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Once enslaved, this man helped build Tacoma; his great-granddaughter wants you to know him

June 19, 2022 Updated Sun., June 19, 2022 at 9:05 p.m.

Maisha Barnett, of Seattle, holds a photo of her great-grandfather John Conna, who was enslaved in Texas as a young person, fought for the Union during the Civil War and was one of the first Black people to settle in Tacoma.  (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
Maisha Barnett, of Seattle, holds a photo of her great-grandfather John Conna, who was enslaved in Texas as a young person, fought for the Union during the Civil War and was one of the first Black people to settle in Tacoma. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
By Daniel Beekman Seattle Times

TACOMA – 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 lap.

‘Larger than life’

A signature on a property document. A line in a newspaper article. What Barnett knows about Conna, she knows from small bits of narrative. Pieced together, she says, they portray a man “larger than life,” driven to play a role in shaping the post-slavery society that he helped to secure.

Born in 1843 in San Augustine County, Texas, and enslaved until age 20, Conna wound up in New Orleans and “obtained his liberty” there, entering the Union Army, enlisting in an all-Black regiment and taking part in Civil War battles like the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, according to later articles.

Following the war, he made his way to Hartford, Connecticut, where he worked for an insurance company and married Mary L. Davis in 1869. In 1877, the Connas moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Not until 1883 did they and their children reach Tacoma (likely via the Northern Pacific Railroad), where Conna quickly emerged as a prominent person. The city was less than 10 years old.

Conna worked in real estate with a white man, Allen Mason, the wheeler-dealer credited with labeling boomtown Tacoma “The City of Destiny,” and went into business on his own, articles indicate. He practiced as an attorney, developed land in Tacoma and owned land in what’s now Federal Way, among other ventures, records show.

“Educated in the night schools of the different cities he has lived in,” the Tacoma Daily Ledger reported, “during his childhood he was forbidden by law from attending the public school of his state, having been born a slave.”

Conna was elected sergeant at arms by the inaugural state Legislature in 1889 and wreck-master by Pierce County voters (responsible for shipwrecks) in 1890, newspapers reported. He was a nominee for presidential elector in Washington, backing William McKinley in 1896.

“He has engaged in various kinds of business here and acquired considerable property,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer declared that year, mentioning Conna’s leading role in Tacoma’s Black community.

He championed the inclusion of the Public Accommodations Act in the state constitution, which prohibited race-based discrimination, then sued a restaurant for refusing to serve him. He placed ads in East Coast newspapers recruiting Black workers to the region and led a civil rights organization.

Newspapers took note when Conna delivered the keynote speech at an Emancipation Day celebration and when he spoke at a local memorial for legendary Black activist Frederick Douglass. “There will be good singing, if not good speaking,” he told the Daily Ledger about the memorial, hinting at a sense of humor that he balanced with incisive oratory.

In 1898, at the political club for Black Republicans that he led, Conna decried “the lynching and killing of colored citizens of the South without process of law” and the willingness of the U.S. to assist persecuted people “in foreign lands” without protecting Black people at home, the Daily Ledger reported.

The Gold Rush drew Conna to Alaska in 1900, and he remained politically active there, running for multiple seats as a socialist. He died in 1921.

“This was just one man,” Barnett said. “But his story represents so many Black people who moved West, whose lives were changed after the Civil War.”

‘Beyond hooked’

Barnett didn’t plan to become obsessed. She was happy to leave Conna’s tale to her father, renowned Seattle stage actor, playwright and director Douglas Barnett, who spent years digging up nuggets and writing with flair about his ancestor, describing Conna as “an exceptional American” who settled in a Tacoma of “muddy streets, 30 saloons, seven churches and a brewery.”

Then Douglas Barnett passed away in 2019, leaving Maisha Barnett with his historical materials at around the time she had her DNA tested. The test led Barnett to genealogy websites, and, when COVID-19 hit and she was stuck at home, her curiosity began to grow.

Now she spends much of her time outside her job at the University of Washington’s College of the Built Environment trying to learn more about the Connas and other long-gone characters, typing emails to distant relatives on a laptop in her apartment and calling archivists about obscure records.

“I’m beyond hooked,” she said.

For a while, researching the couple was a personal matter. Barnett was captivated by how much the Connas accomplished and by domestic episodes, including the death of their daughter Bessie at age 19.

She also wanted to delve into mysteries, like an anecdote about the Connas gifting 40 acres to Tacoma for Christmas. A document shows the couple had a block surveyed and platted in December 1889 as “Conna’s Addition,” donating “all the highways” for permanent public use. Barnett has discovered other properties that could be relevant, she says.

Her interest took on a new dimension in February, when she was invited to a meeting where the Federal Way City Council paid tribute to Conna with a Black History Month proclamation. At the meeting, a representative from the Federal Way Black Collective, Tirzah Idahosa, suggested that the city do more by naming a building or other place for Conna.

“It dawned on me: This is someone our young people need to know,” Idahosa recalled. “Why haven’t we recognized this man, in a big way?”

Potential breakthrough

Now Barnett is pushing Federal Way to do just that.

She and relatives opposed an initial proposal to name the city’s new Panther Lake Trail for Conna, because they weren’t consulted and didn’t think the trail was the right venue. Based on their input, the city is developing a process to handle all naming suggestions.

“We will be able to work with community stakeholders and policy makers” to honor Conna and other “pioneers of progress,” said Steve McNey, a Federal Way spokesperson.

Diana Noble-Gulliford, a Federal Way Historical Society board member, said naming a landmark after Conna could represent a breakthrough. Though most of the city’s residents today are people of color, there are no places named after Black people, she noted.

“We’re still defining and discovering what our culture is,” she said.

Fired up by the Federal Way situation, Barnett and a cousin submitted a proposal in Tacoma last month to rename the street that runs through Conna’s Addition or place a plaque there. Multiple places are named after Mason, including a school, street and plaza, they noted.

Washington residents should be proud that the Connas were able to become community pillars here, said Barnett’s cousin, Ghanya Thomas, marveling at the self-belief John Conna must have possessed and the challenges Mary Conna must have overcome.

Tacoma established a policy for renaming buildings and parks in 2019 and has since renamed a school after the city’s first Black principal, Dolores Silas, and a park after the first Black woman elected to the state Senate, Rosa Franklin. Now a process for renaming streets is in the works.

Up in Seattle, Barnett’s research continues. She spends a lot of time hunting one detail or another, but when she closes her laptop and considers the big picture, her mission is clear: “Closing that gap,” she said, between an incomplete version of local history and what the Connas deserve.

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