Former site: 901 King St (now below the I-5 overpass)
Viewpoint location: 8th & Jackson
Audio on this page read by Karen Stringer
Here beneath the freeway overpass is the former site of the Coast Hotel, which first appeared in the Green Book in 1941 alongside the Golden West Hotel. They were the only two Seattle listings that year.
Like the Golden West, the Coast was once owned by Noodles Smith, but this hotel was owned and managed for many years by his first wife, Elbe Smith, who was also African American. Elbe and Noodles divorced in or around 1923; Noodles retained ownership for a time, but after suing Noodles for unpaid alimony, Elbe ultimately received the Coast Hotel and took over its management. When Noodles also sold the Golden West Hotel in 1927, this took him out of the hotel business and he focused more on his nightclubs.
Elbe presided over the Coast Hotel for over two decades, and resided there as well. The hotel was well-appointed, having been extensively remodeled in 1927. It contained 40 rooms, a lobby, a women’s parlor, and a pool and billiard room. It was noted in a 1927 NW Enterprise newspaper article as “probably the most expensively furnished hotel west of Chicago catering to colored patrons.” Elbe’s advertisements touted "steam heat and reasonable rates" just three blocks from Union Station. Census entries in 1930 and 1940 list Elbe as the head of household and estimated her "home’s value" (the hotel) at $12,000 in 1930.
The records also list the names of Black lodgers staying at the Coast Hotel at the time of the Census - nearly all born in the south and working as porters, waiters, bartenders, laborers, or maids. Due to discrimination by whites, the work available to Black folks was often menial and irregular, and even those jobs were hard to get. Many put more of their talents to use and found greater success through self-employment as hotel proprietors, grocers, newspaper publishers, nightclub owners, real estate investors, musicians and singers, and beauty parlor owners.
A paradox of Seattle at this time was that though socially enforced racial limits were brutal, the absence of explicitly discriminatory laws meant that Seattle could be a place of opportunity and escape from menial labor for African-Americans and other people of color with an entrepreneurial spirit. (Our neighboring state of Oregon attempted to prohibit black folks from owning property or even residing in that state, though some did in spite of the laws which remained in place until 1926.)
However, the Census list of lodgers at the Coast Hotel reminds us that many still labored to make a living, rather than working for themselves. In fact, many of the Black musicians who played in local bands or informal combos still worked day jobs, sometimes at the docks or shipyards, at hotels or restaurants, or in connection with the railroads. This may have contributed to the fact that Seattle, despite its abundance of talented musicians, never sustained a big band of its own.
The timing and cause of the Coast Hotel’s closure are unclear, but by the time the Green Book resumed publication in 1947, the Coast Hotel was no longer listed. Local historian Esther Mumford says in her book Calabash, a compendium of African American sites in Seattle and King County, that the Coast Hotel was eventually demolished to make way for construction of I-5 in the 1960s. Looking up the block, the overpass now occupies the space where the building once stood. Interstate highways across the country often bulldozed right through Black, Jewish, low-income, or working class neighborhoods, and Seattle was no exception.Read More
Those same Census records tell us that Elbe was born Elbe Schneider in 1891 in Galveston, Texas, to a father from Germany and a mother from Texas, and that she completed two years of college. Elbe was active in the community and was a dues-paying member of the local NAACP chapter. She was a member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and occasionally sang in church services.
Among the lodgers at the Coast Hotel in the 1930 Census were Twynette Jackson, listed as sister to Elbe; Twynette's daughter Elbe Jackson, aged '2 and 8/12'; and Elbe's brother Marvie Williamson.
Sadly, Mount Pleasant Cemetery records indicate that Elbe's niece and apparent namesake, the younger Elbe, passed away in 1930 within a few months of the Census-taker's visit. It's unclear how long Elbe's younger siblings stayed with her at the hotel, but Twynette and Marvie are listed as lodgers at the hotel again in the 1940 Census. Both Elbe and Marvie lived the rest of their lives in Seattle.
Elbe and Noodles also raised Elbe’s younger sister, Evelyn Williamson, who recalled she wanted for nothing growing up, thanks to Noodles’ wealth, and was a popular singer in Seattle from 1928-38. Born in 1910, Williamson graduated from Garfield High School, then studied voice and piano at a finishing school, in Washington, D.C. Williamson worked at Doc Hamilton’s club on 12th Avenue with pianist Oscar Holden. The Black newspaper Cayton's Weekly listed her playing at Washington, Finnish and Greyerbiehl Halls, and working with Palmer Johnson at the Chinese Gardens, in 1931. She also worked with Marion Fulmighter.
Williamson later married the great lead alto saxophonist Marshal Royal and returned to Seattle in December, 1940, for a triumphant homecoming with Lionel Hampton at the Trianon Ballroom, singing her signature song (recorded with Hampton), “I Nearly Lost My Mind.” From the record, it appears that Evelyn remained close to both Elbe and Noodles following their bitter split.
In 1941 Elbe married Theodore Bell; the ceremony took place at the Coast Hotel and the couple ran the hotel together for a time, but divorced in 1946.
The only other story we have of Elbe relates to a driving lesson gone awry: in 1938, while learning to drive she jumped the curb, hitting a young woman and crashing into a flower shop. No one was badly hurt. Elbe was charged with reckless driving and was fined $50. In addition, she paid for the window replacement, and she was sued by the injured party and ordered to pay $1,325.
Elbe may have been somewhat unusual for her time in that she had attended college, operated a well-known and valuable hotel, and was learning to drive in the 1930s. However, there were many other Black female entrepreneurs in Seattle operating restaurants, salons, and more. Records confirm that Black women weren’t limited to traditionally-feminine professions: Zelma Winslow (who later married Noodles Smith after his divorce from Elbe), made her living as a nightclub singer; we’ve also located records of card rooms and pool halls owned by African-American women in the 1930s.
Elbe Smith Bell passed away in late 1964 after residing in Seattle for 55 years. She was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, as were her young niece, Noodles Smith, and Zelma Winslow Smith.Read More
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