George Putnam Riley was a brilliant activist, orator and lifetime barber lived an extraordinary existence during a pivotal time in American history, during the second half of the nineteenth century. His formative years were shaped by his East Coast upbringing, but his true character came from his life experiences on the Pacific Coast. The African-American cultural and neighborhood landscapes of both Tacoma and Seattle were altered by his bravery, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit.
Born in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1833, George was raised in a family of activists amidst a politically active African-American community. His grandfather fought (and died) in the Revolutionary War. His mother, Elizabeth Riley, was a Boston abolitionist. (In 1851, she hid a fugitive slave in their attic until he could be safely taken out of Boston.)
For his part in the family’s activism, young George had the great opportunity of assisting one of the state’s prominent attorneys, Benjamin F. Butler, a politician and Civil War officer who championed the rights of workers and African Americans. Starting as an office boy, where he “swept and dusted the lawyer’s office,” George rose up through the ranks. When he asked his employer what he should study, Butler responded by saying, “Study me.”
By his 20s, both his parents having passed away, George headed west to San Francisco in search of a better, more equitable life. For African Americans like Riley, such was not easily attainable due to new and restrictive laws inhibiting their freedoms. Consequently, Riley and what amounted to a colony of other free Blacks from the United States left the country and settled in British Columbia, where they were made welcome. This was all the more remarkable because at the time, on the other side of the Canadian border, Americans were fighting the Civil War. Soon after the South surrendered in 1865, Riley returned to Boston but not to stay. In 1869, he headed west for good, landing first in Portland, OR. Throughout these many relocations from one coast to the other, George could always find work as a barber, an occupation that earned him sufficient money on which to live. His true calling, however, was to bring about change for the betterment of other African Americans.
In Portland, he was hired as a federal employee in the city’s customs department. It was there at the turn of the 1860s that he “conceived the idea of forming a company of Negroes to purchase land in Washington [Territory] for speculation,” according to a later article from The Seattle Republican. Riley, along with 14 other Portland residents (11 African-American men, two African-American women and one white man), formed the Workingmen’s Joint Stock Association (WJSA). As company agent, George traveled to Washington Territory and purchased a 20-acre donation claim in Seattle for $2,000. Renamed “Riley’s Addition to South Seattle,” the tract encompassed four blocks in the present-day Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Riley did much the same in Tacoma, but on a more ambitious scale. The origins of the city’s African-American population can be traced to Riley’s purchase of 67 acres, known as the Alliance Addition (which was then labeled a hateful term by townsfolk). However, the project’s momentum and funding slowed, largely because of the aging and deaths of various WJSA members. None, except Riley, ever actually set foot in Tacoma. The area later became the city’s historically black neighborhood, known today as Hilltop, just blocks from where the Tacoma Elks Temple stands.
George Putnam Riley himself settled in Tacoma in 1887, establishing deep business and political roots – it’s said that he was personally acquainted with all of the territorial governors of both Oregon and Washington. And he continued his work as a barber throughout .
He also earned a reputation as an incredible orator. Even early in his career, Riley was called “The Eloquent Colored Speaker,” expounding on topics such as “The Colored Citizen and the Ballot.” A reporter for the Sacramento Daily Union describes (in typically condescending fashion) the experience of witnessing Riley’s delivery in 1870:
As an orator, I can safely place him in a high rank, as he possesses great natural qualifications, and his use of language…was chosen with great simplicity and elegance. I can hardly think of any means by which he could have told the story of his race better, or set forth their hopes and claims with more modesty and firmness….
For many years, Riley participated in Tacoma’s annual April 16th celebration of Emancipation Day, during which hundreds would gather to listen to him deliver one of his powerful, impactful speeches.
In 1904, Riley was elected as a delegate for Tacoma’s 10th precinct of the Third Ward for the Republican City Convention. He passed away just months later in 1905 at the age of 72. Yet Riley’s legacy continues. For example, just over a century later in 2004, an African-American-focused economic development company in Seattle was named the George P. Riley Group, to honor this man’s historic contributions toward bettering his community and serving as a role model for African Americans in the Pacific Northwest.