Harold Gene Moss was the first African American member of both the Tacoma City Council and the Pierce County Council, and Tacoma's first African American mayor. He became active in the civil-rights movement in Tacoma in the 1950s, prompted in part by discrimination he faced when trying to buy a house soon after his move to the city. Moss was active in the NAACP, a prominent member of the Tacoma Urban League from the mid 1950s until the 1980s and, even in retirement, remains an influential figure.
The Dream Was at Hand
Harold Moss was born in Gilmer, Texas, on October 1, 1929, the oldest of the three children of John Harris Moss and Ida Bell Wright. During the Great Migration, the family moved north to Detroit, Michigan. In his search for steady work, Moss's father felt the north might prove a more hospitable place: "The dream was at hand and everything was urgent," writes Moss in an unpublished autobiography, "I remember being cold a lot and living in the homes of other people and doing mischievous things and getting whippings a lot and trying to fit in" ("Fighting for the Dreams ...").
The family stayed in the detached garage of a friend's house for a time before finding accommodation of their own. Moss's father eventually found work and "learned the business of bumping and painting automobiles" at a place called Sam's Body Shop, opening his own business 10 years later, where he worked for the rest of his life (Moss interview).
After graduating from high school, where he excelled at public speaking, Harold Moss enrolled in the Lewis Business School, partly at the prompting of his father. The idea was that Harold would help run the family business and eventually take it over, but despite his technical aptitude, it didn't work out. So his father found him a place at a dental laboratory. With good mechanical skills and a sharp eye for detail, Moss had found his niche. He would open his own dental laboratory south of Tacoma in 1965, and continue to work in the field on and off in the years to come.
It was only later in life that Moss realized the passionate wish for him to go to college was driven by his father's disappointment at not being able to attend Texas Butler College for Colored Students, near the former family home in Texas. "I understood then that I had become an extension of his dream," he writes ("Fighting for the Dreams ...").
While a senior in high school in Detroit, Moss applied for a place as an apprentice to the automobile industry. Despite his reputation as one of the most able students in his class, the application was returned marked "unacceptable entry." On asking his teachers, it emerged that they already knew that positions in the apprenticeship program were not open to African American students. Moss cited this as a formative moment when he realized how "difficult, disillusioning, and frustrating the system of exclusion and discrimination by race was for black and white people. I knew they had done the best they could for me" ("Fighting for the Dreams ...").
Reflecting on this event in 2016, Moss said it set the scene for the rest of his life, and his main preoccupations: the pursuit of civil rights and social justice, his love of technical and mechanical work, and his belief in the possibility of effecting social change through political activism and governance.
Move to the Northwest and Attempts to Buy a Home
Moss first came to the Pacific Northwest while in the National Guard, arriving at Fort Lewis, in Pierce County south of Tacoma, in the fall of 1950 as a member of the 1279th Combat Engineers, "a colored engineering outfit" as Moss described it (Moss interview). Thanks to his technical skills, after initially working as a field medic he was transferred to the Fort Lewis dental laboratory, where he worked until his honorable discharge, at which point he was hired back as a civilian employee.
Harold Moss married his first wife, Williebelle Stringer, in Detroit in 1951, and she joined him in Tacoma in December of that year. When the couple began looking for a house in the city, they ran into several obstacles that Moss cited years later as prompting him to become active in the civil rights movement.
The couple planned to buy a vacant lot from a developer, but on meeting Moss face to face, the owner told him he wouldn't sell for fear of alienating other prospective buyers who didn't want to live next to an African American. So Moss tried to buy an existing home. The owner was a minister who was anxious to move, but who on learning that Moss would like to buy the place said "We can't sell you the house, our neighbors would never forgive us for that" (Moss interview.) With the minister's help, though, Moss arranged a subsequent meeting with the neighbors.
"We get to the first house, and it's an older house ... And we get up the stairs and I ring the bell and nobody came, and so I go to ring it again, and my wife says 'She's standing right in there, I can see her, and she's just not coming.' I said, 'Well I'm going to ring the bell again' and ... I'm looking at her and she's looking at me, and she ain't moving.
"So I say, 'Well let's go to one of the houses below, see what kind of reception we get, and if they pull the same crap, we're just going home.' Well we got to that house and, they're young people, they open the door -- I mean, we're all about the same age -- they open the door and invite us in. And we came in, had a seat on the couch, then the back door started opening and closing. Next thing you know we've got maybe six, seven, eight people in there. All neighbors.
