Robert “Bob” Santos, was the most publicly recognized spokesperson and leader of the movement that began in the 1970s to preserve Seattle’s Chinatown/ International District (ID).
The son of Filipino immigrant Sammy Santos and an “Indipino” (Native American/ Filipino) mother, Virginia Nicol, he was born in Seattle in 1934 and grew up in the city’s Chinatown. He served in the U.S. Marines after high school in the early 1950s, and returned to Seattle in 1955 to work for Boeing.
In the 1960s, Santos became involved in civil rights struggles through his involvement with the Catholic Church and the encouragement of Catholic Interracial Council co-founder Walt Hubbard. While working at the Catholic-run St. Peter Claver Center in the late 1960s, Santos was able to provide free meeting space to some of the most radical civil rights groups in the city, thereby helping facilitate a multiracial civil rights sensibility among Seattle activists by making the Center what he called “the Heart of the Struggle.” In 1969, he was elected President of Seattle’s Catholic Interracial Council.
From 1972 to1989, Santos served as Executive Director of the International District Improvement Association (Inter*Im). In this position, he was a pivotal liaison between community activists, private businesses, and government agencies in developing and overseeing ID preservation plans. The group’s agenda included increasing the ID’s affordable housing stock; preserving its culturally distinct small businesses; and providing the neighborhood a range of culturally appropriate social services, particularly for its Asian elderly. Through Santos’s leadership in the ID, he helped mentor a generation of young Asian activists in Seattle, earning him the nickname “uncle Bob.”
In 1982— along with other “Gang of Four” friends Bernie Whitebear, Larry Gossett, and Roberto Maestas— Bob Santos co-founded the Minority Executive Director’s Coalition. From 1989 to 1993, he oversaw the Seattle Chinatown/ International District Preservation Authority. He served as Regional Director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from 1994 to 2001.
In 2002, Santos published an autobiography—Humbows, not Hotdogs!: Memoirs of a savvy Asian American Activist— which is a very important source of information about the multiracial coalitions that comprised Seattle’s civil rights movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Soon after the book’s publication, he returned to his position as Executive Director of Inter*Im, where he worked until retiring in 2005. (For a copy of Santos’s memoir, contact Inter*Im)
Bob Santos agreed to share memories of his activism in the Asian American civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s in a videotaped interview conducted by Trevor Griffey and Michelle Goshorn on November 12, 2004.
Bob Santos in 1971