Devin, William Franklin (1898-1982)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 2/15/2023
  • Essay 22659
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William F. Devin (1898-1982) served as Seattle's mayor for a decade, from June 1, 1942, until June 1, 1952. These were consequential years in the city's history, and he was a consequential leader. Early in his first term, he worked to strengthen the city's civil-defense efforts. Shortly before winning a second term, he created the Civic Unity Committee, Seattle's first official effort to address widespread discrimination against African Americans, who were being denied housing, jobs, and access to public accommodations. In 1946 a new city charter gave Devin, a longtime foe of public corruption, greater authority over the police. To remove the incentive for police payoffs, in 1947 he initiated a "tolerance policy" that allowed some forms of low-stakes gambling despite their illegality. It accomplished little, and was one of his few failures in office. After the Allied victory in World War II, Devin worked for reconciliation with Japan, and in 1947 was the first leader of an American city to travel to that devastated country. His 10 years in office were untainted by scandal, but in the 1952 election he was defeated by Allan Pomeroy (1907-1966). Devin returned to the practice of law, retiring in 1980, two years before his death.

Growing Up

William F. Devin was born in Toledo, Ohio, on March 28, 1898, the son of a Presbyterian minister who relocated the family to Richland in 1913. They soon moved on to Seattle, where Devin graduated from Lincoln High School in 1916. He did farm work in Eastern Washington that summer, then enrolled in the University of Washington.

On December 15, 1917, Devin enlisted in the military at Seattle's Fort Lawton. Assigned to the Army Ambulance Corps, he served in both Italy and France during World War I. He was mustered out of the military on May 10, 1919, earned a law degree at UW in 1923, and entered private practice. On September 3, 1924, Devin married Helen Hogue (1899-1992) in the University Presbyterian Church. The couple had two sons, Douglas (1927-2022) and Daniel (1930-2021).

Into the Fray

In the 1930s King County had a five-member justice of the peace (JP) court, one for each of its voting precincts. One of the county JPs presided over a police court that operated under the purview of the City of Seattle. In 1938, Devin ran for an open position as JP for the Seattle precinct and placed sixth in the primary, behind Peter Balkema (1888-1975). In the general election in November, the four top vote-getters from the primary were unopposed. Devin won the fifth seat, beating Balkema by 1,999 votes.

His predecessor as JP, William R. Bell, had been the police-court judge, and it was almost certain that Devin would take over that role. Even while campaigning, he had called for court reform, including a separate division to handle traffic violations, which he argued would give the police court "greater prestige" ("Devin Likely to Get ...").

A Running Start

Seattle Mayor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) appointed Devin to the police court, and he took the bench on January 9, 1939. Devin asked to change the name of police court to "Municipal Court," and renewed his proposal for a separate department to handle traffic violations, pointing out that fines for traffic violations were often collected on the street by ticketing officers, with neither a copy of the ticket nor the money going any further. Said Devin, "If the police want to hold court on the street I can't do anything about that! But the court will account for every traffic tag [ticket] issued" ("City Approves ...").

On Devin's first day on the bench, he went as far as he could on his own authority, segregating traffic violations from all other matters on the court's calendar. He also began referring to his court as "municipal court" rather than "police court" because, he said, "When you think of the term 'Police Court,' you think of a court run for the benefit of the Police Department" ("City Approves ..."). Later that month, the Seattle City Council petitioned the state legislature to adopt Devin's proposals, which it did in the 1941 session.


On January 11, 1941, Mayor Langlie, having been elected governor, resigned with a year left to serve. Devin promptly filed as a candidate to complete Langlie's term, and easily outpolled the other 12 candidates in the primary. To the surprise of many, in the general election on March 11 he lost to King County Auditor Earl Millikin (1890-1970) by more than 5,000 votes. Millikin would finish the last year of Langlie's term (Seattle mayors served two-year terms until 1948); Devin quietly returned to his seat on the police court.

