New Mural In Federal Way Honors Pioneering Black Couple

In the late 1800s, political activists and business people John and Mary Conna owned 157 acres of land in what’s known today as Federal Way.

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. — The history of a pioneering Black couple in South King County is now honored and on display at a Federal Way bus shelter.

In the late 1800s, political activists and business people John and Mary Conna purchased a 157-acre farm using the Homestead Act. On this land, which sits within what is now known as the City of Federal Way, the Connas raised their 14 children and managed the farm, according to his descendants.

In a collaboration with King County Metro, Conna’s descendants unveiled the bus shelter mural on Friday, Oct. 13 along South 320th Street. The bus shelter mural depicts a timeline of John Conna and his family’s settlement in what’s now known as Federal Way.

Great-granddaughters Maisha Barnett, Karen Jones and Beverly Kelly, and great-great granddaughter Ghanya C. Thomas helped present the new photo display of Conna and his family, showing the journey Conna took to arrive in the Pacific Northwest where many of his descendants live today.

“We are excited to unveil the Conna Family Photo Mural and are forever grateful to King County Metro for making this a reality,” said Barnett. “As first landowners of a 157-acre Homestead in the City of Federal Way, John N. and Mary L. Conna were Northwest Black Pioneers helping to forge a community. With this installation, we acknowledge their extraordinary lives and contributions in the State of Washington and beyond.”

Prior to his role as a pioneer in the Pacific Northwest, Conna was born into slavery in 1843 in Texas and later fought in the Civil War. After the war, Conna worked as a porter, an engineer and in insurance agent in Missouri while advocating for the advancement of Black people, according to a news release.

In 1883, John Conna and his wife took the Northern Pacific Railroad to the Washington Territory, becoming one of the first Black families to settle in the city of Tacoma. Holding various jobs and increasing his political involvement, Conna was a leader within various civil rights organizations and was appointed Sergeant at Arms by the state Legislature in 1889. 

Years after their land purchase in the Federal Way area, Mary Louise Conna died in 1907. She is buried in Oakwood Hill Cemetery in Tacoma. John Conna followed the gold rush to Alaska, where he died in 1921.

Photo displays of the bus shelter mural were designed by Barnett and Thomas with artist Juan Aguilera as part of King County Metro’s Bus Shelter Mural Program, which connects communities and commuters to public art.

“We are honored that the Conna Family Legacy Project has brought such a beautiful telling of John and Mary Louise Conna’s story to a Metro Bus Shelter,” said Dale Cummings, project coordinator of the mural program for King County Metro. 

“Despite the immense challenges that John faced in his life,” Cummings said, “he rose to become a leader in the post- slavery era, creating a life of hope and inspiration for all of us in our quest for a more equitable world.”

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