"They want to know 'Who sent you here?' 'Are you representing some kind of organization?' 'Y'all what they call ... blockbusters?'
"And we're saying, 'We want to buy a house.' 'No, no, no.'
"One woman told us about, 'I work in a bank and we know how you people trash stuff. Our property values will go straight to hell. Why don't you go live where you're wanted? Why don't you go live with your own people? Go back up on K Street where you done damn near drove all the Norwegians out.'
"My wife started crying" (Moss interview).
NAACP and Tacoma Urban League
In the wake of these and other experiences of discrimination, Moss became an active member of the local branch of the NAACP, serving as its president in 1957 and 1958.
From 1957 to 1961 Moss was co-chair of the organization's Employment Committee, alongside Johnny Epps and Jimmy Paterson. They lobbied downtown retail stores to increase employment opportunities for people of color. A key target in this campaign was Sears & Roebuck because of what the activists said were discriminatory hiring practices. The group launched a coordinated campaign to boycott the store, producing a flyer that read:
"DON'T BUY WHERE YOU CAN'T WORK"
THIS EASTER SHOP WHERE YOU HAVE
A CHANCE TO WORK.
SEARS & ROEBUCK HAS NO BLACK EMPLOYEES.
TAKE YOUR BUSINESS ELSEWHERE.
In 1960 Ella Capers (1917-2015) became the first black employee at Sears & Roebuck in downtown Tacoma, working as a stenographer in the credit department, a development which Moss attributes to the NAACP campaign. The Tacoma NAACP employed the same tactic in the years to come under the slogan "Don't shop where you can't work."
The NAACP's national convention in 1957 was a sort of homecoming for Moss, held as it was in Detroit. Hearing keynote speaker Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) on the concluding night of the convention was a defining moment, Moss recalled. He began to realize that change was possible, but only with persistence: "That my dreams of a prosperous future were dreams worth fighting for. That the road to a better life lay in my own hands" ("Fighting for the Dreams ...").
The overlapping concerns of the NAACP and the Tacoma Urban League, of which Moss was a prominent member, meant he had a busy public life. One of the founders of the League in 1968, he was employed from 1970 to 1981 with the organization's Apprenticeship Training Program, working with unions and other organizations to recruit young people of color into the construction trades. He was also involved in representing the needs of African American individuals and families, and advocating for the equal consideration of companies owned by people of color and women in the city contract-tendering process. Moss also served on the Tacoma Human Relations Commission at this time, and in 1968 stood for election to Tacoma City Council. He was defeated, but two years later a crisis arose on the council that presented an opportunity for him to become involved directly in representational politics.
Recall, Turmoil, and Tacoma City Council
Tacoma's mayor from 1967 to 1969 was A. L. Rasmussen, a divisive figure with a resolute dislike of federal spending programs. Alongside five like-minded council members, he worked to dismantle Tacoma's city-manager form of government and the city's Human Relations Commission. He was hostile to the urban-renewal programs taking root at the time in the U.S., chief among them the Model Cities program and President Johnson's War on Poverty. In Tacoma, the Model Cities program had designated federal funding for rejuvenating the Hilltop neighborhood, home to many families of color. Rasmussen's opposition to the program set him at odds with many of the civil-rights leaders in the city.
In 1970, alarmed by the rightward drift of the council and fearful of unrest of the kind that was troubling other U.S. cities at the time, a group of activists and citizens initiated a recall process. The council members targeted were George Cvitanich, Becky Banfield, A. M. Zatkovich, Fred Dean, and John O'Leary. Cvitanich claimed the move was orchestrated by a coalition of downtown business interests and what he termed "ultra-liberals." Rasmussen had already left office the previous year, having been defeated in an election by Gordon Johnston. Moss later recalled that he was approached directly by business figures who were alarmed at the impact the conservative bloc was having on the city's development and its reputation nationally, among them Al Saunders, president of the Puget Sound National Bank of Tacoma.
The recall was ultimately subject to review by the state supreme court, judged to be valid, and resulted in the removal of the five Rasmussen loyalists from the council in September 1970. Having run unsuccessfully for city council two years earlier, Moss was appointed in October 1970 to one of the newly vacant seats. He was the first African American council member in the city's history, and the first African American to hold public office in Pierce County.