On January 24, 1942, just two hours before the filing deadline, Devin again declared his mayoral candidacy. He easily won the February primary, leading the incumbent Millikin by more than 10,000 votes. The ensuing campaign was bitterly fought, but despite vigorous attacks against him by local Teamsters boss Dave Beck (1894-1993), on March 10 Devin beat Millikin by more than 20,000 votes. His term would not begin until June 1, 1942; after taking the rest of election week off, he returned to finish his time on the municipal court.

The Biggest Challenges

During his 10 years in office, Devin could take a large share of credit for many accomplishments, but his tenure would be judged in large part by his engagement on three overarching issues -- war, race, and public corruption. He took office less than six months after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. America's confidence that oceans east and west and allies north and south immunized it from invasion was shattered. Seattle and the entire West Coast suddenly seemed very vulnerable, and the improvement of the city's somewhat dysfunctional civil defense system fell to the new mayor.

Devin also would have to tackle racism. Thousands of African American men and women had come to Seattle to find work in the war industries and a better life for their families, only to be met with discrimination. This problem matured in the second year of Devin's first term, and he initiated city government's attempts to address it.

Finally, there was vice -- most notably gambling, prostitution, liquor, and drugs -- an issue that had bedeviled and enlivened local politics since the city's earliest days. For decades, illegal vice in Seattle had weathered all attempts at reform. Politicians fell into two camps -- "open city" advocates who wanted most vice to remain largely unmolested, and those demanding a "closed city," where laws were vigorously enforced. Devin fell solidly into the "closed" camp, and he would fight a long and frustrating battle against vice and its handmaiden, official corruption.


The attack on Pearl Harbor caused immediate panic in Seattle. The city had a substantial number of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, and there was widespread fear, shared the length of West Coast, that some could form a treasonous "fifth column." Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) on February 19, 1942, authorized the removal of people of Japanese ancestry living on the coast, citizens and aliens alike, to stark, inland internment camps. In spring 1942, nearly 7,000 Japanese Americans living in or near Seattle were uprooted from their homes, jobs, and schools.

History has judged this one of the most lamentable of federal actions, but Devin refused a request to speak out against the internment, a position for which he would later atone. Even with the Japanese gone, fears of invasion, or at least bombardment, remained intense. In his June 1, 1942, inaugural speech Mayor Devin spoke in apocalyptic terms, "We see the road that lies immediately ahead filled with tears and blood and sacrifice. We see our beautiful city bombed" ("Civil Defense Streamlining ..."). This was not hyperbole, but reflected widely shared fears. Devin also noted "a lack of coordination" in local civil-defense efforts, and "an absence of a strong and definite over-all leadership or command from one authoritative source" ("Civil Defense Streamlining ..."). He promised to streamline the effort, establish a central authority, and support a two-mill property-tax levy for civil defense.

His speech was not all doom and gloom. Devin accurately foresaw that the war had brought the city to a historic pivot point "Seattle lies as a jewel in the precious setting of the Pacific Northwest. As an outpost of the nation in this war, she will reap a reward as a great trading center after the war." He called on the city's planning commission to prepare a master plan for "our future parks, playfields, and schools, our civic centers, and boulevards, our industrial and commercial areas" ("Civil Defense Streamlining ...").

Civil defense was for the most part guided by the federal government. In 1941 President Roosevelt created the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), which established the United States Citizens Defense Corps to recruit volunteers for specified tasks. Hundreds of Seattle citizens signed up as volunteers and were trained for a variety of roles, from air-raid wardens, to firewatchers, to Christian and Jewish chaplains.

Efforts to improve Seattle's own civil-defense capabilities had started under Mayor Millikin. In October 1941 the city council established the Municipal Defense Commission, which after Pearl Harbor was renamed the Civilian War Commission, headed by the mayor. On February 24, 1942, the council passed an ordinance allotting $500,000 for "civilian defense" (Ordinance 71706), but neglected to provide funding.

Mayor Devin started his reform efforts by adding three city council members to the commission, then tackled the money problem. On September 10, 1942, three months into his first term, a special election was called to fund the $500,000 allocation with a 3-mill property tax levy. But the Great Depression was still fresh in people's minds, and voters narrowly defeated the measure in November.

