University District Museum Without Walls Oral History: Tamara A. Turner (Radical Women)

  • Posted 3/16/2010
  • Essay 9344

Tamara A. Turner is a retired medical librarian, a longtime resident of Seattle's University District, and a gay-rights activist.  In this oral history transcript she recalls the district, especially the Ave (University Way), as she experienced it as a high school and college student in the 1950s and 1960s.  Turner was interviewed by Dawnee Dodson for the University District Museum Without Walls in March 2009.  The Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee, draws together the history and life of the University District through a variety of formats, including temporary exhibitions, community events, and oral histories.

Tamara Turner 

I grew up in the North End, around 19th and 82nd. But I went to Roosevelt, so at lunchtime, my boyfriend and I would very often come down to the Ave, or at least go to 65th where the -- there was a music store there, and we could listen to records. So we'd go in and listen to records. He knew everything about music, so we would listen to, you know, The Rite of Spring, and then go back to class. And then after school, everybody went down to the Ave. We'd go to Leo's, which was -- well, it's next door to where the Bartell's is now. And they had great hamburgers. And then we'd pass Dolly McCassey's, this strange little women's clothing store that had models, mannequins with huge poochy cheeks, you know (gestures and smiles). And then there was the bookstore, and we spent a lot of time in the bookstore. Or go on down to Jim Bates's University Music Shop, where you could also listen to music. So, you know, we just sort of hung around. Nobody had any money. Sometimes, when I got to college, we'd go to the Coffee Corral, which is now on 41st -- there's an Indian food restaurant there now, but the Coffee Corral was just great. We'd get a cup of hot coffee, I mean of hot water, and put ketchup in it, and a little salt and pepper, and then that would be tomato soup. Arlie, the woman who ran the place, was really nice. She -- as long as we didn't get loud, she'd let us get away with murder. 

Well, the Ave was quieter. We didn't have this sort of Telegraph Hill in Berkeley kind of thing, where instead of -- you know, there used to be stores that used to be 20 or 30 feet wide. And now they're 10 feet wide, and there's T-shirt junk, and record junk, and, you know. A lot of small fast-food places. And there were no -- there were no runaway kids. There was no dope. There was no prostitution. I mean, wherever it was, it wasn't on the Ave.   

And it was absolutely white. It was boringly, blindingly white. In fact, one of my roommates in college had a friend that -- she'd gone to Lincoln High School with her. And she was invited over to lunch, and she took a couple of us with her. And while we were there, this young woman's husband came home with one of his friends. They were Seattle policemen. And they came in, and his wife said, "Well, have you had any excitement today?" And without any hesitation or anything, they said, "Yeah, we saw two niggers above the canal, so we shook 'em down. They won't make that mistake again." So, it was awful. And then one of my roommates and I had met two young black men downtown, and at one point, we invited them to come out to the University District for lunch, and they were very, very, very hesitant. And I didn't understand why. And my roommate said, "Well, maybe they think it'll be too expensive, or maybe they don't like the Ave." Anyway. So they came out to meet us and they just kept looking around and were really, really nervous. And it didn't take more than five minutes before a beat cop came up and wanted to know who they were. Made them put their hands against a building and check their ID and all that. This was '57, '58.   

The Ave is much better now. There were only -- I think there were only 12 black students at the UW when I went. And it's just -- it's so much better now. It's -- the UW and the Ave are really more a reflection of the world now than they were then. It was very, very fifties.   

"Cockroach, Anthill, and Spider"

One of the things I really did love about the Ave, though, was right behind the bookstore, where their parking lot is now, there were three huge homes. They probably were originally mansions, but now they were broken into a series of just individual rooms. And there was a john in the hall on each floor, and they were called "Cockroach," "Anthill," and "Spider." And the rumor was that a dentist who worked in the dental school owned the buildings. He must've got a fortune in rent from them. But if you were under 21 and one of these addresses went on your residence information, the university would say, "You can't live there." But ah, it was great. I mean, the parties that went on there, and -- I think the thing I miss most about the late fifties on the Ave is the folk singing. We would go to the Blue Moon -- I had fake ID, and so I started going to the Moon when I was about 17. I'd come in with a group and split to the back and hide in the women's john until someone had ordered a pitcher and then I'd come out. Once they saw you were drinking they'd figure somebody else had -- you know. But after the Moon closed, every Friday or Saturday night, we'd go to someone's home and then just spend the rest of the night singing folk songs. And there was always someone who played the guitar very, very well, and they'd sing a few of their favorite songs, and we'd all join in and -- of course there was, you know, a lot of wine drinking, and some pot smoking, and a lot of necking, and, you know. It was pretty grubby, but it was wonderful. And there was just a -- there was really a sense of community. But again, it was pure white.   

