates, Nkasa was intensely aware of the civil-rights movement. Soon after she arrived came the news of the Birmingham, Ala., bombings: four girls, ages 11 to 14, killed in an explosion during Bible class at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

"She just sobbed, because she said those little girls looked so much like her sisters," recalls Prior.

Word of the tragedy reached her worried father in the Congo. Celine assured him by letter that Birmingham was far from Seattle.

Still, she expected discrimination. And sometimes got it.

Once, she wasn't invited to a neighborhood party given by girls whom she'd counted as friends.

"It isn't that we are prejudiced," Prior remembers the girls' mother saying. "But how are we going to make sure the other people who come aren't?"

After graduation, the Class of '64 scattered to the corners of the world. Jack Doran went East to liberal, Ivy League Princeton, where the student body was a smorgasbord of color and he got caught up in the anti-war sentiment.

Race didn't seem to be an important issue. Rather, it was the Vietnam War, which "shoved everything else aside. I don't think people had the emotional energy to go find more issues."

After college, Doran ended up in the Navy, where he saw racism for the first time.

He chalks it up to "a bunch of poorly educated Southern whites and blacks put in very close quarters."

For some of Bellevue's female graduates, college provided the first chance to become friends with young black men and the first personal experience with the ambiguity that contact could inspire.

Gloria Morton attended the University of Colorado - like Bellevue High, another all-white experience, except for the football players - before transferring to the University of Washington.

At the UW, Morton was asked out by a football player from a prominent local African-American family. "I adored being with him. He was the neatest guy. But I felt if we went out in public, my folks would be quite angry."

The two talked for hours. He was sympathetic, but "in his mind there was no barrier." In hers there was. "I told him, if I could not go out with a clear conscience, I would not go out."

The friendship ended after that.

One of Skinner's first true friends as a freshman at Stanford University was a black man. Their relationship started to become sexual, but she "put the kabosh" on it.

"I think probably that it was because he was somebody that I knew I could really love and so it scared me. . . . I just wasn't ready for it."

The man came to Seattle the next summer and wanted to take her out to dinner. Skinner asked her father's permission and found out for the first time about double standards.

That is: "You can grow up in a family and think `My family is very liberal and we were taught to treat everyone equally.' . . . But when it comes to being seen . . ."

That is: Her father said, "No."

"My father was about to be chairman of the board at Virginia Mason Hospital. . . . He was afraid that his partners would see me downtown with a black man. . . . I don't think he even thought about it."

Her mother was surprised but didn't argue with his decision. And neither did she.

As the years went by and civil-rights issues become more prominent, her parents realized "that wasn't exactly the thing to say."

After college, Skinner married and joined her husband in VISTA - Volunteers in Service to America. They were sent to Atlanta, where for a year they lived in a poor black neighborhood, marched, boycotted and helped set up a citywide food co-op.

It taught her that the real way to help people was to empower them to help themselves.

After the Navy, Jack Doran married and came back to Seattle just about the time the sign went up asking the last person leaving to turn out the lights. Unable to find work at home, he ended up in San Francisco and Los Angeles for three years.

In both towns, he and his wife became good friends with black co-workers who were at similar places in life: starting a career and family.

He eventually moved back to Bellevue, and, after seeing a bit of the world, he senses race relations in the Seattle area are better than in other places. "But I would expect there are plenty of circumstances in Bellevue that are every bit as bad as they are in Boston, New Orleans or Los Angeles."

As for Bellevue, the town hasn't changed much, as far as he can tell. "I'm not exactly sure why that is." He knows there are plenty of African Americans and Asians and Hispanics who can afford to live there. "So I don't know why they aren't."

Should integration still be the goal for society? A firm "Yes."

If people disagree, he says, they're probably scared or protecting some turf.

Every day, Doran commutes across the bridge to a small insurance company in Seattle that employs 30 people. Right now all of them are white, which is "kind of a transitional thing depending on who is currently employed."

He doesn't favor trying to intentionally diversify the staff.

"We are such a small company that to make special provisions to hire a certain kind of person for that reason rather than because they have the experience to fill the slot you need . . . I think it puts the company in a difficult position."

He seems to have mixed feelings about whether race relations are better or worse for his kids. On the one hand, they're worse because "it wasn't an issue I had to deal with at their age. If you believe that ignorance is bliss . . . it was easy for me."

Having said that, he also thinks it's good to have "to deal with it, understand it, confront it."

Doran doesn't have any close business or social relationships with nonwhites: "It seems a little odd to me that we don't. . . . I'm not exactly sure why it happens."

Steve Vaughan eventually came home to work for his father in Bellevue as a manufacturer's representative in the office-supply business. He now lives in Madison Park.

He's managed to keep a few friends who are African American from his old Madrona neighborhood. Just a few weeks ago, he had a beer with the girl who taught him to dance. And, recently, he went to a Mariners game with a buddy who used to play ball with him at Washington Park.

What about civil rights? Has the kid who was boogieing his way through life given it any more thought?

"Something had to be done - so from that standpoint, yeah I do think it made a difference."

But everybody has to pay his dues, he quickly adds. "There's no such thing as a free lunch.

"I don't care too much for giveaway programs, but I also think that some people don't get a fair shake."

Actually, the Civil Rights Act cost him "taxwise."

"As far as I'm concerned, when they started the Great Society, that was the beginning of deficit spending.

"I believe in civil rights, but I don't believe in deficit spending."

Mike Muromoto is now a shift sergeant at the Twin Rivers Correctional Center in Monroe, where race is an ever-present factor.

He's gotten used to seeing prisoners racially segregate themselves, seldom branching out of their group. He sees tension and frustration over affirmative action and political correctness among the prison staff. Many officers feel it's unfair that certain minorities get special consideration when it comes to promotions.

