The legacy of John Newington Conna extends from Texas to Alaska, with a lasting impact in what is now the state of Washington, known then as Washington Territory when John arrived with his wife and family. The descendants of Conna gathered to celebrate his life as a African-American Northwest pioneer at a location near the homestead Conna and his wife purchased in what is now the City of Federal Way.
A collaboration between Conna’s descendants and King County Metro was unveiled at the bus shelter celebration, which displays a timeline of John Conna and his family.
Great-granddaughters Maisha Barnett, Karen Jones and Beverly Kelly, and Great Great granddaughter Ghanya C. Thomas helped unveil the photo display of Conna and his family. The display chronicles Conna’s life as well as his family’s trek west to a region where many of his descendants still call home.
“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.”
“As a descendant of John N. and Mary L. Conna, it was deeply inspiring curating their lives for this mural project. My grandmother Beth P. Wilson didn’t talk about her grandfather John Conna, so I really didn’t know about him, said Thomas. “On many occasions it felt like their spirit was guiding me.”
Conna was born into slavery in 1843 in San. Augustine County Texas and left Texas for New Orleans in 1859. Conna received his freedom when he enlisted in the First Louisiana colored infantry regiment when Union soldiers captured New Orleans in 1863.
After the war, Conna worked on getting the education he was denied while a slave. He gained employment as a porter, an engineer, and an insurance agent while simultaneously advocating for the advancement of Black people.
In 1883 John, his wife Mary Louise, and their children traveled west from Kansas City, Missouri via the Northern Pacific Railroad to the Washington Territory, becoming one of the first Black families in the city of Tacoma. Conna was a real estate broker hired by Allen C. Mason, and a landowner of Conna’s Addition, Conna’s Lake Tracts, and an owner of lots in the Park Boulevard Addition.
He continued his political involvement, served as a leader within various civil rights organizations, and was unanimously appointed sergeant at arms by the inaugural state Legislature in 1889.
The Connas used the Homestead Act to purchase a 157-acre farm in what is now Federal Way. Mary, who gave birth to 14 children, homeschooled her kids and managed the farm which included: a log cabin house, two wells, a chicken house, horses, fruit trees, vegetables, and over two and-a-half miles of road.
Mary Louise Conna passed away in 1907, and is buried in Oakwood Hill Cemetery in Tacoma, WA.
John Conna’s adventurous spirit led him to Alaska to be part of the gold rush, where he passed away in 1921.
The bus shelter photo displays were designed by the Conna’s descendants, Barnett and Thomas, in collaboration with artist Juan Aguilera. King County Metro reached out to the Conna family in hopes of adding the Conna’s story to the Metro’s Bus Shelter Mural Program, a program designed to beautify neighborhoods and connect communities 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 Metro Project Coordinator Dale Cummings. “Despite the immense challenges that John faced in his life, 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.”
For Ghanya Thomas, the photo display is the start of informing the people of this region of the proud legacy of this Northwest Black pioneer family.
“We, The Conna Family Legacy Project did our best to capture the highlights, but honestly, there is so much MORE of their story to tell. Historically the mural offers a fresh look at their journey before they arrived in Tacoma,” said Thomas. “At each location you see John’s footprint politically and socially, directly confronting racism and discrimination toward the advancement of Black people. His transition from slavery to becoming Washington State’s first Black political appointee, and successfully lobbying for the state’s first public accommodations act is truly remarkable. I hope this mural lends itself to more dedicated spaces in honor of John N. and Mary L. Conna; it’s long overdue. “