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Celebrating Black History Month: Meet 10 incredible women making a mark in Seattle

Portraits by Ulysses Curry; Story by Ulysses Curry & Tyler Sipe

We are spotlighting the achievements of 10 trailblazing Black women in Seattle this Black History Month. They are making waves in the city’s educational, business, cultural, food, and arts spaces. Their connections to the city are as diverse as their backgrounds, which range from recent transplants to multi-generational residents with deep roots in the community.

They share how their experiences as Black women in and out of Seattle have shaped how they work in their respective fields.

Some of the responses have been edited for length.

Monika Matthews at her store QueenCare

Born in Illinois, Monika Matthews has lived in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. Matthews founded the nonprofit Life Enrichment Group twenty years ago,  whose “mission is to provide guidance and support to youth and families through positive channels of education, performing arts, and mentorship.” The entrepreneur started QueenCare in Columbia City, a business focusing on natural self-care practices using skincare, beauty supplies, and more. Matthews is a resident of the Central District, and in 2021, she expanded her business to her longtime neighborhood, a place she says nurtured her love of being Black.

“I’m passionate about stewarding our young people to a place where their foundation is strong with love, growth, and development. What I did not receive as a young person, I work to ensure this next generation receives it. Planting the seeds for the future is important.”

“State to state and globally, African Americans are plagued with the same issues that unfortunately continue to contribute to the decline in our mental health. Oppression, gentrification, discrimination, lack of access and opportunity, and injustices are everywhere. What’s promising in Seattle though is this new wave of thought leaders-doers in the Black community who are building upon the past to positively shape the future. Despite the obstacles designed to oppress, we are setting a new standard of excellence and accountability, working amongst ourselves and with our allies to create spaces for generations to come.”

Michelle Lang-Raymond at Acts on Stage in White Center

Michelle Lang-Raymond was born and raised in the South and moved to Seattle in 1984. She is the founder and executive director of Acts On Stage, a theater in White Center that centers people of color. She says, “Launching Acts On Stage Theater represents my life’s full circle.”

“Like many Black women in the performing arts, I’ve had to recondition my mind to see myself and others who look like me as “Main Character” worthy. That goes for roles on stage as well as in leadership. My hope is to be a bridge that helps younger Black women get there much faster than I did. I’ve visited other states where it seems Black women hold space much more unapologetically. I’ve lived in Seattle over 30 years and I see us moving in that direction, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Ric’kisha Taylor and Wa Na Wari

Ric’kisha Taylor is a talented artist that gets inspiration from her heritage and the Black diaspora. Born and raised in Miami, the Cornish College of the Arts alum uses fabric, paint, ink, rhinestones, pearls, and printmaking to create profound, dynamic, and one-of-a-kind art. Taylor has been working as a gallery host at the Central District Black arts and cultural hub Wa Na Wari and says the space will affect her for the rest of her life.

“About five years ago, I moved from Miami, Florida, to Seattle. It was hard to find a sense of a Black community here, especially coming from a place where I was surrounded by Black voices and experiences. Not only have I found community at Wa Na Wari, but one that supports and uplifts creativeness for a sense of livelihood. It’s something really special and I feel like it’s a place that is important to generations to come.”

Ashanti Davis

Ashanti Davis is originally from Southern California and recently relocated to the Pacific Northwest after spending time in Arizona and London. An artist and social justice advocate, Davis uses her personal and professional experience to elevate the work of others as operations director at the Northwest African American Museum.

“My experience as a Black woman in arts and culture reflects both challenges and victories. Before coming to Seattle and the Northwest African American Museum, I was often the only Black woman in the room and my perspectives could not be understood or felt. Being in Seattle and working in the Central District, it has been incredible to inhabit so many spaces with Black people where the conversations, stories, and perspectives represented are by us, for us, and about us.”

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver is a fourth-generation Seattleite. Her family’s history is intertwined with the story of the city. Many of her relatives were early urban pioneers in Seattle, some arriving as early as 1913, moving here from Arkansas and Louisiana to find better opportunities. These days, as president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, you’ll find Johnson-Toliver helping other Black Seattlietes discover their family histories and untold stories. She states, “Our unique identities, culture, and history are woven and interconnected.”

“I’ve worked in the preservation, museums, and interpretive programming world for more than 25 years. The challenges of being the only Black woman in the room early in my career path was challenging, heartbreaking, taught me lessons, honed my intuitive-self, made me better, and created the person I am today that informs the high expectations I set for myself and also lets me appreciate the potential in others.”

“My deep-seated connectedness to Black history as a life-long Washingtonian was not something I learned in Seattle Public Schools. As a young person, I had to listen to family and adults around me to gain greater knowledge of the unsung achievers, contributors, and changemakers in Black history. Later, I actively sought the knowledge and history I know through storytellers and research while being embraced by local Black historians that were/are the mentors who prepared me to lift the history that I share as President of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State. As the world turns, I now see and engage with other Black women who are strong, influential, and provide unconditional support for me, and I support them.”

Mia Taylor

Born in Maple Leaf, Mia Taylor embraces her Seattle heritage. “My mother’s family is from Ballard and are of Scandinavian descent, and my father is from Central Seattle and is African American. I love to tell people I have the best of both worlds being from these two historic and richly cultural parts of Seattle.”

Taylor is also a member of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State. “(My grandmother) is a historian as well as a genealogist who has made a great name for herself within the Black community here in Seattle, and I am just trying to follow in her footsteps.”

Taylor works as a guest services and public engagement coordinator at the Northwest African American Museum. She came to the museum for her love of “history, culture, and supporting causes that grow awareness.”

