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#TBT - #BlackGirlMagic - Meet Juanita Russell - Artist, Poet, Teacher, Global Citizen, and Boss.

Juanita Russell brought her global vision and appreciation for Africa back home to the Central District.

Juanita (Carver) Russell - 1928

The #TBT series is a collaboration between the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and Africatown Seattle to give historical insights and perspectives into Black history and Black contributions in the Seattle area and Washington State as a whole.

Juanita and Calvin Russell owned Calneta Imports that was first established at 2316 S. Jackson in 1957 (located near present-day Starbucks) and later moved to 1123 23rd Ave (near the SW corner of 23rd & Union). Juanita (Carter) Lewis Gentry Russell was the driving force who had the vision and tenacity to bring an international arts business to Seattle’s Central Area. Russell was known for the awareness she brought to an appreciation for imported crafts and the artisans who created them while at the same time fostering international friendship and opportunities.

Early Years

Juanita (Carter) Russell attended Garfield High School in 1921 when it was still named East High School (the name Garfield was not adopted until 1923). While there Juanita won a poetry contest. Garfield’s yearbook name, The Arrow, came from her poem. Juanita then attended Franklin High School, graduating in 1924, and later from Seattle Pacific College. In 1926 she married Rev. E. Martin Lewis, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church. Russell was very active in community arts and directed an operetta at the church with a cast of 100 children.

The Family moved to New York where Juanita would sign-on to tour Europe and the Soviet Union with the renowned Hall Johnson Choir. She then went on to perform in Germany and attended the University of Berlin. During World War II Juanita served with the Red Cross in Calcutta and later served with the USO on Guam. Enriched by all her experiences, Juanita returned to Seattle. Back in Seattle, her personal life took several turns and she would marry Calvin Russell. Juanita served in the community at organizations such as the East Madison YMCA and the Seattle Urban League.

Calneta Imports

Juanita began selling imported baskets and African carvings at the Pike Place Market, and from 1956 through 1961 at the Puyallup Fair. In 1957, Calneta Imports was established, and Juanita formed the Aid for Africa Committee, which raised funds for scholarships and clothing for African children. She and her husband Calvin attended the UNESCO conference on Africa in Boston in 1961. Calneta Imports was born in Seattle’s Central Area and gave rise to African and international art and culture. Together, the Russell’s were inspired to publish Score Magazine, which highlighted the talents and contributions of local individuals as well as national/international news of interest to African Americans.

Calneta Imports, Seattle Central District, 1957

Juanita Russell at Calneta Imports, Seattle Central District, 1957

Juanita Russell was Manager of the Africa Pavilion at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, and temporarily moved Calneta Imports to the fairgrounds. She arranged free transport for African college students to intern at the Pavilion to enable learning experiences for both students and visitors.

Juanita Russell with African student at Seattle World’s Fair, 1962

Juanita Russell was driven by her passion to serve until the time she passed away on April 10, 1963. Her legacy is one of many that are preserved at the Black Heritage Society of Washington State.

Digging Deep

The History Keepers at BHS digging deep and finding a copy of a letter postmarked from Calneta Imports at 2316 S. Jackson that was written by Juanita Russell to Zora Neale Hurston in 1957. See this link to the letter that suggests they were acquainted, and Juanita is encouraging Ms. Hurston to apply for a teaching position at the University of Washington.

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