John Elrick: The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (Website Review)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Elrick is an HNN intern.]

The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, based at the University of Washington under the direction of Professor James Gregory, is a multi-media website dedicated to documenting the Pacific Northwest’s multiracial labor and civil rights history. It offers over 1000 primary documents and photographs, over 70 video oral histories, original research essays produced by undergraduate and graduate students, short films, slideshows, historical overviews and bibliographic guides. The project is a rich web-based resource designed to provide teachers, students, community members and researchers with information about Washington State’s turbulent past.

While the site covers various movements for social and economic justice throughout the twentieth century, the bulk of materials fall into the period between World War II and the 1980s. There is a particular emphasis on the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The project covers the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, the Chicano/a Movement in Washington State, the Asian American Movement and Native American activism. Other sections document the history of Seattle’s ethnic press, Filipino American cannery unionism and working class efforts to end job discrimination. Of particular note is the content that addresses segregation and racially restrictive real estate covenants in Seattle. With maps illustrating segregation patterns throughout the city, photographs, documents and “the most extensive database of racially restrictive neighborhood covenants and deed clauses available for any city in the country,” this section exposes how discrimination and prejudice shaped American life throughout the nation.

The Web site allows visitors to tour the project in a number of ways.  From the homepage, viewers can access specific primary and secondary source material collections, historical overviews and movement profiles, a teacher resource page and sections that explore specific labor and civil rights movements. Visitors can also browse site materials related to the activism of specific ethnic groups, including African American, Latino/a, Asian American and Native American options. In addition, researchers can use the search tool to browse the site’s content and there are links to related sites and other web-based resources provided throughout the project.  While the layout and the different navigation options can lead a visitor to specific materials in a variety of ways, browsing through the project’s numerous sections and impressive source collections was refreshingly manageable. 

Despite limited funding, the project designers have produced a visually appealing Web site that combines a variety of media technologies with content geared to a diverse audience. Video clips of activist interviews, digitalized documents and newspaper articles, and high quality photograph collections bring the intensity and complexity of Seattle’s various civil rights struggles to life. Likewise, the short films, slideshows, and lesson plans included in the site provide educators with useful and provocative tools for middle school, high school and college classrooms. In addition, the site builds on the original research of college students in order to both transcend the division between educator and student and provide the project with analytical depth. Indeed, the interaction between students, movement participants and activists, and faculty makes this project especially unique.

The state of Washington, spurred by the project’s documentation of restrictive covenants and racist deed clauses, took steps in 2006 to address the region’s segregationist history. The Web site’s impact highlights the importance of public history and illustrates the potential of similar projects. While students, educators and researchers will surely find this Web site useful, the project’s breadth and accessibility make it an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of the American labor and civil rights movements.

Related Links

  • AHA Perspectives: Website review
  • HNN websites of the month

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