Garfield was founded in 1920, not 1922 or 1923

By Bill Kossen, Garfield volunteer, historian and honorary graduate of the Class of 1972

Dear Seattle Public Schools,
Talk about a teachable moment. Garfield High School turns 100 in 2020 and that’s when there should be a centennial celebration. Unfortunately, Garfield’s 50th anniversary was held in 1972. That means many would vote for 2022, others for 2023. That’s because there is a lot of confusion surrounding the year that Garfield opened. You can easily fix that, and do a lot of good by doing it. To help you, below is a short summary of the issue, based on a lot of research, along with supporting documents. I’m a longtime Garfield volunteer and historian (helping set up the “Walls of Fame”) and a retired newspaper editor and reporter who has written about Garfield’s rich history of diversity and success. My father and older siblings went to Garfield. We moved and I graduated from Lincoln, but always was a Bulldog at heart. In 2006, Principal Ted Howard made me an honorary graduate of the Garfield Class of 1972. So when a Garfield administrator recently asked me what year the school opened, was it 1922 or 1923, I looked into that and it led to this.

The case for and against 1922 or 1923
Yes, it says 1922 high above the front doors as you enter Garfield (pictured above). But that most likely refers to the year that construction began on Garfield’s “new” building. It appears that the traditional cornerstone that states the year that construction began on a building ended up at the top of the Garfield building, which actually didn’t open until the fall of 1923. The school district’s history book on its schools, “Building for Learning” points that out. The year 1922 also was when Garfield’s sports teams “Entered League” as it said in the football jamboree programs of the 1950s and 1960s that influenced so many of us and implied that Garfield opened in 1922.

Why it should be the 1920 (1920-21 school year)
There is a big difference between when a school “Entered League” and when it actually became a school. Some new high schools, like Garfield, opened with just a freshman class and would not want to force the kids to compete against bigger, stronger, older players representing established high schools. They would wait a couple of years until there were at least sophomores and juniors at the school. Interestingly, in the championship-game football programs from the same era, it says that Garfield “was started in 1920.” The problem is that Garfield was first named “East High” when it was hastily set up in 1920 as a collection of portable classrooms and a wooden annex to handle the overflow of students from Broadway and Franklin high schools during a Seattle boom. But the name East High barely lasted a year before Principal G.N. Porter asked the superintendent in November 1921 to rename it after President James A. Garfield. That deed was quickly done in two weeks and a Seattle Times story on Nov. 25, 1921 said students “are rejoicing in the distinction of their new name, the James A. Garfield High School.” Name changed, school didn’t. As you know, schools, businesses and people change their names all the time, but the year of their birth and founding doesn’t change. The University of Washington, which says it was “founded” in 1861, began as “Territorial University” and moved from downtown to its current site in 1895. But still celebrated its centennial in 1961. So maybe that’s the solution; use the term “founded” instead of “opened.” It doesn’t really matter what word you choose, though. I have found many, many references to 1920 being Garfield’s birth year, in old Garfield Arrow yearbooks, Seattle Public Schools reports, newspaper stories and other sources

So why was 1970 overlooked?
It’s not clear why Garfield’s Golden Anniversary wasn’t celebrated in 1970, but what is clear is that there was very little to celebrate then. As a story in the March 1970 Seattle magazine put it: “… Garfield High, a school that passed in a single decade from a period of great sophistication and excitement to virtual collapse.” In the 1960s, the Seattle school board considered closing Garfield and other Central Area schools because, to be blunt, they were too black, putting federal and state funding of so-called “segregated schools” in jeopardy. (There were no such concerns for the many Seattle-area schools that were almost all-white and even more segregated.) Garfield survived, but not the fallout from being targeted as road kill. Enrollment plummeted, staff turnover escalated. It was easy to wait a couple of years in hopes that things would improve. They did. A 1972 headline: “On 50th Birthday, New Pride at Garfield.” But it was wrong to wait until 1972. Garfield sure could have used a boost when it really turned 50 in the fall of 1970. Today, Garfield again is on top of the world, winning acclaim for its success in academics, sports, music and taking a leadership role in dealing with one of the biggest issues of our time, of all time — race relations. Not bad for a 96-year-old! There are signs of progress. Garfield celebrating its 100th birthday in 2020 would be another one. Thanks for listening.