Brown Spots

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:

Asberry v. Wilson

Tacoma Hotel Staff
Staff of the Tacoma Hotel
Tacoma Hotel Staff.detail
Henry Asberry seated in vest

Written by

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.


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