Jackie A. Peterson

Jackie A. Peterson attended predominantly white schools growing up. She says this environment limited much of her understanding of Black history and experiences in the U.S. This all began to change for her in college. At Georgetown University, “something unlocked” within her, and Peterson pursued a major in history, with a concentration in American history. “Once that door was opened, I walked through and never looked back,” she says.

Peterson is now a museum exhibits consultant who relishes working on projects that focus on the stories and histories of BIPOC people. However, her journey to where she is today hasn’t been easy. She says there was a painfully noticeable lack of Black folks in her graduate courses and early professional work. “As a result, I experienced a lot of tokenization – I was put on certain projects mostly to show clients the team was “diverse.” Despite having experience and being good at what I did, I often had my work questioned by colleagues and rarely given the opportunity to speak up or offer ideas, particularly in client-facing interactions…At some point, I realized I could do this work for myself. I could do work that was meaningful to me, for and with communities and institutions that valued me and the stories of people who look like me.”

Peterson moved to the area about a decade ago from New York City. “I often say that living in Seattle after someplace like NYC feels like living in a small town. Thus far, that’s worked to my advantage. Where I felt anonymous in NYC, I feel like I found community in Seattle. And I’m super proud and excited to be a part of elevating Black stories and Black culture in Seattle where it is so needed. The challenge is still in navigating predominantly white spaces and discerning who truly supports and embraces the work and who wants to support the work only on their terms. But that collaborative energy and support from the community I’ve joined and cultivated keeps me motivated and inspired.”

Dr. Nikki Yeboah

Dr. Nikki Yeboah is an assistant professor of playwriting in the School of Drama at the University of Washington. The artist-scholar, ethnographer, oral historian, storyteller, and educator “uses oral history performance to create alternative records of Black life using a Black feminist aesthetic.”

“As a professor at UW, I’m training makers and theorists. I want Seattle to be a place where people do interesting, thoughtful, critical work and not just art for art’s sake. I want students to develop a creative language that looks back to their education at the UW as a place that inspired them to make great art. And so quite simply, that’s what I’m in it for. Creativity isn’t limited by your location on a map; it’s limited by what you’re exposed to, who you’re exposed to, and how you’re taught to think and analyze and create, and so I just want to be a part of building that community for our students.

Having lived in Illinois, California, and Ghana, Seattle wasn’t originally on Yeboah’s radar. “The Capitol Hill Occupied Protests (CHOP) was the big thing on my mind. Prior to coming here, it was all over the news. It felt like the city had a radical possibility and then I got here and it felt sanitized, or forgotten. It’s actually surreal just how invisible that movement is today, so now I’m writing about that. I tend to orient myself to a city by doing some sort of creative work about it, and so I sought to understand what remains of the movement today. What is its legacy?”

Jesdarnel “Squirt” Henton

Jesdarnel “Squirt” Henton is a lifelong Seattleite and owns Ms. Helen’s Soul Bistro. Named after Henton’s mom, Helen’s Diner opened in 1970 and quickly became a neighborhood staple and popular stop for visiting celebrities like comedian Richard Pryor. Helen’s pork chops and peach cobbler were that good.

Paying tribute to her mom’s legacy, Henton opened her soul food bistro a year ago in the heart of the Central District.

“I was raised by Black women who cooked and cleaned. They were homemakers who also held eight-hour jobs. I guess you can say I was raised by soul survivors. That generation of women bought fresh vegetables, went to the meat market and grocery store daily. Their focus was to make sure to have a hearty meal on the table at the end of the day. At that time, that’s what Black women did…My mother Helen took those same values and made a business out of it just from her basic living experiences. As I grew up I began to take up the same basic skills and was blessed to work in the same business with my mother.”

Berette Macaulay

Berette Macaulay is a visionary artist, curator, photographer, and writer. The Seattle Channel featured her 2020 project “MFON In Seattle,” a multipronged exhibit featuring Black women photographers and multimedia artists from the Pacific Northwest and beyond. This work was partly informed by Macaulay’s own personal story. Originally from Sierra Leone, with roots in Jamaica and England, Macaulay moved to the area about six years ago. Her work examines “belonging, immigration, negotiating hybrid identity, racialization, societal class structures, and love in resistance to what pulls us apart.”

“As an artist, work that represents the multitudes of my life, my family, or my community has repeatedly been at odds with what is understood as a Black experience. It took me a long time to accept that no matter where I live or what I do, being Black will somehow factor into how I am received – often before my character, my values, my unique lived experiences, my sense of humor, my abilities – my whole humanity. Black women are constantly weighted with the expectation of being stronger, more resilient, impervious to pain, while of course tirelessly holding and mothering everyone else’s burdens and needs. In my line of work, but across any sector that you find us in, we dream, we imagine, we cry, we crack jokes, we are vulnerable and tender, we like to have silly fun, and we are tired and need a holiday! These, and so many simple truths make up complex realities that have been acknowledged in varying degrees in the different places I’ve lived, and communities I’ve been a part of, or worked with. When I first moved to Washington it was incredibly tough – and I’ve said this openly many times, that it was the toughest adjustment of my life because finding Black and immigrant communities here is very hard. We’re all very spread out in a white majority state that doesn’t include Black culture in any obvious way to an outsider. I am relieved and grateful to shout out that this has changed dramatically over the last few years where I deeply feel a part of a very supportive and protective community now in Seattle. And I promise you that working in arts and culture, for me, was the container in which this could happen, because inherent in cultural work is the practice of collaborative joy-making, storytelling, and witnessing explicitly for communities to share in.”

Macaulay is currently a curatorial fellow at On the Boards with her developing work UN-[TITLED], an “immersive, site-specific multi-location project of performance offerings that reckons with the effects of gentrification, and acknowledges displaced communities, cultural erasures, and sites of resistance and reclamation.”