#TBT - Camp George Jordan: Seattle's Segregated Military Camp in SODO.
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.
By Stephanie Johnson-Toliver of BHSWA
Camp George Jordan: When Seattle Was Declared a Port of Embarkation
With military troops and veterans on my mind, this week I’ll share the history of an important yet nearly forgotten, Camp George Jordan. Initially known as The First Avenue Camp, it was a segregated Army camp with “colored” troops housed on one side of the street and white personnel on the other for as long as the camp was active.
The camp was located at the foot of SW Spokane Street at 1st Avenue in Seattle. For reference, the camp site was in what we know as the SoDo District.
Port of Embarkation
There were military facilities established in the Puget Sound years before World War II. Fort Lewis and Fort Lawton were U.S. Army camps, where troops were stationed while preparing for and awaiting assignment for overseas duty. Other bases in the region included Navy and Air Force installments at Sand Point, Paine Field and Whidbey Island.
Prior to when the war with Japan ensued and the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, Seattle’s Port of Embarkation was a sub-port of San Francisco. Immediately following the attack, Seattle Port of Embarkation was declared independent and was ordered to be fully activated on March 1, 1942.
The 1st Avenue Cantonment
The Commanding Officer of Fort Lawton would have general supervision over the camp known as the 1st Avenue Cantonment. He was charged with providing administrative and supply personnel, and was responsible for discipline, morale, recreation and police of the camp.
The camp was to operate as a trucking company of African American enlisted men to transport troops from the local army bases to ships for overseas duty. In addition, they were responsible for loading ships and warehousing cargo.
Military personnel assigned to the camp were both white and African American enlisted men. However, Army command determined it to be a problem and undesirable to house them on the same campus. The designation of housing for detachments was defined and African American troops were located on the east side of 1st Avenue, south of Spokane Street. The camp began with 124 tarpaper shacks along the railroad tracks. Eventually it became 116 buildings.
In 1944, five African American units were assigned to the camp, designating 6 white officers and 213 black enlisted men in each of the units – the 578th, 846th, 847th, 851st, and 852nd Port Companies. Official records indicate additional units of African American troops continued to be assigned to the camp during its activation.
Name Change to Camp George Jordan
On November 26, 1943, General Order 102 announced the “Redesignation and Assignment of the Station”. The order stated, “…Seattle Port of Embarkation troops known as the 1st Avenue Cantonment, is named Camp George Jordan in accord with Section 1, WD G.O. Bi No. 73.” The camp was named in honor of an African American calvary man and Buffalo Soldier, Sergeant George Jordan (1847-1904), who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of his valor and bravery above and beyond the call of duty.
Camp Jordan Service Club
On the home front and at the heart of morale-building was the Camp Jordan Service Club. The club was a respite where black soldiers could pick up a conversation about back home, write letters, find light recreation, and on a regular basis live entertainment was organized on and off base for soldiers to get their “boogie woogie swing” on.
The mastermind and dedicated work behind the outreach and success at the Camp Jordan Service Club and other private venues that included the Elks, Eagles and the USO at the East Madison YMCA was Marjorie Polk Sotero. In 1944, Ms. Sotero accepted the position as the Director of the 6th Army Service Club at Camp Jordan. She needed an assistant and her sister, Kathryn Polk Lazard joined her as co-director.
Marjorie Polk Sotero (L) and Kathryn Polk Lazard (R) Kathryn Polk Lazard (L) and Marjorie Polk Sotero (R)
Image: Polk-Sotero Collection image: MOHAI/Al Smith Collection
With their success as Directors of the African American service club at Camp Jordan, the Polk’s were asked to organize entertainment for Fort Lawton and Fort Lewis servicemen. The work did present its challenges on base because at this time segregation was still adhered to within the U.S. Army. The segregated practice is documented* in Camp Jordan flyers and the camp newspaper, The Jordan Journal, where the same entertainment is advertised separately for Cantonment 1 for African American personnel, and then at Cantonment 2 for white personnel.
The Polk Sisters recruited young women to help entertain at the dances and other special events. The volunteer hostesses often met at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA (at the time it was located on 21st Ave off E Madison) to travel together to the venues.
*At BHS the Marjorie Polk Sotero Collection is rich with photos, flyers and articles of Seattle and the service club on the WWII home front that were donated by Ms. Sotero. The University of Washington, Special Collections holds two oral history projects that include interviews with Ms. Sotero. She elaborates on her childhood, education, family life, racial barriers and her involvement with Seattle’s African American service clubs.
War Ends – Troops Inactivated and Camp George Jordan Closes
On August 15, 1945, the war with Japan ended and it did not take long for steps to be taken to inactivate Camp Jordan. By October 1945 several quartermaster and transportation units were inactivated and through 1946 the careful process to demobilize the troops was high priority and attention for civilian employees, dependents of servicemen, supplies and equipment was critical.
On April 15, 1946 General Order 56 was issued, stating:
“1. Effective 15 April 1946, Camp George Jordan, Seattle, Washington is discontinued as a sub-installation under the Seattle Port of Embarkation and is transferred under the jurisdiction of the Fort Lawton Staging Area, Fort Lawton, Washington.
“2. Camp George Jordan’s Central Post Fund will be closed not later than 15 April 1946.” – By order of Colonel Jacobs
On March 10, 1947, the Seattle Times announced that Camp Jordan was declared surplus and its 116 buildings would be disposed of. The newspaper gave a brief history of the beginnings of the camp.
At BHS, we’re digging deep and preserving stories and experiences to give you more historical content about the Seattle streets you travel where no tangibles are visible, but our footprint remains
Honoring and appreciating our veterans and military who serve and protect, every day.
"This will remain the land of the free so long as it is the home of the brave." - Elmer Davis