I remember the first time I saw a black man in the Blue Moon. His name was Leon Dumas, and he was -- he was really charming. He was a wonderful guy. He'd worked all over the world, and he just wouldn't take disrespect from anyone. So he didn't get any disrespect. And when my younger brother came back from a couple of years of traveling abroad, he couldn't get used to life. After a couple of weeks, he called me and wanted to go to the Moon. And we sat there, and my brother, who's 6' 4", he just burst into tears. And he said, "Look across the street." And there was a used-car lot across from the Moon. And he said, "There are more light bulbs and strings around that used car lot than in any village I visited on all my trips." He said, "The waste, and the rudeness…" He said, "I just -- I don't know what to do." And I saw Leon and I went over, and I said, "Leon, my brother is really having a problem with getting used to being back." And Leon said, "I know." And he came over and introduced himself very heartily and sat down, and within a couple minutes they were just deep into conversation, and Leon kept my brother with him for two or three days, and at the end of that my brother was just -- ready to go again. He enrolled at Western Washington. He went to Fairhaven, and -- but Leon really, really saved his life. 

Leon -- one of the things that happened to him was that there was a party going on near Frat Row, and someone reported the noise, and the police went to investigate, and it turned out later that no one had reported any noise. The police would just cruise, and if they saw any lights on they'd come up to see if there was something they could break up. And it was Leon who opened the door. And they demanded that he come outside, and he said no. Then they demanded that they come in, and he said, "You have no cause to come in." So one of them grabbed him and pulled him out and they beat him really badly. And that happened a couple of times. And the last time I saw Leon he was -- he was very vague.  (long pause, sighs) Not defeated, just living somewhere else in his head. And then I never saw him again.

Anti-war Movement 

In the seventies, hard drugs started coming into the Moon, and then prostitution, and I stopped going to the Moon. It was just -- it was sad. All the sense of community was gone. The Vietnam War was going on; a lot of people had lost hope. Except, you know, people who got involved in the anti-war movement.  That was -- I think that really saved a lot of our lives. The despair, the hopelessness, and so on was really saved by the anti-war movement. And in those days, the media showed pictures every night, so the American public got to see exactly what was going on, and people just wouldn't stand for it. I mean, nowadays, unless you go on the Internet, or you read the left-wing press, you have absolutely no idea what is going on in this country. 

I was working as a clerk at the Downtown public library one day when one of the big anti-Vietnam protests started down the street. We all ran to the windows and we were looking, and several of my coworkers said, "We'll make up an excuse...go!" And so I sneaked out, and marched. And it was somewhat fearful at times. I mean, you did it anyway, but the police tac squads would be lined up in alleys with their big shields and they're, you know, hiding behind all this gear, waiting for something to happen or for one of their provocateurs to start something so they could wade in and, you know, beat on everybody. But the sheer numbers really kept a lot of that from happening. So there was a tremendous amount of -- there was a tremendous amount of anger and a sense that if we all stuck together we could make change. And that was very, very exciting. I mean, to really have the feeling that you could make change if you worked with other people. 

I see so much more work between groups that were formerly separated by racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, whatever.  A lot of people, I mean I see it more and more and more -- it's like a spiral, you know. It keeps going around but every time it comes around a little bit higher, and I'm sure some people say, "Well, if you live to be 500 you might."  But what's a life lived without commitment and trying to make change and so on? What is it? Sitcoms and credit-card payments? I mean, you know, I don't think that's really any alternative.  You can't hide. It used to be people would say, "Well, I'm gonna go to Canada if it gets worse." Well, you should talk to my Canadian friends! (laughs) There's nowhere to run. It's a global system, and you have to face it at its roots. And you know, we have more of a responsibility, I think, here in the U.S., because if we make change here, it affects the whole globe. This is really the core of the problem.

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