Last updated: January 9, 2023
Around 1890, a small group of Chinese laborers settled east of the railroad tracks in the former town of Ainsworth, now part of Sacagawea Historic State Park. As Pasco, grew the Chinese community relocated there and established a small district east of the railroad lines. Later, Black railroad workers were restricted to the same general area, as were the thousands of African American migrants who came to Pasco during and after World War II.
Designed by the Northern Pacific Railway, the Lewis Street Underpass was constructed along a main east-west arterial through downtown Pasco in 1937. Previously, citizens were forced to walk over the railroad tracks to get between downtown and East Pasco. The underpass allowed cars and pedestrians to travel between the two areas even when long trains rolled on the tracks above. The railroad tracks divided Pasco, with East Pasco as the proverbial “other side” of the tracks.
In keeping with widespread practices of the time, the Hanford Site was a rigorously segregated space until the 1960s where laws and customs created separate and very unequal job opportunities and living conditions for African Americans and Whites. Kennewick excluded Blacks from living within city limits and Pasco relegated Blacks and other racial minorities east of 4th Street. In Richland, the government-run secret city, Blacks were not explicitly excluded. However, only those hired for permanent positions were allowed to live in Richland. Initially Blacks were only hired for temporary jobs like construction. There was no organized policy to keep Black workers out of Richland, but federal contractors hiring practices had the same effect. No Blacks lived in Richland until the late 1940s when hiring practices began to change. As such, the only place in the Tri-Cities that Blacks could call home was East Pasco, an overcrowded community that lacked such basic services as sewers, trash collection, paved roads, sidewalks, fire hydrants, or streetlights.
As White residents fled, “East Pasco” became code for “Black.” African Americans developed their own community that included churches, hotels, shops, restaurants, and other businesses, most of which no longer exist. Some places, such as Morning Star Baptist Church and Kurtzman Park, are still important places to the African American community of the Tri-Cities.
While the intersection of Lewis Street and Oregon Avenue became the business center of East Pasco, crossing the tracks was an almost daily necessity. Only one school, Whittier Elementary, was located on the east side until 1965. Going through the unmonitored and largely unlit underpass was anxiety-inducing for pedestrians. Despite lack of community services and economic deprivation that residents spoke out against in the 1970s, a strong sense of pride and community filled East Pasco.
The railroad tracks may have been the divider, but the Lewis Street Underpass was the gateway to the robust African American community in the Tri-Cities during the second half of the 20th Century.
Continue Your Journey
Nearby, you can explore more sites that share East Pasco’s African American history. Visit the Green Bridge—the dividing line between Kennewick, a community that sought to exclude Blacks, and Pasco, a community that sought to confine Blacks. Stop by Kurtzman Park and learn about the grassroots efforts that created the first community park in East Pasco. Go to Morningstar Baptist Church, the literal and figurative center of the African American community in East Pasco, to visit the city’s first Black congregation.Take a tour of the B Reactor and stand in the shadow of this imposing building that teams of African American labors helped construct.