Washington state’s first Black senator crossed party lines in ways unimaginable today

Washington’s first Black senator, John Henry Ryan. Courtesy Washington State Digital Archives

John Henry Ryan was a successful journalist, businessman, solicitor and politician who defended Black rights and voices at a time and in a place where he was often the only African-American in the room.

Born on Aug. 6, 1865 in Chillicothe, Ohio, Ryan moved with his wife Ella Ryan to Spokane, Washington in 1889, where he practiced law and she opened a salon. After a brief move to Seattle, the Ryans in 1903 settled in Tacoma, where the black population barely exceeded 300, according to Kate Kershner at Historylink.org.

In Tacoma, the couple launched the first Black-owned newspaper, called the Weekly, which they soon abandoned in order to publish another weekly paper called The Forum. From 1903 to 1918, The Forum mainly reported on local, state, and national politics. Ella became editor of The Forum in 1906 after John started to focus more on politics, Kershner writes.

In 1920, Ryan was first elected to Washington’ legislature a Farm Labor candidate. At the time he was the only Black legislator in a district that was mostly white. One of his early accomplishments in government was working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to successfully argue against the passage of an Anti-Interracial Marriage Bill in 1921, according BlackPast.org.

From 1921 to 1942, Ryan was elected three times to the Washington state legislature by the Democratic, Republican and Farm Labor parties. 


Throughout Black History Month, Emery Reddy is celebrating Black legal professionals and institutions that were pivotal in the advancement of Black lives and civil rights more broadly.

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