Thirteen years later, in 1868, the territory lifted the ban – nearly a century before the momentous date of June 12, 1967, when the US Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia lifted the country’s remaining bans on interracial marriages.
Today, as we mark the 54th anniversary of that judgment – unofficially celebrated as Love Day – it might be tempting to look back at the key points of this story and believe that Washington was at least relatively more forward-looking than our neighbors. Oregon didn’t lift its interracial marriage ban until 1951, and the Idaho ban stayed on the books until 1959. The California ban lasted until 1948, a lifetime after interracial marriage was technically legal this far north.
But if we look more than superficially at Washington’s past, it becomes clear that our state was not a prime example of progressiveness, and indeed this particular subject contains awkward – and powerful – lessons for our present moment.
“It wasn’t that Washingtoners were much more enlightened than the rest of the country – far from it, I think,” Jason Gillmer, law professor and director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Gonzaga University, tells me when I ask you him why our prohibition on multiracial marriage was lifted relatively early.
As Gillmer stated in a 2011 article for the Gonzaga Law Review, “the reason for the repeal had little to do with changes in whites’ attitudes toward mixed marriages,” but was more pragmatic and cynical: in the light of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the same safeguard clause of the then new Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the territorial legislature saw the writing on the wall, decided that the ban would not stand up in court and lifted it preventively. Hardly any altruistic motivation.
At this point in American history, the elimination of legal inequality was not viewed as an admission that everyone was equal in a contemporary progressive sense of the term; Rather, as Gillmer notes, Washingtoners simply continued to enforce what used to be a more formal prohibition socially – and “their practices, policies and procedures have often been as brutal when it comes to racing as they are in other parts of the country,” says he.
As detailed in Gillmer’s thorough review of this story – which I highly recommend reading for yourself – our state’s judicial system essentially “used the law to ensure that wealth and property remained in the hands of whites, not racial minorities “. Legislators discouraged and punished the formation of interracial relationships through legal procedures and processes such as obtaining marriage licenses or establishing property.
Washington newspaper editors continued to widely denounce interracial marriage, and as early as 1911 state lawmakers began to introduce new bans. While the effort was never successful, so much blatant prejudice underscored the proposed bans that it was hardly necessary to turn the life of multiracial couples living in our state into a nightmare.
“We’re no exception, even though we didn’t have a ban,” says Gillmer. “It was still very difficult and very uncomfortable for multiracial couples to live together and publicly present themselves as married.”
The lesson here is a recurring one that matters to Washingtoners today: We live in one of the most liberal states in the country. Seattle is one of the most progressive cities in the country. We have strong anti-discrimination and thorough anti-hate crime laws. These facts, figures and rankings can sometimes create the illusion of total inclusiveness, when in fact our formal protection must be supported by social acceptance in order to achieve real equality. We are still far too close to our own history – and in many ways our present reality – of segregation, white supremacy, Native American displacement and anti-Asian racism for many people of color to feel comfortable here, let alone to live openly in interracial marriages.
Data from the Pew Research Center for 2011-2015 – the most recent years available – shows that 20% of newlyweds in the greater Seattle area are “mixed marriages,” compared to the national average of 16% in those years. However, the vast majority of newlyweds in multiracial marriages here at this time were White or Asian Americans. In the area intended to show the percentages of black and Hispanic newlyweds in multiracial marriages, Pew simply displays a dash to indicate that the region has “fewer than 200 cases” each, including Tacoma and Bellevue.
None of this is intended to ignore Washington’s rich history of civil rights advocacy to prevent the prohibition of interracial marriages here in the 20th century. As reported by the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, a coalition of Civil rights activists and organizations including Seattle Republican Editor Horace Cayton, the NAACP, and the Urban League joined forces to overcome interracial marriage bans proposed in the 1930s. As a result, Washington became a destination for lovebirds living in states that were still banned.
“Racial couples from California and other states often traveled to Vancouver, Washington, on the Oregon border to get married and then return to their states of residence that were legally required to recognize marriages in other states,” said Dr. Quintard Taylor, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Washington and author of The Forging of a Black Community, told me via email.
The coalition that made these marriages possible is a legacy to be proud of, and we should be inspired to emulate it as we face the many civil rights challenges in Washington today. But we cannot do this effectively if we are not honest with our past. Back when Washington lifted its prohibition on interracial marriages, the Territory seemed more “progressive” than it was, as Gillmer notes in his article – and that is certainly true today.
“We have to face this and stop pretending it’s worse elsewhere, so it’s not that bad here,” he tells me.
As is so often the case, the first step in confronting our history is to know it.