By Aaron Allen
The Seattle Medium
Harriett Walden would tell you that her commitment to her community through service is driven by what she calls “her authentic love of being Black in American.” A Seattle human rights activist, and the founder of Mother’s for Police Accountability, Walden’s service to her people is steeped in the history of Seattle’s African American community’s fight for rights.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida and raised in Sanford, in the segregated community of Goldsboro, a baby boomer going on seven decades Walden’s works exemplifies what it means to give back to ones’ community.
Walden who lost her mother at the tender age of two, was blessed to be raised by loving grandparents and extended family. Her community, like some many other communities of that period, was self-sustaining, possessing Black doctors, lawyers, dentist and teachers.
“The fallback of my subconscious mind is Blackness every day,” says Walden. “I don’t have to wonder if there are Black qualified people, I know that there are, for example, all of my teachers were Black and most were taught by Mary McLeod Bethune so I know they were qualified.”
Loving, giving and supporting ones’ community was instilled in Walden at a young age because seeing positive Black role models was an everyday occurrence.
Although segregation posed many obstacles for Black folks of that time, the safety blanket of the African American community offered a sense comfort and safety for those who experienced a community built around large populations of Blacks. Because of that security Walden’s graduating class of 1963 called themselves “extraordinary” because they considered themselves extraordinary people and there was no one to tell them they couldn’t be.
Walden’s influences came from a wide range of community activist. She never referred to herself as an African American as she saw this as a means to redefine the meaning of what it is to be of African descent in America. She chooses even to this day to identify herself in the same manner that her birth certificate states, a Negro.
One of Walden’s first impressions regarding the history of her people was her discovery of Marcus Garvey. Garvey preached community service, community self awareness, community and financial independence, repatriation (returning to the homeland, Africa) and African history for the descendants of Africa and this left an indelible mark on Walden growing up.
“If we had listened to Garvey we would not be in the position we are in today,” said Walden.
Under such influences Walden’s commitment to her community was born.
Upon leaving Sanford at seventeen, Walden moved to Alabama where she encountered the racism of Jim Crow first hand witnessing the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church where four young Black girls were murdered. She also saw how the Black community rose up and came together on a national level to fight for their rights and freedom. This too left a memory in Walden that would ignite the fight in her to better the lives of her family and her people.
“The bombing was retaliation by Whites due to Black folks rising up in defiance and their march on Washington, fighting for freedom,” recalls Walden.
Walden like many other Blacks migrating out of the south looking for peace and a better way life, moved to Santa Barbara, California where she met her husband a photographer at Brooks Institute and her family grew as she birthed four boys, unfortunately she lost one child who died at a young age. In 1975, she and her family relocated to Seattle and started a photography business and never left.
“After Alabama, I moved with a friend to Santa Barbara, California where I met my husband,” says Walden. “From there we went to Seattle believing a better way life was waiting for us as most Black folks believed.”
Walden approaches the Black struggle from a very spiritual foundation. She gives credit to Africa’s spiritual systems brought over by slaves and their ability to incorporate it into a belief system that would aid them throughout the African’s ordeals during a brutal slave system.
The First African Methodist church was Walden’s conduit to the spiritual world. It was founded by the Rev. Richard Allen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1816 from several black Methodist congregations in the mid-Atlantic. It was among the first denominations in the United States founded on racial rather than theological distinctives and has persistently advocated for the civil and human rights of African Americans through social improvement, religious autonomy, and political engagement.
Walden utilized the independent thinking of this church and its community activism as a catalyst in her own work in the civil rights movements of the American Negro.
“I grew up learning Black history and service to my community through the church,” says Walden. “You know Richard Allen started the first Protestant church in the late 1700s. The First AME church is steeped in history and I grew up learning that history through that church.”
Immediately Walden became involved in the civil rights struggles when she got to Seattle. She learned that regardless of what a city may offer in the form of living the struggle of the Negro in America was a nationwide epidemic and her love for her people would not allow her to just stand on the sideline.
“I possess an authentic love for being a descendant of Africa, an authentic love of being Black. I love my people and its history, “states Walden.
“I got involved in my community first as we tried to save St. Mary’s school and although it did not work out and the school closed our message of unity was felt,” added Walden.
“I also started The Year Of Prayer For Children where we asked people around the country to write prays for our children, utilizing the power of prayer to keep our children safe so these were the beginnings of my involvement in the community,” Walden continues. “My grandmother used to say ‘God took care of fools and babies and children qualified for both and that the elders should pray for children to keep them safe until they were old enough to pray for themselves.’ So if our children are in trouble today it meant the elders are not praying for them.”
It wasn’t until her sons experienced the realism of police brutality that Walden immersed herself in providing her community with the fullness of her energy. In 1990, she became a vocal advocate for better police and community relations in Seattle and co-founded Mothers for Police Accountability or MFPA, an organization that educated young people, parents and others like her and her sons affected by excessive police practices. The organization also works closely with other community organizations to seek positive changes in the criminal justice system. She also founded and serves as the Director of the Family Empowerment Institute, where she is working in partnership with the Seattle Police and Parks Department to break the silence on Black on Black crime.
There were other fronts to battle and one example Walden remembers was the fight to keep Branch Villa, the only Black senior citizen homes in Washington where she and several other community leaders fought to keep the city from closing the facility.
“One thing that gave me complete joy was saving the nursing home,” said Walden. “When the state came in to close the nursing home the people came to me crying. I called Eddie Rye and he helped to get the ball rolling. We saved that nursing. The people in that place called us their Moses, it was a great fight.”
“There was a great price to paid, the state came after me took my livelihood, I was a certified licensed optician, one of four Black opticians in the state and they took my license. My children use to say, “Momma you got a soft bullet, Malcolm got a hard bullet.” So there’s always a price to be paid.” According to Walden.
Leadership is inherited and through Harriett Walden’s life she has been witness to leadership. From her grandfather fighting off the KKK, to witnessing the resilience of her people in Alabama and the march on Washington Walden has taken the lessons of leadership and instilled it within her and all who come into contact with her.
Walden believes in what she calls the “lineage of courage” – some people are born with the lineage of cowardice and some are born with the lineage of courage. Either way, according to Walden, it is inherited.
Walden truly, intimately and innately loves the idea of being Black. There are some who find being Black to be a burden, not Walden, she found it to be a blessing born of the African and as she states, “I have an authentic love for myself and my people. I authentically love being Black,” says Walden.
He son Chikundi Salisbury can attest to this fact.
“Rev. Walden has led a lifestyle of service since her co-founding of Mother’s for Police Accountability over 27 years ago,” says Salisbury. “After coming to aid of her children, she has come to the aid of 1000’s one way or another in Seattle and beyond. Raised in the segregated south of Sanford, Florida, she knows the face of Injustice and oppression.”
“Her childhood and life experiences have prepared her to be the tireless advocate for social and justice that she has become today,” Salisbury concluded.