A walk in Seattle with my father, who was born a slave
Horace Cayton was an African-American sociologist born in Seattle in 1903. His father was born a slave; his mother was the daughter of the first black U.S. Congressman. This is an excerpt from his autobiography, The Long Old Road, published in 1963.
At 16, my life seemed to add up to very little. I was lonesome, having neither school companions nor many Negro friends.
I was an outsider, partly because I could not give friendship and partly because I simply didn’t know how to act – what to say, how to dress, what language to employ. I could find no acceptance among Negroes, and the white world had rejected me, cruelly frustrating my every attempt to belong. I became rebellious and bitter and determined to fight back against this oppressive white world.
In later years I was to meet many Negro writers – Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, James Baldwin. The stories they told me about the cruelty they had experienced in childhood, about the viciousness of whites, were in a way as foreign to me as the story of the lynching that my father – an editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer – had printed.
Nothing so very terrible had happened to me. When I was young, children of the neighborhood had not played with me; a woman had sent me home when she had found me shooting off firecrackers with her daughter; a high school principal had not let me dance with a white girl – none of this seemed to amount to much when compared to their experiences. Yet I had developed the same cornered-rat psychology.
The explanation for my feelings, for my fears and hatreds, perhaps lay in the fact that, in spite of its many advantages, my home had been one where both my parents had come from the Deep South. Despite their apparent adjustment, their Southern fears had had more influence on my personality than either they or I could be aware. Possibly, in their frenzied efforts to surmount the color barrier, they somehow failed to teach me what to expect or how to act as a Negro in a white world.
Race prejudice was spreading in Seattle at that time, and many restaurants that had previously served Negroes now began to refuse them service; for some reason my estrangement from the Negro group turned me into its self-appointed champion.
When I heard that the Strand Theater, a motion picture house on Second Avenue, was insisting on seating all Negroes in the balcony, I forced myself on unwilling feet to a test. I was accompanied by a Negro friend, but he left me at the door, refusing to participate in my war against segregation.
I seated myself downstairs. The manager asked me to leave, and when I refused, he called the police. I was arrested and taken to jail.
At the police station the desk sergeant, an elderly man with white hair, routinely asked, “What’s your name?”
“The newspaper editor’s son? Well, I didn’t expect to see his son in trouble. What’s the charge?”
“They wouldn’t let me downstairs because I was colored,” I answered hotly. “So I sat there anyway, and they had me arrested.”
“Let the boy use the phone to call his father,” the sergeant said to one of his officers.
I got Dad on the phone and told him what had happened. He said he was coming right down, so I sat in a chair in the booking office and awaited his arrival.
When he walked into the police station, he was greeted by the sergeant, who turned out to be an old friend.
“How are you, Jim?” Dad said. “I’ve come for my boy.”
“There he is. Take him home and tell him to be more careful in the future.”
“I’ll tell him to obey the law, like I’ve always told him,” Dad said. “But according to his story on the phone, Jim, he’s broken no law.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Cayton, but you know as well as I do that things have changed around town. It’s not my fault and it’s not yours. It’s not like it was years ago, when you and I were pioneers in this town. Anyway, teach your boy a little patience. Things have changed, Cayton.”
“I know they have, Jim,” Dad replied. “But there’s no law that says where a man should sit in a theater in Seattle. We’ll change when the law does, but we’ll fight any law that takes away our rights. Come on, son. Good night, Jim.”
As we walked out of the station, Dad said, “Let’s walk home. I want to talk to you, and a walk will do us good.”
We started slowly to climb the long, steep Yesler Way hill. It was some time before Dad spoke, and he seemed quiet and reflective, far from the forceful, confident man he had been in the station house. At last he said, “In a way Jim was right, son. Things are changing here and not for the better. I can remember when it didn’t matter what color you were. You could go any place and work most any place. But it’s different now.”
I answered him with emotion.
“What are you going to do about it – just take it? You taught us all our lives that we were just like other people, that this was a free country. You and Mother said we should insist upon our rights. What do you expect me to do now?”
“We’ve got to fight, son. But not the way you’re doing it. Now keep still a while and let me talk.”
We walked silently for a few minutes, and then my father began to talk as he seldom did around our home.
“I was born a slave. The property of another man, as was your grandfather. Your mother doesn’t like me to mention it at home. It’s far more pleasant for you to hear about your Grandfather Revels” – the first black Congressman in the U.S. – “but you had another grandfather, and a father, both of whom were slaves. And don’t forget it—don’t forget that most Negroes, all Negroes in this country, came from slaves.
“One of my first memories was hearing the slaves talk about freedom. I was called the Freedom Child. Those were hopeful days, because freedom was coming and we all believed it. When it came, we rejoiced. But many did not know what to do with their new freedom. They were so tied to the slave system that they just stayed on the old plantation, even when they were not given wages for their work. But my father was lucky. Because my mother was white and from a prominent plantation family, he got some land and began to farm for himself. He was among the fortunate few who were successful.
“As a young man in the South, I was as fiery and rebellious as you. When I found that freedom and education didn’t mean much in Mississippi, I left the South. It wasn’t easy, but I felt that there must be freedom some place in this country and I was determined to find it. I went as far from Mississippi as I could, and I found it.
“When I first came out to this territory, a man was as good as his word. I provided a good home for my family. I had high hopes it would continue that way. I believed in the country. I believed in myself and my ability to compete with any man.
“But now the South has overtaken us, and freedom is only in name—not in fact. I’m defeated; you may not know that, but I seldom forget it, even at home. I have given up any hope of ultimate freedom for myself. It may not even come for you children, but for this I want you to fight for all your life. America may not have much to offer but it is the only country we have or ever will have.
“You have been fighting a senseless, ill-prepared, and single-handed battle. That is not the way to do it. You must prepare yourself to fight in a more sensible and constructive fashion. You must go to school, learn, prepare yourself.
“Perhaps I was wrong in the way I raised you. Your mother and I both told you that you were the equal of anyone. And we made you feel different, superior to most Negroes, especially those who are coming to Seattle now. But it was a mistake that was easy to make in those days, because neither of us ever dreamed that the insanity of the South could catch up with us out here. It’s defeated me, but you must prepare yourself to go on fighting.”
Reprinted with permission.