The city could do little for civil defense with no funding. After some scrambling, on December 22, 1942, the city council passed Ordinance 72336, lowering the allocation for civil defense to $177,794.13 (the precision of the figure is unexplained), to be borrowed from the city's emergency fund, supplemented if needed from the general fund, and "to be repaid from the next succeeding tax levy" (Ordinance 72336, Sec. 2). This funding did not need voter approval.

In June 1942, four Japanese aircraft carriers that could have been used to attack America's West Coast were destroyed in the Battle of Midway. By mid-1943 the Allies were making sporadic progress in the Pacific and Asia, keeping Japanese troops fully engaged. The threat of invasion cooled, but air attack and artillery bombardment from sea remained real possibilities. The fortunes of war were tilting toward the Allies, and some saw a reduced need for vigilance.

Perhaps to overcome public complacency, Mayor Devin and the Civilian War Commission decided to stage an extravagant demonstration of effective civil defense. On June 13, 1943, a crowd exceeding 35,000 watched as a mock village built in the UW football stadium was subjected to three waves of simulated bombing attacks by P-38 fighters. Pre-planted explosive charges, preset fires, and clouds of (harmless) gas added realism. Civil defense workers and military personnel scurried about, tending to the wounded, putting out fires, even defusing an inoperative 500-pound bomb. The demonstration, said to be the first of its type in the country, ended with no actual injuries. Despite the serious subject matter, newspaper reports indicated that a fine time was had by all.


Overt racism was present in Seattle since its earliest days. "Segregated Seattle," a study by the University of Washington's Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, opens with these words: "For most of its history Seattle was a sharply segregated city, as committed to white supremacy as any location in America. People of color were excluded from most jobs, most neighborhoods and schools, and many stores, restaurants, hotels, and other commercial establishments, even hospitals" ("Segregated Seattle").

Seattle's African American population grew from 3,789 to 7,000 between 1940 and June 1944, and would reach 10,000 by 1950. Blacks came from around the nation to seek better jobs, better lives, and relief from the virulent, violent racism of the South and many parts of the Midwest. What they found here was more discrimination, less violent but pervasive -- in jobs, housing, public accommodations, and some labor unions. Restrictive covenants and open animosity kept Black families from living in most of the city's neighborhoods and suburbs. Many stores and restaurants discouraged African American patronage, and "Whites Only" signs were not uncommon. In late 1941 a help-wanted ad placed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by the Frederick & Nelson department store sought "Wrappers for Xmas season," specifying "White applicants only" ("Wrappers for Xmas ..."). But it was on the labor front that the most militant racism could be found, and it predated the war.

On November 8, 1940, The Northwest Enterprise, a weekly newspaper read by African Americans throughout the Pacific Northwest, ran an all-caps headline across the breadth of its front page: "BOEING AND UNION BAR NEGROES." The story detailed how Local 751 of the vital Aeronautical Mechanics Union conspired with Boeing to keep all company training programs closed to non-whites. An earlier article reported that Local 751 members had to pledge at all meetings, "I will not recommend for membership in this union any other than members of the white race" ("CONSPIRACY BARS ...").

In June 1941 President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning discriminatory employment practices in government agencies, labor unions, and companies engaged in war-related work. Six months later, in January 1942, Boeing finally hired its first African American, female stenographer Florise Spearman. Three months later, the first black production worker, sheet-metal worker Dorothy West Williams, went on the payroll. By July 1943, 15 months later, Boeing had 329 African American employees, 86 percent of them women and less than 1 percent of Boeing's local work force. Many unions and companies did much better, including the heavily unionized local shipyards, where Blacks were readily accepted and well represented.

Since Reconstruction ended in 1877, most African Americans in the South had been intimidated into silent suffering. Those who came to Seattle were not willing to meekly tolerate here what they had fled from there, and they fought to be treated as full participants in the city's economic, political, and social life.

In the summer of 1943, major race riots hit Detroit (30 dead) and New York's Harlem (six dead). Only after those riots did the afflicted cities form commissions to study causes and seek solutions. Devin realized that Seattle's racial landscape would be forever changed by the influx of Black war workers, and he was determined to get ahead of events. In the face of considerable opposition, on February 15, 1944, he announced the formation of Seattle's Civic Unity Committee (CUC). Devin said at the time:

"The problem of racial tensions is ... fraught with a great deal of dynamite because it deals with long established fears that have brought about prejudices. It is going to affect us as a city not only during the war, but also after the war. Now, it is our duty as citizens to face the problem together; if we do not, we shall not exist as a civilized city or nation very long" (Mander typescript, p. 1).

Devin enlisted a group of like-minded people to help plan the committee. It was to be inclusive, with "Education, Religion, Negro, Jewish, Catholic, Chinese, Labor, Business, and Civic leaders" asked to serve (Mander typescript, p. 1). The CUC eventually numbered 15, including one member representing the Chinese community and two from the Black community. The committee's mandate was narrowly focused -- to carry out an education program on racial tolerance (including a monthly newsletter titled Fair Play), and to consider "specific incidences of discriminatory practices referred to the committee" (Mander typescript, p. 1) and try to resolve them.

The CUC had a long and useful life. After the war, it turned much of its attention to expanding housing and educational opportunities for minorities. On July 17, 1963, Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton (1920-2011) signed Seattle City Ordinance No. 92191 creating the Seattle Human Rights Commission, which would replace the CUC. But Devin's committee, which lasted almost two decades, had laid a strong foundation for progress. Ultimately, it would be non-governmental organizations like the NAACP and the Seattle Urban League that would be in the forefront of the fight for civil rights during the 1960s and beyond.

Mayor Devin's commitment to civil rights eventually recognized no racial boundaries. On December 17, 1944, the orders excluding people of Japanese descent from the West Coast were revoked, and thousands would eventually be returning to Seattle. War was still being waged; anti-Japanese graffiti and other indications that they were not welcome soon appeared. On December 18 Devin issued a statement, which said in relevant part:

"[T]hey are entitled to be accorded the same rights and privileges as other citizens. I call upon our citizens to put into effect at this time those principles of democracy of which we are all so justly proud ... As the mayor of this city, it is my duty to see to it that all of our citizens, regardless of race, color, or creed, are given equal protection under the law, and that I intend to do" ("Equal Rights Promised ...").

After Japan's surrender in August 1945, Devin worked for reconciliation between the nations. In 1947 he became the first leader of a major American city to visit the shattered country, the beginning of a years-long efforts to normalize relations with the once-hated wartime foe. He later became president of the Japan American Society and was awarded a special commendation by the Japanese emperor.

Vice, the City's Eternal Problem

The war years put vice in Seattle on steroids. Thousands of young soldiers, sailors, and airmen provided a huge, naive customer base for purveyors of the forbidden. State laws and city ordinances criminalizing various behaviors were routinely ignored by city officials and law enforcement, and it was widely known but rarely spoken that this studied disregard was lubricated by under-the-table payoffs.

While a judge, Devin's crusade against ticket-fixing marked him as a foe of even penny-ante corruption by public servants. Although a devout Presbyterian, he understood that most behaviors that were classified as illegal vice -- prostitution, gambling, crimes involving drugs and alcohol, open homosexuality, and a host of others -- would exist "as long as there is [sic] human weaknesses" ("Civil Defense Streamlining ..."). Within two weeks of winning the mayor's office and more than two months before taking office, Devin, in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, left no doubt about his intention to have "a tightly closed, decently conducted town" ("Devin Says He Wants ..."). He offered an incentive to the police:

"... the boys will start with a clean slate. I'll not be concerned with what they may have done in the past, I'll pay no attention to bygones. The police will be told that what they do from there on is all that counts with me. They'll be told, 'one bribe, and you're sunk'" ("Devin Says He Wants ...").

Devin also hoped to "have an understanding" with Herbert D. Kimsey (1887-1957), Seattle's police chief ("Devin Says He Wants ..."). This would prove frustrating. Kimsey had been appointed chief for a five-year term by Mayor Millikin on July 17, 1941, and could only be removed by the city council. He had some admirable qualities, but eagerness to enforce the city's vice laws was not one of them. He tended to ignore instructions from Devin, who could neither discipline him nor fire him.

Outbreaks of venereal disease among servicemen led to the military putting 74 blocks of the city "off limits," and in May 1943 there were threats to federalize city law enforcement ("Stop Vice or Army Will Take Over ..."). Frustrated, Devin documented specific instances of Kimsey's failures and asked the city council to remove the chief. Kimsey stayed; he reshuffled a few senior personnel and ordered a series of showily aggressive raids on a few brothels and other sites of illegal activity, but that burst of enforcement was strictly for show. After the military backed off, so did the police. For the remainder of his first term, and for all of his second term, Devin could do little but continue to insist that vice could be controlled if only the laws were enforced.

The Tolerance Policy

Devin won his third two-year term as mayor in 1946, trouncing his adversary, Vic Meyers (1897-1991), the state's lieutenant governor. In the same election, voters adopted a new city charter that gave the mayor much more authority over the hiring and tenure of the city's police chief. Kimsey's term was over, and after a lengthy search, a 33-year-old Seattle police sergeant, George Eastman (1912-1991), was appointed chief in August 1946. To the police hierarchy, he was the least unacceptable of the candidates. To the surprise of many, and the dismay of some, he would become a willing partner in Devin's long-running fight against vice.

Devin and Eastman together formulated a plan that they hoped would be a disincentive to police payoffs. In 1947, the mayor wrote the city council: "Give me a police department which is efficient and clean, and I will give you a city where law is respected and obeyed" ("Devin Outlines Police Program ..."). He added, "as mayor I am not responsible for the morals of our people, but I am responsible for the conduct of our police officers." He then described his and Eastman's plan, which would come to be known as the Tolerance Policy.

Given Devin's long crusade for strict enforcement of vice laws, the Tolerance Policy could fairly be characterized as a partial surrender. Licensed card rooms with very low-stakes games, licensed punch boards that paid off only in merchandise, licensed pinball machines that rewarded winners only with free games, licensed raffles and bingo, and various other activities, all illegal under state law, would be left alone unless specific complaints were lodged. Card rooms could not be house-banked (i.e. players played against one another, not against the house). Nor could the house profit from a share of each pot, but had to charge players based on their time spent playing, or by the game.

There was an essential flaw in the plan. High-stakes gambling, which was not to be tolerated, was where the real money was. With these games now banned, and card rooms prohibited from taking a share (sometimes as much as 10 percent) of each pot, profits would plummet. The same was true of such things as punch boards and bingo games. Bribes formerly paid to operate at all would simply continue to be paid, even increased, to ensure that the restrictions of the Tolerance Policy were not enforced. Little sins were officially tolerated; larger sins went on as before. This was surely not the outcome Devin and Eastman had intended. Vice and corruption were simply too deeply entrenched, and it would be the early 1970s before the police payoff system was finally broken.

A 1946 amendment to the city charter increased the mayoral term to four years, and in 1948 Devin won for the fourth consecutive time, beating Allan Pomeroy (1907-1966). His last term lacked much of the drama of the preceding three, and in a 1952 rematch, Pomeroy eked out a win. Devin, after 10 years leading the city, returned to the law and practiced for another 28 years before retiring in 1980. He died two years later, age 83. In an editorial marking his death, The Seattle Times eulogized:

"By any yardstick, William F. Devin ... was an outstanding figure in Seattle history. His full decade as mayor covered two important eras -- World War II and the first postwar years.

"Devin differed in almost every way from the colorful but roguish characters who sometimes presided over City Hall in earlier years. He was a hard worker, a serious thinker. Honesty was his badge of office" ("William F. Devin").


Quintard Taylor, "Swing the Door Wide: World War II Wrought a Profound Transformation in Seattle’s Black Community," Columbia Magazine, Summer 1995: Vol. 9, No. 2; "Executive Order 9066: Resulting in Japanese-American Incarceration (1942)," National Archives Milestone Documents website accessed January 17, 2023 (; "Segregated Seattle," Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project website accessed January 20, 2023 (; Linden A. Mander, "The Seattle City Unity Committee," (Civic Unity Committee Papers, University of Washington Libraries, Department of Special Collections, Manuscripts and University Archives), available at (accessed January 28, 2023); Polly Reed Myers, "Boeing Aircraft Company's Manpower Campaign during World War II," The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 98, no. 4 (Fall 2007), pp. 183-195; Seattle City Ordinance 71706, "An ordinance authorizing expenditures for civilian protection against the enemy ...," approved February 23, 1942; Seattle City Ordinance No. 72336, "An ordinance relating to the appropriation for civilian protections ...," approved December 22, 1942; Seattle City Ordinance No. 92191, "An Ordinance establishing the Human Rights Commission of the City of Seattle ...," approved July 18, 1963; 1941 Wash. Laws, ch. 65;  "CONSPIRACY BARS NEGRO LABOR AT BOEING," The Northwest Enterprise, March 8, 1940, p. 1; "BOEING AND UNION BAR NEGROES," Ibid., November 8, 1949, p. 1; "Police Court Bench Open," The Seattle Times, November 9, 1938, p. 8; "Devin Likely to Get Police Court Bench," Ibid., November 9, 1938, p. 15; "Seattle Justices, Constables," Ibid., November 9, 1938, p. 15; "Police Court Change Sought," Ibid., January 4, 1939, p. 8; "Devin Assumes Police Bench; Changes Procedure of Court," Ibid., January 9, 1939, p. 4; "City Approves Devin's Plan to Improve Court," Ibid., January 8, 1939, p. 3; "Devin Assumes Police Bench; Changes Procedure of Court," Ibid., January 9, 1938, p. 4; "Captain Kimsey Police Chief," Ibid., July 17, 1941, p. 1; "Civil Defense Streamlining, Vice Ban Pledged by Devin," Ibid., June 1, 1942, p. 1, 5; "City Vote on Issues," Ibid., November 4, 1942, p. 21; "Stop Vice or Army Will Take Over in City," Ibid., May 19, 1943, p. 1;"U.S. Officials Insist Seattle Clean Up Vice," Ibid., May 26, 1943, p. 1; "Equal Rights Promised Japs by Mayor Devin," Ibid., December 18, 1944, p. 3; "Civic Unity Honored at End of Service," Ibid., June 17, 1964, p. 59; "William F. Devin," Ibid., February 4, 1982, p. A-10; "They'll Fight It Out on March 11," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 26, 1941, pp. 1, 5; "Wrappers for Xmas ..."Ibid., November 12, 1941, p. 23; "Devin Wins by 20,000," Ibid., March 11, 1942, p. 1; Carl L. Cooper, "No Shakeup Planned in City Personnel, Devin Declares," Ibid., March 11, 1942, p. 14; Doug Welch, "Devin Says He Wants Tightly Closed City," Ibid., March 26, 1942, pp. 1, 5; "Glass-smashing Mob Blacking Out Lights," Ibid., December 9, 1941, p. 1; "Devin Names 20 to Seattle Defense Unit," Ibid., June 19, 1942, p. 1; William Schulze, "Realistic Big War Show Thrills -- and Warns -- Seattle," Ibid., June 14, 1943, pp. 1, 3; Carl L Cooper, "Delvin [sic] Outlines Police Program in Message," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 17, 1947, p. 14; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Crowd smashes store windows and lights in Seattle blackout riot on December 8, 1941" (by Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D), and "Japanese Americans are ordered to evacuate Seattle on April 21, 1942" (by Greg Lange), "More than 50,000 Seattle Public School students are sent home during air-raid drill on May 28, 1942" (by Paula Becker), "Civic Unity Committee in Seattle" (by Heather MacIntosh); "Boeing Hires Florise Spearman" (by Heather MacIntosh), "A Century of Seattle Vice," Part 1 (by John Caldbick).





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