Booker, who died last month, is credited with a long list of firsts for a black man. The firsts are something to celebrate, but also a reminder of how many doors were closed to black people here in the 1950s and ’60s. His family was among those who relentlessly opened them.
People who knew Harold G. Booker are saddened by his death, but the story of his life is also uplifting even for those who didn’t know him.
One of his nieces sent me a note about his death that said his had been one of the first black families to settle in Federal Way in the 1960s. That’s notable, but what stuck with me is his extended family’s story of persistence and achievement in the face of obstruction. And, more importantly, that as they lifted themselves, they also helped other people.
Booker, 84, who died in Seattle on Valentine’s Day, was the middle of five children from a family that has made a deep impact in King County and beyond. Booker worked for Boeing for 20 years as a chemical engineer, and another 17 years as an attorney. He served on numerous local boards and committees, including the King County Housing Authority. And he was known for his pro bono legal work.
Celebration of Harold Booker’s life
A celebration to honor Booker will be held Saturday, April 7, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency-Lake Washington, 1053 Lake Washington Blvd. N., Renton.
But, like other members of his family, he was always fighting against the expectation that he didn’t belong or could not achieve.
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He’s credited with a long list of firsts for a black man. The firsts are something to celebrate, but also a reminder of how many doors were closed to black people around here in the 1950s and ’60s. His family was among those that relentlessly opened them.
His sister, Vivian O. Lee, was the first black sales clerk hired by the Bon Marché and later the first black registered nurse hired by the Veterans Administration hospital here. I’d met her years ago because of her efforts to support young nurses, so I asked her to tell me about him and the family.
She told me their mother, Alvirita Little, was their inspiration and the person who pushed them to cross barriers. Little established the Girls Club of Puget Sound and began a program to find host families for international students studying at the University of Washington.
All of her five children did well.
The family started out in Spring, Texas. Lee said that because of segregation, Harold had to walk 2 miles past the white high school to catch a bus that would take him 45 miles to Houston and the nearest black high school.
“Some young people never went to high school because of that,” she said, “but he went and graduated from high school at 15,” at the top of his class, in 1949. At 19, Harold graduated from college, summa cum laude, with a Bachelor of Science degree in organic chemistry.
They came to Seattle in 1951 because their mother had married Frank Little, an Army sergeant who was transferred here.
Booker applied to graduate school at the University of Washington. Lee said that when the department head warned that he’d never earn a master’s degree, their stepfather told him to sign up anyway. Booker excelled and became the first black person to receive an advanced degree in organic chemistry from the UW.
He went to work for Boeing in Auburn. One of his colleagues suggested he look for a house in Federal Way, but real-estate agents wouldn’t show houses to a black family. In 1962, a white colleague sold him a piece of land on which he could build. Booker, his wife and two sons experienced some negative reaction, but Booker became active in the community, volunteering and actively championing human rights for all Federal Way residents with the help of sympathetic white people.
The family often found good people to help them when they hit a wall. Lee and her husband tried to buy a house in Newport Hills in Bellevue, but no one would sell to them. White philanthropist Sidney Gerber arranged a meeting with Lee and Wing Luke, the first Asian American elected to public office in the Northwest. Lee never got a house there, but other people benefited. Gerber and Luke “came up with the idea of buying homes (around the county) in the name of whites and selling them to blacks and Asians,” Lee said. “There are some good people in the world.”
When Booker tried to join the Elks club in 1969 and was rebuffed, several Boeing colleagues left the organization in support of Booker, Lee said. Years later, in 2015, Federal Way presented him with the “Key to the City” for his wide-ranging public service.
While he was working at Boeing, Booker earned a law degree because his service as chairman of the Seattle King County Economic Opportunity Board convinced him he needed to be a better advocate for poor people.
He moved to the contracts department at Boeing. His sister said he had to get higher-ups at Boeing to overcome opposition from the department. Booker quickly proved himself and became the first black regional director of aircraft contracts for the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group. Then, after retiring, he spent 20 years doing free legal work for people who couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer.
It’s sad and outrageous that so much energy was, and sometimes still is, poured into preventing people from contributing the best of themselves.
Lee said their mother was unusual in her ability to push past restrictions and to help her children do the same. Harold was a lot like her, Lee said. They wanted to succeed, and they wanted to help other people succeed, too.
It’s nice to be reminded there are always good people making this a better community.