Explainer

Historic Times at Garfield High

The first 100 years of the Central District school produced some of our city’s finest figures—and highlighted some of our worst divides.

By Taylor McKenzie Gerlach September 27, 2022

Photo collage by Bridgette Huhtala. Source photos courtesy Garfield High/MOHAI/UW Library Digital Collection.

In the heart of the Central District, James A. Garfield High School has educated a century’s worth of students in its terra-cotta-studded edifices. But the institution’s own history serves as a crash course in Seattle’s messy past—and a who’s-who of the city’s luminaries.

Class Roster

When the school eventually known as Garfield first opened its doors in the early 1920s, its students hailed from varied backgrounds, including those of Jewish, Japanese, and Italian descent. But during World War II, the U.S. government forcibly sent many of those Japanese families away to incarceration camps.

By the end of the conflict, the neighborhood’s population had shifted. Early inhabitants moved out; some couldn’t. Housing discrimination and racist property covenants in other neighborhoods stymied options for Black families. The Central District, and Garfield, became home to most of Seattle’s growing Black population.

Civil Rights Champions

In its early decades, the school was held up as a model for diversity. Students regularly stood against de facto segregation in other Seattle schools. During the ’60s, Bulldogs boycotted class for days, instead attending “freedom schools” where informal lessons in Black history filled gaping holes in the curriculum.

Civil rights leaders took notice. Martin Luther King Jr. tested lines for his “I Have a Dream” speech at Garfield. Jesse Jackson stopped by. Later on, and before he became president, Barack Obama preached the importance of education at the school’s gymnasium.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael murals within Garfield High.

Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. murals within Garfield High.

Gentrification

As discriminatory housing policies took their toll in the latter part of the twentieth century, many Black residents were pushed out of Garfield’s vicinity. Those who remained faced racial divides in class—a 2016 report showed that Black students were woefully underrepresented in Garfield’s ballyhooed advanced placement courses.

Still, the school’s activist spirit hasn’t been displaced. In 2016, the school’s football team kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, the action garnering national news coverage. And the city’s annual MLK Day march still commences from its campus.

Roll Call

Garfield has countless decorated alums—and one extremely famous dropout—who’ve left their mark on Seattle. 

Minoru Yamasaki 
Pre-2001 photos of New York City wouldn’t be the same without the architect behind the World Trade Center. Closer to home, his New Formalist designs and narrow vertical windows still grace downtown’s Rainier Tower.

Ernestine Anderson 
There’s a reason why, five years after her death, the city declared November 11 “Ernestine Anderson Day.” The Grammy-nominated singer never received the due of fellow Garfield jazz band member Quincy Jones, but her alto was instrumental in elevating the city’s jazz scene. To Jones, it sounded like “honey at dusk.”

Quincy Jones 
Gigs consumed the legendary musician and impresario during his days. Back then, he played at the Washington Social Club and Black Elks Club, among other local venues. Today his name graces the school’s performing arts center.

Jimi Hendrix 
The electric guitar god never graduated from Garfield. School records show he dropped out; Hendrix maintained he was expelled. Before his departure, the future Woodstock icon played at Seafair picnics and teen dance clubs with outfits of high school peers.

Bruce Harrell 
The parents of Seattle’s mayor met via an introduction from—who else—classmate Quincy Jones. Harrell graduated as his class valedictorian and played football at the University of Washington before entering city politics.

Yasser Seirawan
At age seven Syrian-born Seirawan moved to Seattle; by 13 he was the state’s junior chess champion. Honing his game at the U-District’s once-thriving Last Exit on Brooklyn coffeehouse, Seirawan rose in the game’s ranks to win the World Junior Chess Championship in 1979 and become a chess grandmaster. He even created a new variation of the game: Seirawan chess.

Joyce Walker
Her statewide records set on Garfield’s 1980 basketball team have yet to fall. Walker’s high-scoring career didn’t plateau after graduation: She became the third woman to join the Harlem Globetrotters before returning to her alma mater for a stint coaching the girls team all the way to the state championship in 2005.

Debbie Armstrong 
The 1981 graduate lettered in basketball, volleyball, tennis, and soccer, but the moment that landed her a Sports Illustrated cover came at the 1984 Winter Olympics when the longshot rookie ski racer took home the giant slalom gold. Those two minutes of glory live on in the Debbie’s Gold run at Snoqualmie’s Alpental Ski Area, where she honed her skills and still returns yearly with her daughter.

Lynn Shelton 
Seattle’s arts community collectively grieved when the filmmaker died of a blood disorder in 2020, in part because she actually shot her films, like Laggies and Humpday, in Seattle. The writer and director was bused from Maple Leaf to Garfield during her high school years. “It’s just the best social education I could have possibly achieved,” she told this magazine in 2019. 

Lindy West 
Many observers might be surprised to learn that the author of a book called Shrill was shy during her youth. Other former teenagers may also wish they could point to West’s bestselling denunciations of body shaming and sexism when they were in school. 

You Can’t Sit with Us 

They can’t totally claim Garfield. 

Ben Haggerty
Macklemore started his high school career at Garfield before transferring to Nathan Hale.

Bruce Lee
Legend has it that the martial artist and actor once walked the halls as a Garfield student, but he actually tossed his graduation cap at Edison Technical School.

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