‘Dreams That Matter’ Tacoma Historical Society sheds light on some of the city’s unsung civil rights and social justice heroes

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One of the display cases at the exhibit features a Chinese, porcelain bowl found in Commencement Bay and believed to have belonged to one of Tacoma’s Chinese residents of the 1800s. Also there is the name plaque of Rev. Earnest S. Brazill of the hilltop’s Shiloh Baptist Church. Brazill was also Tacoma’s first Human Relations Commissioner. (The office was later renamed The Human Rights Commission.) Photo by Dave R. Davison

Tacoma Historical Society’s newest exhibit, “Dreams That Matter,” is an examination of some of Tacoma’s unsung heroes in the realms of human rights, civil rights and social justice. The exhibit was funded by a grant from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and is on display at the Tacoma History Museum (919 Pacific Ave. in downtown Tacoma) through March.

If racism, injustice, greed, fear and ignorance are some of the darker aspects of human nature, they are countered by openness, fairness, courage and wisdom. It is those who cultivate the better parts of their natures that we ultimately celebrate as a culture and civilization.

In the history of Tacoma, there have been plenty of examples of both the dark and the light sides of the human psyche. There have been ugly episodes like the 1885 expulsion of Tacoma’s Chinese residents by the then mayor and a group of 26 others (a photo of this “infamous 27” is part of the exhibit). The desire for economic profit has tempted the powerful to take advantage of the powerless, as the local Native tribes discovered when much of their lands were taken away by deceptive or underhanded means. African Americans were restricted from buying property outside of certain predetermined areas. Gay citizens lived in fear of ostracization and were prevented from doing military service.

“Dreams That Matter” does not turn a blind eye to these episodes of our city’s history. The heroes of the story, however, are the people who resisted these events and those who were brave enough to follow conscience and work to redress the results of such episodes. The exhibit begins with the story of the Chinese expulsion and ends, poetically, with the Chinese Reconciliation Park. In between, other narratives are told through a series of informational panels accompanied by displays of documents and artifacts. They tell the tale of those who championed the cause of civil rights and social justice.

There is, for example, the story of local Native American activists, like Billy Frank Jr. (Nisqually) and Ramona Bennett (Puyallup), who struggled to assert land and fishing rights that had been assured by treaty agreement, but were not forthcoming.

There are exhibits that tell of those who fought to establish a Human Rights Commission as part of our civic government as well as individuals who undertook the struggle to ensure open housing in Tacoma.

Dennis Flannigan, a University of Puget Sound student in the early 1960s, was expelled for his “radical” views and traveled to the South to join the Freedom Riders in the national civil rights struggle that was then progressing under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Jack Tanner, an African American federal judge from Tacoma, was invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy to discuss legislation. The telegram inviting Tanner to the White House is part of the exhibit.

Perry Watkins became one of Tacoma’s early gay rights activists. A graduate of Lincoln High School, Watkins joined the U.S. Army but was discharged from service when he came out as a gay man. These stories and many more are told in “Dreams That Matter.”

The exhibit is dedicated to former Tacoma Mayor Harold Moss, whose autobiography, “Fighting for Dreams That Mattered,” inspired the project.

“We are excited about this exhibit,” said Bill Baarsma, Tacoma Historical Society president and former mayor of Tacoma. “It is about part of Tacoma’s story that needs to be told.”

The informational panels that tell these stories and depict the civil rights champions will be taken to the Greater Tacoma Convention Center to be part of the Jan. 15 City of Tacoma Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

The exhibit also sparked the publication of a book, funded by a grant from Key Bank, that will be out in early February. The book will feature 21 of Tacoma’s pioneers for civil and social rights.

Much of the material in the exhibit was brought to the Tacoma Historical Society by people who had documentation and artifacts stashed away in basements, attics and garages. The Historical Society extends an invitation to anyone to contribute information or artifacts to their collection, or to let them know of anyone that they might contact to help them build their collection of materials important to our city’s history.

Tacoma History Society is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more on the “Dreams That Matter” and the Tacoma Historical Society, visit www.tacomahistory.org.

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