Making Space: The Life of Tacoma Civil Rights Activist Helen Stafford

By Henry Stewart-Wood

Helen B. Stafford has an elementary school named after her in Tacoma’s South End. But in 1926 the school district refused to hire her as a teacher because she was Black. 

Stafford was born in Kansas in 1899. Her parents were born into slavery. She graduated from Kansas State University in 1920 with a degree in Home Economics with a minor in Sociology. She worked as a school teacher for several years before moving to Tacoma in the late 1920s. 

Stafford described her experience trying to get a teaching job in Tacoma in a 1993 oral history project by Helen I. Gilmore:

“I had tried when I first came to Tacoma to get a teacher’s position. I called for a conference, and the man was very nice, he said come on down. He didn’t know I was Black. When I got there, right away he looked like he wanted to faint. He stood right up to me and said, ‘Sorry Mrs. Stafford, we don’t even have a Negro janitor here. We couldn’t subject our children to that.’ Whatever that was,” Stafford said. 

After being denied a job as a teacher, Stafford became the first Black caseworker for the Tacoma Department of Public Assistance. Stafford turned her efforts to community organizing and civil rights activism to uplift her community. 

In 1927 she organized the Matron’s Club, a social club for Black mothers. In the 1930s, Stafford worked to establish the Tacoma chapter of the NAACP where she served as President. Stafford was involved in the Tacoma Urban League, the Washington Public 

Employees Association labor union, the League of Women Voters and served as the Superintendent of her Church’s Sunday School. She organized the Tacoma chapter of The Links, a non-profit still active today that consists of Black businesswomen who are leaders and activists in their community. Stafford was a board member of the YWCA as well as the Tacoma Colored Woman’s Club. 

“When I came out here, they had one [NAACP] but it was sort of dying on the vines, so I got busy in that and I was President for a while. I was always interested in the NAACP. We were trying to integrate,” Stafford said. 

In an interview, Stafford described what Tacoma was like when she moved here from Kansas. She said Tacoma didn’t have formal Jim Crow laws, but that discrimination was still prevalent. Stafford recalled going to white restaurants and being ignored, as though she didn’t exist. However, Stafford said the Japanese and Chinese restaurants downtown welcomed Black patrons and treated them kindly. 

Stafford noted that other than the meeting with the school district the only blatant display of racism towards her occurred during the first YWCA meeting she attended. At the end of the meeting Stafford asked “I hear that Black girls aren’t allowed in the swimming pools, why is that?” The woman running the meeting responded, “because the white mothers don’t want their girls swimming with Negro girls.” 

While working at the NAACP Stafford fought to get more employment opportunities for Black workers during a time when businesses often refused to hire them. 

“We went downtown and talked to the stores that had no Black help. Safeway is the one that I remember. We talked about them having some Black people work in their stores. They’d promise you most anything, and nothing would come of it. Even at that time, there were quite a few Black people in this area. So we went up to them and said that if you don’t hire some Black people, we’re going to picket your store. We gave them a date and time we were going to picket. I think it was one Monday. On the Sunday before that, they hired a Black girl,” Stafford said. 

In 1971 Stafford was the first Black woman to be named the State Woman of Achievement by the Washington State Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Association. Stafford received awards for her work as a civil rights leader from organizations such as the YWCA, NAACP, Tacoma Municipal League, and the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.

When asked how she became involved in so many organizations, Stafford replied, “If I saw an article in the paper about something that was going to be here, I’d just go.” In 1999 when Stafford turned 100 years old, the City of Tacoma declared November 15 “Helen Stafford Day” to recognize her achievements in fighting for civil rights.

Everywhere she went, Stafford forced her way into white spaces and made room for Black people in Tacoma. Her accomplishments cannot be overstated and the effects of them can still be felt today.

Biographical data and photos courtesy of Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room
Header image portrait courtesy of University of Washington Tacoma

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