Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

Seattle's first black Seafair queen and others from these forgotten photos

Jessie Grimes McQuarter in 1949. She won the Royal Esquire Club pageant two years in a row. Now 84, McQuarter lives in Covington.
Courtesy of J.C. Cook
Jessie Grimes McQuarter in 1949. She won the Royal Esquire Club pageant two years in a row. Now 84, McQuarter lives in Covington.

A year ago, we published photos from the 1940s and 50s of black people in Seattle just living their lives.

The photographer was Al Smith, an amateur photographer. Boxes of his work were donated to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

But there was a problem. The people in those boxes – we didn’t know who they were.

So we asked you to help us identify these people. We received 45 responses, including from people who told us they took their iPads and computers into churches and nursing homes to get answers.

But there was one photo that remained a mystery: It shows a young woman in an itsy bitsy swimsuit, waving from the back of a white Cadillac. She looks radiant.

Her eldest daughter emailed us last month. The woman in the photo was Jessie McQuarter, her daughter said, née Jessie Grimes, and she was living in Covington, Washington with her daughter and son-in-law.

So what was going on in that photo?

“I was invited to be in the Seafair Parade as the first black queen,” McQuarter said.

McQuarter was living in the Central District at the time, and she had attended Garfield High School.

“I was one of these, ‘If there wasn’t a black kid involved, get in it,’” she said. “Because we heard about how things were in the South and parts of the East.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "April 1950, a woman and four men in parade car with banner reading \"Royal Esquires.\" ", "fid": "116177", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/2014.49.010-054-0111.jpg", "attribution": "Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jessie McQuarter at her home in Covington, Washington, an hour from Seattle. ", "fid": "127109", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201606/missroyaleesquire2__1_of_1_.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]]McQuarter said there wasn’t segregation or prejudice in Seattle at the time – that came later, she said, after World War II.

In 1948, the Royal Esquire Club was founded in Seattle as a place where black men could socialize. (The club still exists today.)

McQuarter’s sister’s husband was part of the club. When Royal Esquires put out word they were hosting a pageant, McQuarter’s sister signed her up – and bought her that tiny white swimsuit.

“It was very, very revealing, let’s put it that way,” McQuarter said.

For the pageant, “They made you kind of prance around,” she said. A member of the club held her hand as she strutted around, but he was taller than her, and she found it hard to keep up.

She won. She credits the suit.

Winning meant McQuarter got to be in the Seafair Parade.

“The black society in Seattle was very happy to see me in the parade, because they really turned out,” she said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The caption said this was a birthday party from the mid-1940s. Sarah J. Ervin Dean wrote: The birthday party picture is a photo we have at home. My Mother, Christene R. Ervin and sister Charlesetta Yvonne Ervin (Carr) are pictured. My Mother is expecting the birth of my brother, Charles W. Ervin, Jr. in that picture. I recognize Jerry Davis and Mr. Jones. ", "fid": "116158", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/birthday_party__ca._1944-46.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center"}]]She entered the pageant again the next year, and won again. After that, she got married. She had four children with that husband – and four more with her second husband. She also has a stepchild.

McQuarter left the Central District in the late 1960s because of ongoing violence there. Her husband moved the family to Covington, about an hour from Seattle.

“I had a good life,” she said. “At 84, I think I look pretty good. Everybody says, oh that was you in the picture? And I say yes, I’m still here, only there’s two of me.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "A newlywed bride and groom from 1955. Rashida Robinson reports these are her grandparents, Howard Rhone and Deloris Berry Rhone. Robinson writes: I just spoke with my grandmother and she remembered every detail about this photo, down to the leopard seats and Hold Her Tight sign!", "fid": "116175", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/2014.49.010-019-0038.jpg", "attribution": "Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "Seattle baseball team, circa 1944-1945. Photo by Al Smith. Angele Russell-Knox wrote to us that she recognized her father, Charles Edward (Charley) Russell. She did say who he was in the photo, but she asked: Who are those men in the shadows, and why do the palyers look slightly skeptical? Lyle Wilson reported that it was the Carver Athletic Club and shared some names: back row, far left, Joe Staton Sr., third from right, Brenna King, end, far right, Babe Wilson.", "fid": "116172", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201503/local_baseball_team__ca._1944-45.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "Leisure Life, first black bowling team to play in the American Bowling Congress, 1954. Carl B. Arns wrote that his father, Carl B. Arns Sr., was the first man on the right. ", "fid": "116173", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/leisure_life__1st_black_bowling_team_to_play_in_the_american_bowling_congress__1954.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "The Leon Vaughn Band. Leon Vaughn and the photographer Al Smith were neighbors in Seattle. Band members, left to right, are identified as Ralph Stephens, Leon Vaughn, Aaron Davis, Clarence Williams (singing), and Milton Walton. (Vaughn's daughter, Lea Vaughn, told us we had misspelled his name in the previous story. Lea Vaughn is a professor of law at the University of Washington.)", "fid": "116179", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/xAl_Smith_jazz_LeonVaughanBand.jpg", "attribution": "Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "On the right, by the bookcase, no doubt that is Marge Walker, mom to my childhood friend Billy Walker, wrote someone who didn't leave their name. Billy's older brother is Booker, son of Booker T. Jones, of Booker T and the MGs. on the flower, below the lamp, is Bertha Moore, who would become first lady at Mount Calvary CME church, formerly on 27h and Madison. ", "fid": "116176", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/2014.49.010-020-0041.jpg", "attribution": "Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "Pilots Club, 99th Squadron, World War II, circa 1944-45. Sandra Boas-DuPree wrote to say that the pilot in the cockpit was Harold (Snooky) Morris of Seattle. He was a Tuskegee Airman. Boas-DuPree is married to his nephew. Shana Beckwith, Morris's granddaughter, and Patricia Morris, also wrote in to tell us about him. ", "fid": "116166", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/pilots_club__99th_sqaudron_wwii__ca._1944-45.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "Stephanie Johnson-Toliver wrote to say that her mother identified the young woman as Adelia (Micki) Avery. Eagle-eyed reader Ivory Ellison spotted the faded 52 on the sash, which makes sense, as that's when the white man in the photo, Mayor Allan Pomeroy, was elected.", "fid": "116178", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/AlSmith004-01.jpg", "attribution": "Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49"}]]