by Karen Meador, Historical Society of Federal Way
In honor of Black History Month, the Historical Society of Federal Way is proud to pay tribute to one of Federal Way’s earliest and most influential settlers, John Newington Conna. A central figure in the early history and development of Washington State, he was born into slavery in Texas in 1836. After serving in the 1st Louisiana Native Guards, an African-American Union Regiment during the Civil War, he moved north to Hartford, Connecticut and later to Kansas City, Kansas. When the transcontinental railroad reached Tacoma in 1883, John Conna, his wife Mary and their children became the first African Americans to travel by train to the “City of Destiny.”
The Conna family settled on a 157-acre homestead on the south side of Panther Lake near the present location of the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center on SW Campus Drive. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Allen C. Mason real estate firm in Tacoma and soon became its leading broker, starting his own real estate company in 1890. He also recruited African Americans from other parts of the county to migrate to the Pacific Northwest, including coal miners who settled in Roslyn.
An attorney and consultant to Northern Pacific Railroad magnate James J. Hill, he became active in politics as president of the John Brown Republican Club and the Washington State Protective League. He was also a member of the local chapter of the Afro-American League, predecessor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
He became the first African American political appointee in state history when selected as Sergeant at Arms for the first Washington State Legislature in 1889. While there, he was instrumental in the framing and passage of the Public Accommodations Act of 1890, which gave all citizens access to public establishments such as inns, theaters, restaurants and public conveyances. Also among his legacies are 40 acres of land he and Mary Conna donated to the City of Tacoma, known today as the ‘Conna Addition.’
Catching “gold fever,” he later moved to Alaska at age 64, where he ran a real estate, mining and investment company, as well as a secondhand furniture store in Fairbanks. Running unsuccessfully for the Alaska Territorial Senate and the Fairbanks City Council, he became a familiar figure in Fairbanks, noted in his later years for being one of Alaska’s last Civil War veterans. He died in 1921 at age 85.