Roslyn’s Black Pioneers: Stores and School in Roslyn (Part 3/4)
Written by Alisa Weis, and originally published in the Northern Kittitas County Tribune.
Click to read part 1 and part 2 of this series.
While true that tensions eased after the strike of 1888/1889 ended and that Black and white miners worked together, the Craven family still experienced barriers because of their color. Ethel Craven-Sweet said that her family would go to the Company Store (as did all the miners) for goods, but there was at least one occasion where one of her older sisters wasn’t given the items she requested. When her sister told the clerk she needed sanitary napkins, she was turned down and told “you don’t need that.” Once their father Samuel heard of this, he reported to the Company Store, and no one denied him. The clerk’s initial refusal led Ethel to say, “the Company Store was not a pleasant place.”
While the Cravens excelled in their studies, not all teachers and students were willing to acknowledge the awards they’d earned. Ethel recounts being the Valedictorian of her class, but says that title was taken from her because of her race.
“Being the Valedictorian is such an honor, and then someone snatches it from you,” said Kanashibushan, reflecting on the disappointment and anger her younger sister must have felt. “My mother went to speak with the principal. He apologized, but said he wouldn’t have a job if he allowed her to be Valedictorian. I don’t agree with his decision, but I understand it…It takes more courage to do what’s right, but that’s asking a lot sometimes.”
Ethel said that while there were some good teachers, the music teacher in Roslyn was prejudiced. “She would not let my sister or me sing during school performances and told us to sit down. After 8th grade, my parents sent us to school in Easton (since we were treated better there.) Roslyn provided a good education, but there were things that made growing up here an unhappy time.”
Kanashibushan added that if she and her sisters experienced these slights from some of Roslyn’s teachers, she knew it must have been even harder for her brothers.
Ethel credits her parents for insisting their children take her studies seriously. She and her siblings worked diligently toward their varied dreams and aspirations. While their paths often took them in various directions, the Cravens are noted for being difference makers in whatever field they followed.
Ethel completed her shorthand training at Edison Technical College (now part of Seattle Community College) and became the second African American woman to work for Boeing back in 1958. She was brought on as a secretary, but said that in the early days that the personnel clerk “tried to hide me.” Her employer moved her to the Central Medical Library, which was secluded from the main place, but six months later, she became a secretary to doctors and was in a position that involved working with a lot of people and “being seen.”
Harriet Joyce echoed some of her sister’s experiences, saying that while school wasn’t segregated, she was only invited to about two classmates’ birthday parties over the years and “never got to go to school dances.” In 1947, she was one of two African American students to attend Central Washington. Four years later she graduated with three Bachelor degrees.
“In 1951 only two schools would interview me for a teaching position,” she said. She had to leave Washington since Portland, Oregon was one of the only districts that would offer her a position. “At first I was only allowed to scrub floors or work at restaurants.”
Her sister, Kanashibushan, reiterated that Roslyn was not a place where Black women could readily find work; they had to go to other towns to find positions even for cleaning or waitressing. Kanashibushan earned her Business degree from Griffin Murphy, but was quickly disappointed when denied opportunities because of her color. At 43, after spending years raising children, she went back to school at Seattle Central Community College for a degree in Mental Health/ Human Services and was able to connect with people in need through Seattle housing and runaway shelters.
Kanashibushan also found a calling in working as a psychic. She studied metaphysics for 15 years, worked alongside psychic healers in London, and “is not so much a predictor of wild, unknown events…as she is a confirmer of things people already sense” (The Daily Record article). There’s a natural strength and calm to her that draws people to her for guidance.
Wes found success and acclaim in the boxing ring. Before a serious eye injury eventually sidelined him, he was a Golden Glove Heavyweight and Welterweight champion in Seattle. One of his championship pictures is proudly on display at the Roslyn Historical Museum, and he is mentioned in local history books for his accomplishments in the sport.
One of the family’s greatest triumphs came when Will Craven was appointed as the first Black mayor not only to Roslyn, but in Washington state in June of 1975. He ran for the vacant position in 1976 and won by a great majority of votes. Will filled this role for four years and earned a lot of recognition for his civil service. What’s so incredible—and ironic—about this appointment is that Will is a descendant of the Black miners whose train was initially chased out of Roslyn by striking miners.
“Some people will like me, some people won’t,” Will said in an interview for The Spokesman Review during his years as mayor. “I didn’t run for this job as a black man, but as a man. I wanted an equal chance to try.”
Though his responsibilities as mayor ended long ago, Will’s accomplishments as mayor are upheld and remembered. November 3, 2015 was deemed “William Craven Day” in honor of his service 40 years prior and the history that was made through his appointment.
The Craven family have proven gracious educators to all those in the Pacific Northwest who have expressed interest in knowing their history. Before her passing in 1993, reporters would approach Mrs. Craven since she had a photogenic memory until her later years. She was passionate about people knowing of the impact made by Roslyn’s Black Pioneers.
“My sisters and I went to school districts across the state to give presentations,” said Ethel. “The junior high students loved our talks on Roslyn Black Pioneer history. Some of the things we shared with them included coal from the mines, a washtub from the past, and an old train model. We got a lot of letters from kids thanking us for being there over the years.”
Roslyn residents of the 1980’s and 90’s are sure to remember the vibrant floats the Cravens created to pay tribute to their ancestors and raise awareness of their Washington presence. Ethel fondly recalls floats from years gone by, especially since she was in charge of creating them. The Cravens participated in upwards of 13 parades a year, which carried them anywhere from Yakima to Olympia. Mrs. Ethel Craven joined in to represent in Roslyn/ Cle Elum and was the first African American hailed as Pioneer Queen in 1983.
One year 19 people were on board, including three babies, and they couldn’t have had more fun. Ethel recalls wearing a shimmering “shake shake” silver dress, delighted to have the chance to wear it, all the while knowing that the Roslyn Black Pioneers were being recognized. “We had so much fun. People liked us because we were noisy,” she said, with a laugh. “We had our last float in 1998, but I’m so thankful for the memories. We had a ball.”
The Cravens have also proven strong activists for Civil Rights, partaking in marches and protests in Seattle and Olympia over the years. Harriet Joyce had the opportunity to march with Dr. King, and she was given an award from Jesse Jackson for her efforts to further the work of justice and equality. Her oldest sister, Leola Woffort, is remembered as a brilliant woman who led her siblings in the fight for justice and championed for welfare rights no matter the person’s color. The sisters were devoted to affecting positive change in as many lives as they could reach.
While able to look back and draw on the strength and perseverance of their ancestors, the Cravens are ever aware of the work that still needs to happen at local and state levels and will continue to speak out on that which matters. One of the first ways to introduce others to this work is to educate on their family history, one that still isn’t rightly recognized in enough historical accounts. Knowledge of Roslyn’s Black pioneers gives more hope and fuel to today’s generation and all that will follow.
“It’s important to know that Black people were part of the pioneer energy,” said Kanashibushan. “We have a pioneer spirit. It took something for my grandmother to come as far as she did with a child. Almost 3,000 miles.”