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Washington, Arthur, Jr.

First Black City Commissioner

In January of 2003, the Justice Center facility at Crosstown Parkway and S. Burdick Street was named in honor of Kalamazoo’s first black city commissioner, Arthur Washington Jr.. A humble pioneer, he led in the advancement of civil rights in Kalamazoo during a time period when the city struggled to embody the democratic ideals of justice and equality for all.

Arthur Washington Jr. was born in St. Louis, Missouri, attended high school in Springfield, Ilinois, and earned a Bachelors and Masters Degree in social work at the University of Louisville and Kent State University. Then came World War II, with Washington serving in Japan, New Guinea and the Philippines. When Washington arrived in Kalamazoo in 1955 to work at the Family Service Center as a case worker, he found a racially segregated community, one that in the areas of education, employment and housing, had failed to provide opportunities and resources to the black community in the same way it did for others. The grim reality of two separate but unequal communities within the city had immediate impact on Washington, when the home he was promised would be available to rent on Main Street was suspiciously filled by white tenants upon his arrival. Needing a place to house his family, Washington reached out to friends who helped him locate a residence on North Edwards Street.

Recognizing a need to provide recreational opportunities to black youth within the Northside Neighborhood, Washington pushed for the establishment of basketball and softball teams that would participate in city leagues. Washington beamed with pride in 1985 when recalling his efforts at involving young kids from the Northside Neighborhood in sports. “All my teams at that time were called the Northside Flyers, and they began to show that they were much better than every other team in the community. Even in the city league, I took a bunch of my fellows and had a basketball team which took the city championship. I also had softball teams.” Working on boards of government and nonprofit organizations (Kalamazoo United Fund, Boy Scouts, Kalamazoo Council on Human Relations, Douglas Community Association, Northside Association for Community Development, Lincoln School PTA, Safe House) that worked to uplift and empower youth was at the core of much of Washington’s work. In 1961, he formed a drum and bugle corps for kids called the Kalamazoo Bombardiers Drum and Marching Corps.

Interested in working to address racial disparities throughout his career, Washington became a member of the local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), of which, he served as its president from 1957 to 1961. During the turbulent years of the civil rights movement, Washington could be found among those on picket lines and marching for change. In 1959, Washington successfully ran for city commissioner, becoming the city’s first African American to be elected to the position. He would later resign his commissioner seat in 1965 when he became a state employee, an act that barred him from holding office.

In 1989, the year he retired, the accomplished activist and volunteer was awarded the prestigious Irving Gilmore Lifetime Achievement Award and the NAACP’s Humanitarian Award. In 2003, when Washington’s name was inscribed upon the new Justice Center facility, friend and fellow activist Moses Walker said of him, “He didn’t do one thing for recognition. He did it for the benefit of the people.” Washington passed away in November of 2011.


Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, November 2022



Social changes in western Michigan, 1930 to 1990

Edited by Henry Vance Davis
H 921 A3754.3


“Arthur Washington Jr. takes Calhoun position”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 April 1966, page 25, column 7

“Service is what drives band man”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 April 1989, page A1, column 1

“Celebrating Black History Month”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 February 1995

“Arthur Washington saw needs, ‘jumped in'”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 February 2002, page S3, column 1

“Justice center named for area civil rights leader”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 January 2003, page A1, column 1

“A fitting honor for Arthur Washington”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 January 2003, page A8, column 1

“Civil rights leader dies”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 November 2011, page A1, column 1

Local History Room Files

Name File: Washington, Arthur Jr.

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