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Herman McKinney, 75, dies; African-American leader worked for equal opportunity

posted Oct 14, 2009, 11:51 PM by Seattle Alphas   [ updated Apr 21, 2014, 8:49 AM ]
By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times business reporter  

Herman McKinney, a Seattle community leader who advocated for diversity in graduate education and equal opportunity in corporate hiring, died Friday (April 11). He was 75.

An elder statesman in the African-American community, Mr. McKinney felt fulfilled with what he had accomplished and pleased to see the United States elect a black president, said his wife, Norma McKinney.

“He did not like negative thoughts,” she said. “He didn’t think you should carry around things causing stress: Find a way to fix them or let them go.”

A star halfback for the University of Oregon football team, Mr. McKinney ditched a career in banking for social work. He got his master’s degree from the University of Washington in 1968 and for nine years worked as assistant dean, recruiting minority candidates to the UW.

In 1976, Mr. McKinney co-founded The Breakfast Group, an association of African-American male professionals to be mentors to young black males who have been expelled from school, or are on the verge of expulsion. He also launched a commercial-cleaning company called Extra Hands that he ran for eight years.

In 1993, he helped lead 8,000 people marching on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to the downtown office of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, calling on the business community to invest in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

The chamber hired him to lead a new initiative.

As director of the Urban Enterprise Center from 1993 to 2006, Mr. McKinney was credited with reducing tensions in the city by sponsoring conversations about race at public forums and private gatherings at dinner tables.

He also helped thousands of low-income people get jobs through a partnership between the state Employment Security Department and more than 900 companies.

“In 10 years, we have placed more than 7,100 people into living-wage positions. These new jobs have infused some $60 million into the Northwest economy,” Mr. McKinney wrote in a 2003 op-ed published in The Seattle Times.

In 2012, the chamber acquired the functions of the Urban Enterprise Center in-house. Maud Daudon, the chamber’s president and CEO, praised Mr. McKinney in an email.

“Herman McKinney led the community through a series of conversations on race during his tenure with the Chamber that are still referenced and revered almost two decades later,” she wrote. “His grace, understanding and ability to connect with so many were unique and admired by all. We will miss Herman and will think of him often.”

Herman McKinney was the youngest of three children. During World War II, his parents moved the family from Oklahoma for good-paying jobs at the shipyards outside Portland.

Norma McKinney recalls he was fond of telling a story from his early years:

“When he was in second grade, he was the only black child in school. One day, he brought home his class picture to show his mother and told her, ‘I bet you can’t tell me which one is me!’ ”

It was a funny story to share at dinner tables, but it contained a deeper philosophical view.

“He just never felt like there was any difference in people. Everyone should be given the opportunity and treated fairly,” his wife said.

Besides his wife, Mr. McKinney is survived by three children, Kristal McKinney Varnado, Kevin and Kent, all of Seattle; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sbhat