Moss won election to the council seat in 1971. At this time he was also an employee of the Tacoma Urban League, where he continued to work until 1975. During his time on council he and fellow council member Jack Warnick authored "much of the Human Rights Commission Ordinance" and were instrumental in a range of other measures including the original affirmative action plans for the city ("Fighting for the Dreams ...").
Under pressure from the Urban League to deflect charges of a potential conflict of interest, he resigned from the council in 1975.
In September 1978 Moss was involved in an altercation with his son Michael, who was then 23, in the course of which Michael was shot in the shoulder. Moss has subsequently said that his son was under the influence of drugs.
"Well he came to my house and he wanted me to give him some money, We got in a big pushing fight and I figured today was the day he was going to kick the compound daylights out of me, and so when I got away from him, I got my gun and I couldn't stop him, and I shot him. Period. And for years I had the feeling, 'Ah, God how could you shoot your son?' Well you shoot your son like you would anybody else who is drugged up and is trying to hurt you" (Moss interview).
The two were later reconciled and no charges were brought.
In 1981 the Reagan administration canceled funding for the Labor Education Advancement Program (LEAP) that funded Moss's work at the Urban League, at which point Moss re-opened his business manufacturing dentures.
Mayor of Tacoma
In 1983 Moss made another run for a seat on the Tacoma City Council, but lost that election. In 1987, though, he was again appointed to a vacant seat on the council, which he successfully defended in that year's election and again in 1991. After his close friend Jack Hyde (1934-1994) was elected mayor in November 1993, he invited Moss to serve as his deputy. Hyde suffered a fatal heart attack on January 17, 1994, less than three weeks after taking office, and a week later the council appointed Moss mayor in a unanimous vote.
"We were beginning the process of recognizing that gay and lesbian people had rights," Moss recalled of his time as mayor (Moss interview). Looking back he saw this period as an extension of the civil rights work he had begun in the early 1970s, expanding the city code to ensure equal treatment for minority groups. On a more concrete level, the main challenges were tackling the consequences of de-industrialization, the relocation of city businesses from downtown to malls on the outskirts of the city, and resultant high crime rates.
During his term, Moss and the city council introduced a curfew in the city for all youth under the age of 18. It came into effect on January 1, 1995, and ran nightly from midnight until 6 a.m. Between those hours, anyone under 18 found on the streets or in city parks could be fined up to $250, although there were some exemptions. Curfews were also imposed in several other cities across the state around the time, but the measures were controversial for both practical reasons of cost and because some considered them an unacceptable infringement on the rights of individual teenagers.
Moss also decided to shut off television coverage of public comments during council meetings, which drew criticism from the local media. In a 2016 interview, Moss explained that "We never stopped citizens being heard, and we tape recorded everything they had to say and acted upon those interests that were legitimate," but he pointed out that running a city is a multi-million dollar business with responsibility for thousands of employees, so if public comments are broadcast "and then we turn into the Jerry Springer Show at the end? It's not gonna happen on my watch" (Moss interview). The policy lasted until the end of Moss's term as mayor.
While serving as mayor, Moss also worked as Minority and Women's Civil Rights Manager for construction projects for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), a position he held until his resignation in 1996. He also continued to work in the field of denture construction, and was instrumental in having the profession of Denturism -- provision of dentures by a non-dentist -- legalized in the state of Washington.
Pierce County Council and an Active Retirement
The same year that he resigned from WSDOT, Moss was elected to a seat on the Pierce County Council that had been vacated by Dennis Flanagan. His term commenced in January 1997, and he was re-elected in 2000. Moss served as council chair from 2002 until his retirement in December 2004 at the end of his second term. While serving on the county council, Moss ran unsuccessfully against Bill Baarsma in the Tacoma mayoral election of 2001. On his retirement from the Pierce County Council, the implementation of Destination 20-30, a regional transportation development plan, was cited as one of his key achievements.
In 2007 Moss made one further foray into electoral politics when he decided to run once more for Tacoma City Council, this time in District 1 of the city. He was defeated by incumbent council member Spiro Manthou.
Following his retirement Moss continued to play an active part in public life, including serving as a mentor to Victoria Woodards (b. 1965), a close friend and former assistant who followed him into politics and onto the Tacoma City Council.
Moss lived in Tacoma with his fourth wife. He was the father of three children: Michael Glenn Moss, Richard Dean Moss, and Terri Catherine Moss (d. 2007). His sisters, Martha Lois Brown and Dorothy Jo Tulliver, also lived in Tacoma. He died September 21, 2020.