Once enslaved, this man helped build Tacoma; his great-granddaughter wants you to know him
, 2022-06-19 08:00:00,
He soldiered in the Civil War, helped build Tacoma, became a force in Washington politics and chased the Alaska Gold Rush.
John N. Conna, a Black man who was enslaved for the first part of his life, did all of that once he gained his freedom — and more.
But his story has mostly vanished from public consciousness, says descendant Maisha Barnett, even as this state prepares to mark Juneteenth as an official holiday for the first time Monday, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Black people.
There are no streets named for Conna. No parks. No schools. No curricula telling his tale. Barnett wants to change that.
“He was transformational … yet no one really knows much about him,” she said. “To me, that demonstrates how we kind of whitewash history.”
Barnett, 52, is Conna’s great-granddaughter and lives in Seattle. In the Central District, she led the renovation of Powell Barnett Park, named for her grandfather, a community leader. She also helped create Jimi Hendrix Park, named for the musician.
Her current quest may prove just as consequential, because Barnett is shining a light way back to the inception of local Black history, and encouraging area cities to rethink how they approach the past.
Tacoma has renamed multiple schools and parks after distinguished Black people in recent years. Conna, who owned 157 acres in what’s now Federal Way, could become the first Black person to have a landmark named for him there. Both cities are working to create new naming policies.
“It’s vitally important for all residents to know about how we got here and who’s responsible,” said Andreta Armstrong, human rights manager for Tacoma, comparing history to a relay race in which residents today should be empowered by stories like Conna’s to “run their…
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