Heard of Papa Simms grocery store? Lecture reflects on Renton’s black history

Two virtual lectures will be held at area libraries to celebrate Black History Month.

For Black History Month, local libraries are hosting lectures to teach attendees about the black history of Renton.

The lectures will be looking at that history, and answering questions like, “What brought most African American families to the Renton area? What factors caused the families to settle where they did? How many professional athletes grew up in the early Renton African American community?”

With the help of Renton History Museum’s research, John Houston and Benita Horn are hosting a virtual tour of the history of African American residents, including the original center of the black community, a single street in the Highlands sometimes known as “Renton’s hilltop.”

The tour takes guests from a grocery store, Papa Simms, that carried food items from the South that families couldn’t get at a Safeway and doubled as a hangout spot, to a cemetery with historically segregated burial sites and resting place of Jimi Hendrix.

The lecture champions successful locals while addressing the hardships African American families faced in Renton.

Houston and Horn both live in Renton. Houston is a lifelong resident and owns a local counseling business, Integrated Testing and Solutions, and Horn is an inclusion and equity consultant for the city.

Houston was born in 1953 and grew up on old Honey Creek, on that original street. His parents moved here from the South and were the second-largest black landowners. The property was taken by eminent domain by the school district, but no school was built. It was sold to a private developer for much more than his parents were given, Houston said.

Many black families on that street experienced displacement through eminent domain over the years. But instead of the facilities promised, other private developments sit there. Houston said this was an example of the systemic racism.

But Houston also talks about his love for Renton, and how he returned here to start his business.

“It wasn’t always pleasant here in Renton,” Houston said. “But it’s starting to look like the city that my parents would have dreamed of, where everybody has a chance to succeed if they’re willing to work.”

Most of those original families came from the South to work in the coal mines or farmed their own land. Those who worked in the coal mine faced hostility from white workers. Historical records show that some went back and forth from being a coal miner to a farmer on their acreage.

“Growing up there was seven black families on that street. It wasn’t easy for us to go to school without being called names,” Houston said. “But I want kids to know the way things are today, it just didn’t happen. Some lost their lives to get to where, I call it my city, is today. There were struggles.”

Horn said it is also important kids know there is a history of a strong and thriving African American community. And that, despite the displacement of the original black families, that community helped build and support the city in both leadership and small businesses.

Houston said he believes in the steps Mayor Denis Law with help of Horn, the Renton Police Department and school district have made to be more inclusive and equitable.

The lecture will be more of a conversation format, Horn said. The virtual tour was at the Highlands Library Thursday, Feb. 21 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. with a second lecture scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26 at Fairwood Library, 17009 140th Ave SE, Renton.

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