February 2, 2023 update:Historic Tacoma informed us of an error in our timeline:
“While Mrs. Butler’s story is certainly worth telling, it should be noted that the reporter who wrote the 1968 newspaper article which was the source of this post was incorrect. The earliest available historic records thus far show that Tacoma pioneer John Newington Conna (1844-1921) and his family were the first Black family to live in Tacoma. These records also indicate that his son Harold was the first African-American born in Tacoma. According to the 1885 Washington Territorial Census (below), Harold was born in 1884 with his name and age (1) listed in the census, several years before Mrs. Butler’s birth in 1892. The 1900 US Census listed Harold as age 16 and his DOB as March 1884; further, his 1917 WWI draft registration listed his place of birth as Tacoma. Per another comment here by a Conna descendant, Harold’s younger brother and sister were also born here prior to 1892.“
According to Historylink.org, John Conna was the father of 19 children. Census and birth records from that time are often incomplete so we can’t say with 100% certainty which of his children were born here or elsewhere. According to Ancestry.com, it appears Libby F. Conna was also born in Tacoma in 1889 along with Katherine Veile Conna in 1890. Katie Conna is listed as being born in Washington in 1888 but no city is listed.
We do our best to tell stories as accurately as possible but we do miss things sometimes. If you have more information to share or corrections to offer, you’re welcome to email email@example.com and we will update the story accordingly.
In some ways, you could say that Tacoma has a long and complex history. In other ways, the earliest parts of our history can feel only barely out of reach. In 1968 Ethel Butler was identified as the first African American born in Tacoma.
According to Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room:
Mrs. Ethel Butler holds a unique place in the history of Tacoma. On January 1, 1892, she was born Ethel Alberta Ury and is believed to be the first African American child born in Tacoma.
She lived here until her death in February of 1970. While growing up, she attended the old Lincoln grade school and Central School. She remembered fondly hayrides, playing on the beach and trips to Spanaway Park, but little or no racial tension. When interviewed by a News Tribune reporter, she said, “Segregation didn’t come to Tacoma until World War II. The shipyards came and changed all that.”
To put this into context, when Ethel Butler was born, Old City Hall was brand new and most of the sidewalks in the city were made out of wooden planks. Washington State was only three years old.
The first Black family had moved to Tacoma only nine years earlier. The father of that family, John N. Conna, was born into slavery and had fought in the Civil War.
128 years sounds so long ago as to be entirely unrelatable. The important point of all this, though, is that it’s not.
If you think about it not in terms of years, but generations, that impossible span of time shrinks to only a few people. If you’re 60+ years old and you grew up in Tacoma, there’s a chance you knew Ethel Butler.
Her children may still be here or, at the very least, her grandchildren. All of those people carry pieces of her memories and experiences in stories. To be able to hear what this city was like back then, what it was like living as one of the first Black people in the entire city, must have been incredible.
The stories of marginalized people become marginalized along with them when history is written by those in positions of power and privilege. For that reason, it is absolutely vital that we preserve and amplify the stories that still exist.
Take time to listen to the stories of those who came before you, especially those who were oppressed and overlooked. And if you or someone you know has stories to share, we would love to hear them.
Photos courtesy of Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room