From 1900 on Tacoma was a midway stop for night trains between Seattle and Portland. For black musicians traveling the hotel circuit, it was easy to leave the big city when the ballrooms closed early due to “blue laws” and hit the brown spots in Tacoma. These small black owned and operated clubs paid city hall for the right to stay open all night jamming out music in the industrial neighborhoods where they didn’t bother anyone.
Tacoma’s black community dated back to the late 19th century and the coming of the transcontinental railroad out of Chicago. The Northern Pacific Railway Company, like many of the passenger railroads, hired African American porters and cooks who could afford homes and property in the west coast terminal city of Tacoma. By the 1920’s sleeping car porters, passenger terminal staff and hotel workers represented a strong middle class black population in Tacoma that built neighborhoods, churches and social and cultural organizations. They also financed local businesses, restaurants, barber shops and night clubs, known at the time as Brown Spots.
The great jazzmen and women of the golden age played just for the joy of making music in small Tacoma clubs like this one. Name an American jazz great and they played here, all night long, sleeping on the train to Portland the next day. It makes you smile, like these folks in September 1935.
Tacoma’s close ties to the Northern Pacific Railroad brought black pioneers to the city in the 19th century and helped create an African American community that thrived during the early 20th century and beyond. Besides well paying jobs with the railroad, many prosperous leaders in Tacoma’s black community worked in the hotel and restaurants downtown and one notable figure was Henry Joseph Asberry. Henry operated the crisp white tiled barber shop at the Tacoma Hotel and from the early 1890’s until the grand hotel burned in 1935 he was known, trusted and revered by a remarkable list of personalities. He shaved Mark Twain, Calvin Coolidge.Cut the hair of Sam Perkins, Chauncy Griggs and governors and kings. Together with his legendary wife Nettie Asberry they built a real estate empire in upper Tacoma K Street neighborhood. Their story will take another post entirely. An effort to preserve their home at 13th and M is underway and Nettie’s importance as a civil rights advocate over a 103 year lifetime deserves a longer telling.
Here’s a short chapter in Nettie’s remarkable life: