More than 115 years after her grandmother Alma Clark Glass arrived as the first Black student at what is now Western Washington University, Juanita Laney walked through the door of the residence hall that bears her grandmother’s name.
“Thank you for opening a door to my grandmother’s magnificent past that I never knew existed,” Laney told the small audience gathered for the hybrid in-person/virtual ceremony. Laney grew up in Southern California but spent childhood summers with her grandmother in Seattle, where she often accompanied Alma Glass, then in her 70s, to her work at the NAACP office. “Looking in this building, and the murals and artwork in it, I see her light.”
Alma Clark Glass spent one term at Western in 1906, then returned to Seattle to become an assistant librarian. In 1913, she was a founding member of the Seattle NAACP, one of the first branches west of the Mississippi. Her community service also included serving on the board of directors for the Seattle Urban League in the 1940s.
Laney traveled from California with her husband David and nephew Malcom Reid to attend the dedication of Western’s first new residence hall since the 1970s, replacing Highland Hall on the Ridge. The WWU Board of Trustees voted to name the hall in Glass’s memory in December 2020.
When Alma Clark first arrived at Western, “they were not serving cupcakes and coffee,” said Carolyn Riley-Payne, president of the King County NAACP. It took bravery for Alma to come to Western in 1906, she said, and in 2020, having “a $60 million building named after a Black woman” probably raised a few eyebrows, too.
With its series of ramps and elevators, wide-open sightlines, 400 beds in a variety of room configurations and space for communal kitchens, lounges and affinity housing for Black and LGBTQ+ students, the building was designed with inclusion and affirmation in mind.
The ramps and elevators in Glass Hall mean the Ridge is accessible to people who use wheelchairs for the first time. The ramped pathway is called a “shared journey,” which can be a metaphor for Western’s own history, and struggles, with inclusion, said President Sabah Randhawa.
“Dedicating this building for Alma Clark Glass reminds us of where we have been as an institution, and how the pathway for her and many students of color and other diverse identities has not been shared,” Randhawa said. “It also gives us inspiration and an imperative to ensure that our journey today and every day, is indeed a shared one, and that we live up to our ideals.”
For months, industrial design student Katana Sol worked with MultiCultural Collaborative and Bryan Potter Design to create art for the shared journey pathway, including a portrait of Alma Clark Glass surrounded by lilacs, her favorite flowers—one of the many details she learned during long, warm phone conversations with Laney. Sol’s murals incorporate bright colors to celebrate Black joy and depict a wide variety of cultures in the Black diaspora.
Sol, who at 23 is about the same age as Alma when she arrived in Bellingham, became emotional at the dedication when she talked about how few doors are open for Black women designers. But she’s grateful for the doors that opened while she created the art and the warmth and support she found. She’s been offered an internship at Multi- Cultural Collaborative in Portland and is planning to start her own art business.
She hopes all the attention to her work will inspire more opportunities for others who have trouble getting their foot in the door.
“I wish to keep the door open for additional opportunities to present themselves to future Black students and artists in the same way it was offered to me,” Sol said.
Photos by Jon Brunk