Jack Tanner Park

3427 Ruston Way
Tacoma, WA

Directions

Open ½ hour before sunrise
Close ½ hour after sunset

Sunbathers, scuba divers, volleyball players and picnickers congregate here on the northwest end of Ruston Way.

Park History

What’s in a Name?

The area formerly known as Marine Park along Ruston Way was acquired in sections when the private owners of the land decided to sell. In the 1970s-80s the Herbert, Houston, Peterson, and Cummings families transferred their properties to Metro Parks Tacoma (MPT) and the City of Tacoma in a series of sales. The land was named “Marine Park” in 1987 due to its waterfront nature. Part of the area originally called Marine Park has since been renamed Cummings Park.

The decision to rename Marine Park was made as the result of the February 13, 2018, Park Board meeting. The Park Board of Commissioners chose to rename the park in honor of Judge Jack Tanner (1919-2006) as part of MPT’s commitment to social equity, inclusion and diversity, key elements of the Strategic Master Plan formally adopted by the Park Board in January 2018.

Judge Tanner was a remarkable figure in Tacoma, contributing not only to precedent as the first African-American in the Pacific Northwest to be appointed to the federal bench as a district court judge, but also for his commitment to civil rights, promoting equality both inside and outside the walls of his courtroom. Naming a public park after Judge Tanner honors his legacy, raising awareness of the principles he fought for and helping to promote the ongoing efforts for greater equality in the Tacoma community. Additionally, naming a waterfront park after him reflects a key element of Judge Tanner’s personal history: He paid his way through university by working as a longshoreman in the union his father helped found (the International Longshore and Warehouse Union).

Larger than Life

Stadium High School Tigers, 1936. Jack Tanner (front row, far left) played centerfield for this championship team, following in his father’s athletic footsteps. (Ernie Tanner played baseball for the integrated Longshoreman’s team which played in the Tacoma City League in the 1920s.) Photo courtesy the Tacoma Public Library.

Jack Tanner was born on January 28, 1919, in Tacoma, Washington. He attended Stadium High School, class of 1938, and played baseball and football. As a young man, Jack Tanner faced discrimination due to his skin color. He was limited in his prospects as a professional athlete because baseball leagues were still starkly segregated. When he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943, during World War II, he was placed in an all-black unit with a white officer in command.

After leaving the Army, Jack Tanner was determined to finish his college degree and prove himself in the professional world. He graduated from the College of Puget Sound (now University of Puget Sound) and pursued a law degree at the University of Washington Law School. He passed the bar in 1955, and within a few years had opened a criminal-defense law practice in downtown Tacoma. Tanner was active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Tacoma. In the 1950s and 1960s, he served as an officer in the local chapter and as a member on the national board. He was also a founding member of the Loren Miller Bar Association for the African-American legal community, and did pro bono work on behalf of African-Americans and Native Americans in Western Washington.

In 1978, Jack Tanner was nominated for the federal bench and was sworn in on June 2. According to his peers, Judge Tanner believed that President Jimmy Carter chose him as a judge to stand up for the disadvantaged and work on behalf of those who could not stand up for their rights themselves. He served on the federal bench for both Eastern and Western Washington.

To Judge Tanner, “the concept of fairness and justice [formed] the very foundation of our system of jurisprudence” and he dedicated his life to this precept. He believed all people deserved equal treatment under the law, regardless of race, class, or gender.

In addition to standing up for African-American rights, he also advocated on behalf of the Native American peoples as they sought to assert treaty terms that ensured access to traditional lands and fishing rights.

His notable actions outside the courtroom included leading a march for housing equality in Kennewick in the early 1960s; providing advice to President Kennedy during the drafting of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and participating in the 1966 rally in Olympia in defense of Native American fishing rights.

Two of his famous cases were ultimately overturned by the 9th Circuit Appeals Court, but nevertheless stand as landmark rulings. In 1980, he declared that the conditions of the state penitentiary in Walla Walla violated the Eighth Amendment injunction against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Another case in 1983, often referred to as the “comparable worth” ruling, made headlines as one of the first judicial decisions to mandate equal pay for women.

Jack Tanner, Janet McCloud, and Marlon Brando on Puyallup Reservation, 1964, Courtesy the Museum of History & Industry Photograph Collection

An Enduring Legacy

Although Judge Tanner was eligible for retirement in the 1980s, he determined to remain on the bench when he learned there were no other African-American judges available to replace him. He believed it was important for law students, his peers, and defendants to see him as a role model for minorities. In 1991, he achieved senior status, and the City of Tacoma issued a proclamation of Judge Jack Tanner Day for July 20, 1991.

Judge Tanner passed away in January 2006 at the age of 86. Shortly after his passing, the City of Tacoma proclaimed January 28, 2006, “Judge Jack E. Tanner Day” in recognition of his life and career on the bench. The judges of the Western District of Washington renamed one of the wings of Union Station Courthouse after him as well, in recognition of his many years of service in the courtrooms and chambers there.

Recently, Judge Tanner was highlighted as part of the Tacoma Historical Society’s exhibit “Dreams that Matter” (October 2017-February 2018) as one of the unsung heroes who have worked for civil rights and social justice throughout Tacoma’s history.

It is fitting that a waterfront park is named for this influential Tacoman, for one of the better-known stories about Judge Tanner comes from a 1989 case regarding the pollution of the city’s waterways. Before accepting the proposed plea bargain by a company whose negligence had resulted in toxic chemicals spilling into the harbor, Judge Tanner insisted that the top executive appear in his court in person, stating, “Before I accept this plan, the top officer of your company will be here.… Not a division. The top man.”

Judge Tanner’s story reflects that of many influencers in Tacoma, the working class and those who sought an education in order to serve their community in ways great and small. In naming a park after Judge Tanner, Metro Parks Tacoma is pleased to be able to highlight the life and career of a man whose legacy in the community endures, representing the rich, diverse past of Tacoma while inspiring its future.

Additional Information

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