A photo in the archives of Soong May Ling, who as an adult helped repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act.
A photo in the archives of Soong May Ling, who as an adult helped repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. National Archives at Seattle, RS Case File 1483

Tucked alongside a tree-lined section of the Burke-Gillman Trail is an ugly windowless building that contains the only copies of ancient tribal treaties, records of Japanese citizens held in internment camps, and traces of the people who once called Washington home—and whose descendants now seek answers about where their families came from. A Kentucky real estate developer appointed by Donald Trump wants to take it all away.

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But he may not get away with it, thanks to an explosive new lawsuit filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a coalition of twenty-nine tribes, the state of Oregon, and a constellation of community groups. The lawsuit, announced today, accuses the federal government of violating numerous regulations in their attempt to dispose of the National Archives and Records Building located at 6125 Sand Point Way NE, just east of Green Lake.

The archives building contains thousands of priceless historical treasures, of which only .001 percent are digitized—the rest exist as brittle physical records, documents, photographs, and personal letters, in many cases the last evidence left behind by the people who lived here before us. Accessing the archives is extremely important for people seeking to verify their tribal status, and for family members tracking down relatives who were separated a century ago by the Exclusion Act.

The Trump administration’s Public Buildings Reform Board recommended that the building be closed and the materials scattered to government warehouses in California and Kansas City. Because the materials have not been digitized, that would effectively prevent the people who need the records most from accessing them.

To be fair, the squat building and its surrounding parking lot are a terrible use of space in a city that’s desperate for housing. (The archive building was constructed on farmland that the U.S. government stole from a Japanese family during World War II. The family never returned; among the items in the archive is the key to the front door of their long-demolished home.)

“This building does not receive a tremendous amount of visitors,” said Talmage Hocker, a member of the RBRB who was appointed by Trump in 2018. If it’s disposed of and the area developed into something new, “it can become a part of the community, as opposed to what it is today.”

“The Archives are critical partners in the conservation of our community’s history,” rebuts Connie So, president of OCA Asian Pacific Advocates – Greater Seattle Chapter. “Most Chinese Americans left few records of their lives and history prior to 1950, making the Archive’s treasure trove of files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act all the more precious.”

Attorney General Ferguson has been fighting for the better part of a year to stop the archives from being closed and scattered. In February of 2020, he sent a letter requesting public records relating to the planned sale; the PBRB said that it would cost $65,000 to provide those records because they needed to be redacted. Following an initial round of lawsuits, the PBRB changed their mind and instead said that they needed until March of 2021 to produce the records—by which time the building’s sale may be complete.

Perhaps knowing that there was strong resistance to the sale, the PBRB started moving quietly to unload the building as quickly as possible. The board listed the building along with 11 other properties for sale and hid a notification deep in a 74-page document without alerting anyone. As luck would have it, Ferguson’s office happened across the document while conducting unrelated research.

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It’s a lucky break that someone at the AG’s office happened to note what the board was trying to pull. That’s provided extra urgency to the litigation around the property. Ferguson’s latest filing notes that the PBRB never had the authority to sell the building, as it’s specifically exempt from the accelerated sale process; what’s more, the suit claims that the federal government is required to consult with tribal governments before conducting such a sale, which they failed to do.

This is the 85th lawsuit Ferguson has filed against the Trump administration—of those, there have been 36 rulings in Washington’s favor, with 47 cases still pending.

The archive building exists as a record of a time when the government engaged in the outright destruction, removal, and erasure of large swaths of vulnerable populations. It would be nice to imagine that someday that sort of thing would no longer happen.