"Everybody blames everybody else in this day and age," he said. "When some people can't get promoted, they blame the protected group. When a protected person isn't promoted, they blame the white group."

He's also troubled by political correctness and all these special rights.

"I'm an American first. Born and raised in America. I fought for America. I eat Japanese food. But I can't speak Japanese, and I can't write it. I resent someone calling me Japanese American. I'm an American."

Muromoto has friends who are in interracial marriages, like himself, and have no problems. He's been married twice to white women. His present wife has two white children from another marriage who have "accepted me as their father, and I accept them as my children. I introduce them as such."

From his view, race relations are better today. But it's true, you still see a lot of hatred.

"Say you're talking to somebody in the grocery store and they're saying: `All the little stores are now being owned by the Koreans.' Or `Yeah, the Vietnamese are taking over all the farmland.' "

Still, he's encouraged that responsible adults of all races are pushing the boundary lines - intermingling and not worrying about peer pressure.

Gloria Morton, who used to love to dance the night away in Seattle, is now a Bellevue homemaker with a teenage son who attends her alma mater.

She's afraid to let him drive into Seattle at night because of the guns and gangs.

"I think we've regressed in the last 30 years. I'd say in 1964 we could go into every single part of Seattle: the parades, the dance places, and there was absolutely no fear factor at all."

The violence is not so much racially related as a function of poverty, she feels.

As for the Civil Rights Act, "I can't tell you how happy I am that it passed. . . . It made society realize that there's not just one group in this country. We are a multiracial nation. If we don't get along with each other, we're in a hell of a mess."

And she's glad Bellevue is becoming more racially diverse. "I think it's great. . . . If you keep Bellevue segregated and isolated, you're going to have bigotry."

Though she's had good friends of different races over the years, right now her close relationships are mostly with whites. Her son, on the other hand, brings home friends of all races, largely because the population at Bellevue High is now more diverse (about 24 percent minority). "I'm very, very pleased for him," she says.

After Atlanta and several years of farming on San Juan Island, Catherine Skinner, with her second husband, now lives a fairly privileged life in a big house with a view in Seattle.

They chose not to move into a more racially mixed neighborhood.

"For safety reasons, we did not. And that's partly to protect my children, who are in and out of the house, to be able to feel that I don't have to worry about my house and children and what we have. That isn't necessarily directed at race."

At this stage in her life she's chosen to become a serious artist. And as a philanthropist, she contributes money and time to nonprofit groups trying to make a difference in Seattle. For instance, she's chairwoman of the $2.7 million capital campaign for the Children's Hospital Foundation.

In terms of race relations, she says, "Seattle is one of the most exciting places to be right now.

"It's not like L.A. The hate isn't here. Obviously, we've got the crime, we've got the gangs and so on. But it seems to me the solution to that is going to come from women.

"They're the ones who are out there all of a sudden hitting the streets. I think women are just going to say `Forget this,' because they're mothers."

She's concerned that by overemphasizing integration, communities may lose their identities.

"I think to insist that this country be a melting pot is the wrong way of going about it. This country has a lot of racial groups and they should be proud of their heritage. . . . We all should be able to gain by their heritage and their communities coming together."

She and her husband have been close friends with a number of Asian and African-American people.

Sally Prior believes things are better today because of the Civil Rights Act and, in many respects, feels optimistic about race relations.

The act helped them get rid of the discriminatory clause on housing in their neighborhood.

If the act hadn't passed, "We'd probably be in civil war. I just can't imagine that minorities would have stood still for some change not to have been made," says Prior.

Still, at times, she becomes disheartened. In the late '60s, when her husband, Harry Prior, was president of the Rotary Club in Seattle, he successfully persuaded the first black person to apply. Blacks have been members ever since. The club has never had formal racial restrictions on membership. But, says Sally, seeing a black face at the club seems so rare it's glaring. And she's sorry to see more of what she calls fractionalizing.

"I think black people are apt to say more and more, `I want to stay in my black church. I relate better to black people.'

"I'm not trying to say that culture should be thrown out the window, but I think the individual groups should be wanting themselves to mix with us more."

She and her husband occasionally socialize with a few close friends who are black, whom they met during the year Celine lived with them. Three of their five children have moved away from the area. One daughter married a black man from Philadelphia. Their son, who joined the Peace Corps and lived in Iran, now works in the foreign service in Turkey.

As for Celine Nkasa Nkenda, she attended the University of Lyon in France, where she met her future husband, who was also from her tribe. She has since moved back to Zaire, where she's worked for a bank and helped women artisans start a cottage industry to sell their hand-dyed cloth. Her husband has been a professor and is now a government employee.

The Priors have tried to send them money to help make ends meet. But free and open correspondence has proved difficult due to government corruption and censors. Consequently, they now help support Celine's son, who is in college in Quebec.

Celine has managed to slip a few uncensored letters out through travelers willing to mail them from other countries. The most recent letter the Priors received was dated last September.

It begins: "We are still alive.

"But even though we are, life is just impossible. We all starve in Zaire. We are not able to give milk to the children. We are lucky enough to eat twice a day, because most Zaire people eat only once every two days. Many mothers throw away their children . . ."

In the years since Judith Shepherd left Bellevue, she's become more sensitive to racial issues. At the UW, the staff is racially mixed, but her Ravenna neighborhood is still mostly white - a fact she laments.

"I really think that the solution has got to come from neighborhoods getting more diverse," she says.

But even though she believes race relations are still not good, "It's important to focus on the positive connections being made." For example, she and her husband had a close friend for over 15 years, an African-American entertainer who has passed away. They considered the woman a member of their extended family.

And soon, they will attend the wedding of a white man and a black woman.

"That sort of thing happens," Shepherd said. "If we can somehow increase the diversity experience, we will realize that our differences are minor."