Racism is baked into the history of this small Seattle suburb | KUOW News and Information

Racism is baked into the history of this small Seattle suburb

Mar 14, 2017

Our region was built with immigrant labor. It’s part of the story of growth and development here. There are many ways to tell that history. How we tell it signals who belongs, and who is a foreigner.

That’s also true in Black Diamond, an old mining town about to become home to a large housing development. It’s known for its Welsh and Irish heritage. But that’s not the whole story. There's a hidden Asian-American history here, too.

Ask anyone if they’ve been to Black Diamond, and they’re likely to mention the bakery. It’s a place that everyone stops at when they go skiing at Crystal Mountain. It first opened in 1902. And it’s still going strong.

“And this is the bread,” says Moon Bang, holding up a loaf. “This is 115 years old recipe we are using.”

Moon Bang bought the iconic bakery with her husband about 10 years ago. She became the guardian of its 115 year history. To some people, that seemed incongruous.

“They said, you need to go home,” she said. “It was a shock.”

And where was home, anyway? Once, Bang lived in South Korea, where she worked for the government. But women weren’t expected to have careers. She came here instead. Eventually, she became a U.S. citizen. So, this was her home.

She spent almost two decades running a dry cleaner in Auburn so she could send her two daughters to a private Christian school.

When the Black Diamond bakery came on the market, it felt right. “It’s quiet country, and nice view,” says Bang.

From this field in Black Diamond, you can see Seattle's skyscrapers on the horizon.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

She and her husband threw themselves into it. They added dinner and evening jazz performances. Even 10 years later, they still work until midnight most nights. If a baker calls in sick or something breaks, they stay all night. “Sometimes, two days we didn’t sleep,” she said.

So when people told her she didn’t belong in Black Diamond, it stung. On the outside, she held her composure and smiled. But inside, “I was crying and mad. I have to hold my breath.”

People have been telling Asian Americans they didn’t belong in this part of King County for a long time. The seeds of that resentment go back at least to the 1870s. That’s when Chinese workers helped build the railroad spurs serving the county’s coal mines.

A small weekday brunch hour crowd at the Black Diamond Bakery.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Local archaeologist Ben Bronson says “one of the big advantages of Chinese laborers compared to their white competitors is they didn’t get drunk on the weekends.”

Alcohol was a big problem in mining towns, especially among the white workers. “If you were an American contractor hiring white labor, you had to worry that you wouldn’t get anything done on a Monday. Because they would all be asleep.”

Bronson says that and other things led unions to resent the Chinese. In 1882, the U.S. banned Chinese laborers from coming into the country.

Bronson’s partner is archaeologist Chuimei Ho. She tells the story of what happened to Chinese railroad workers after they were hired as miners in Black Diamond.

“A group of Chinese, they lived together, you know, in one big house. And according to the newspaper report,” unidentified assailants set fire to the house. 

These kinds of things happened all over the West as anti-Chinese sentiment grew. Black Diamond avoided the worst of the bloodshed.

“The Chinese managed to escape in time, no one was hurt,” says Ho. But even with the Chinese railroad workers chased out of Black Diamond, there were still traces of their presence.

Research PNW Chinese American history on Chuimei Ho and Ben Bronson's website.

Rose Murdock grew up in Black Diamond. As we speak on the phone, she and I both open Google maps and fly over the house in Black Diamond where she grew up.

“Where the cul de sac was, there’s a drop off there that goes into a gully. And there was a big train trestle track all made out of wood,” she says.

That’s where her dad told her two Chinese railroad workers were buried in his field. “He didn’t know what happened to them, he was just told that they were buried there.”

But the Chinese workers are probably gone. Their bodies would have been dug up and returned to China. That was written into their labor contracts and was taken very seriously.

Rahul Gupta of the Wing Luke Museum says that practice partly explains how we can sometimes forget the important role Asians and Asian Americans played in shaping our communities.

“In Western culture, you’d put a headstone. Right? You’d put a headstone, and you have people remember you,” he says. “That’s how you make a mark, if you passed away in an area that you’d settled. Well, that’s not the way it worked, at least for the Chinese population. They were exhuming their bodies, so they could have proper burials in China.”

There are Chinese sections in graveyards in larger towns like Seattle. But great numbers of laborers still thought of China as home. One reason might be official policies that discouraged them from settling.

Sweets in the Black Diamond Bakery.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

It wasn’t just Chinese who left fleeting footprints on the region. Sikhs also helped build the region’s railroads. Filipinos worked the land.

Japanese-Americans also had a major presence in the Green River Valley, between Black Diamond and Auburn. They owned berry farms. Jean Beers, who lives there, still remembers them fondly.

“It’s kind of sad to see them all gone,” she says.

It’s easy to forget the history and how Asian-Americans helped grow and develop the region because the record is so ephemeral, as ephemeral as memory and some pieces of paper.

How we remember that history influences how we see someone like Moon Bang, who bought the Black Diamond Bakery, and whether we believe she belongs.

“I’m an American citizen too. I’m here for working and pay taxes,” she says. “You know, I’m a little shorter, and have an accent … Why we have to have that kind of discrimination?”

But people are coming around. Remember the customers who didn’t like her? At least one of them changed their mind. “One people came and apologized to me.”

What did they say?  “They said 'I’m sorry, but I didn’t know you. And then, you are really working hard and really changed the bakery. And from now, I can come,' they said.”