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Cayton, Susie Sumner Revels

Susie Sumner Revels Cayton

Susie Sumner Revels Cayton (1870–1943) was one of just a handful of black women working in American journalism at the turn of the twentieth century. For several years Cayton served as associate editor of the Seattle Republican, the paper her husband founded, that at one time held the number two spot in circulation in the city. They lost much of their personal wealth, however, when it folded because of racial prejudice and local political turmoil.

Cayton came into the world at an auspicious moment for her family, and for African Americans: she was born in 1870, the same year her father, Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827–1901) became the first black senator in U.S. history. A college-educated native of North Carolina, a second-generation free black, and an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) minister, Hiram Revels served in a black regiment he helped muster for the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. He was elected to the state legislature in Mississippi during the postwar period known as Reconstruction, when the white Democratic politicians who had supported the Confederate cause were removed from power and many blacks were allowed to join the political process for the first time. Revels and these other trailblazers did so largely as ardent members of the Republican Party, which had been founded on an anti-slavery platform. In early 1870 he was elected by his legislative colleagues to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate, which prompted immense press coverage and made him nationally famous. At his swearing-in ceremony, however, the other senators declined to follow tradition and usher him to the podium. Only noted abolitionist Charles Sumner (1811–1874) of Massachusetts did so, and to thank him, Revels and his wife named their newborn daughter, Susie Sumner Revels, in his honor.

Spent Childhood on College Campus

Cayton was the fourth of six daughters born to the senator, who served just one year, and Phoebe Bass Revels, a Quaker from Zanesville, Ohio. After the senator's term in Washington ended, he returned to Mississippi with his family, and became the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (later Alcorn State University). This was the first state-funded institution of higher education for blacks anywhere in the country, and Cayton received an excellent education, thanks to her father's position. As a young woman she taught school while taking courses at State Normal School in Holly Springs (later Rust College), which granted her a degree and then hired her as a teacher.

Cayton had been corresponding with a former Alcorn student named Horace Roscoe Cayton Sr., who had gone West after finishing his education. Horace, about 10 years her senior, had been born into slavery in Mississippi, spent several years at Alcorn, and then made his way to Kansas and Utah before settling in Washington State when it was still Washington Territory. There was a growing influx of blacks to the area, attracted in part by the frontier spirit and an absence of the entrenched racism that existed elsewhere in the United States, and by 1890 Horace had settled in Seattle and was writing for the Post-Intelligencer newspaper. For a time, he took over the city's black newspaper, The Standard, but in 1894 he founded the Seattle Republican, a newspaper aimed at both black and white readers who supported the Republican Party.

Cayton began contributing articles and short stories to the Seattle Republican early in 1896, when she was still living in Mississippi. Her first byline appeared above a story she wrote that bore the title "Negroes at the Atlanta Exposition," and for it she had interviewed a West African chief who brought several members of his tribe to the exhibition. That fair, held in September of 1895 and formally known as the Cotton States and International Exposition, was notable for the speech that educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) delivered there that became known as the "Atlanta Compromise" for its conciliatory tone on civil right issues.

Moved West

Cayton joined Horace in Seattle in the summer of 1896, and they were married on July 12, 1896. Their union was a mutually beneficial one. She was likely eager to leave the South, where the political, economic, and social achievements of Reconstruction had already faded and had been replaced by discriminatory local ordinances that drastically restricted black life in most of the former Confederate states. For Horace, an ex-slave, marrying a third-generation free black who was also the daughter of a former U.S. senator elevated his standing among Seattle's black elite. They soon began a family that would number five biological children in all: daughters Ruth, Madge, and Lillie, along with sons Horace Roscoe Jr. and Revels; they also raised Emma, the daughter of one of Cayton's sisters, after the mother's death.

Cayton served as associate editor of the Seattle Republican, contributing short stories, essays, and feature articles. Her editorials often addressed racial topics, including one about the scarcity of black dolls available for children, and she urged African American mothers to sew their own. In another editorial, dated 1908, she wrote of the importance of education for women, even if they chose to restrict their work to taking care of their home and family. "The mental development of any people is dependent almost solely on the efforts of the woman," she asserted, according to a reprint found on the website of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. "It is the hand that rocks the cradle that also directs the destinies of the human family." In her own home, Cayton ensured that every one of her children learned to play a musical instrument, and leisure time activities often featured a performance of the family orchestra.

The Seattle Republican had offices in the Burke Building in downtown Seattle, and sold for five cents a copy. An annual subscription cost $2.00. During its two-decade run it attracted a national readership in part because Seattle was a rail hub, and the black passenger train employees known as Pullman porters based in the city took it with them on their routes. The Caytons urged African Americans to come west to escape the racial prejudices of the East, and voiced editorial objections to the growing number of lynchings that began to plague the south in the years before World War I. "May the Lord have mercy on the men's souls who do such for we feel that they are ignorant, semi-barbaric and devoid of either Christian or social influences," one editorial exhorted, according to Mark N. Trahant in the Seattle Times. The Caytons further suggested that such communities might benefit from an influx of Christian missionaries.

Target of Resentment

Cayton and her husband were well known figures in the black community in Seattle, but their fame reached further afield. In 1909, Booker T. Washington came to Seattle for the Alaskan, Yukon and Pacific Exposition, and stayed at their home. Years later, the actor and political activist Paul Robeson (1898–1976) appeared at their home, uninvited but welcomed immediately and offered a room, as well as the poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967). Theirs was the only black household in the affluent Capitol Hill area, home to the city's grandest mansions, and they had a Japanese servant named Nish. Among some members of Seattle's black community, however, the Caytons were resented for what was considered putting on airs by living in a white section of the city and keeping servants. Their neighbors resented their presence, too: in 1909, six years after their purchase of the house, a white real estate agent filed a lawsuit claiming that their presence had reduced property values in the neighborhood. The Caytons mounted a successful legal defense, but had they lost they would have been forced to sell their home.

Cayton played an important part in the running of the newspaper, and was thanked publicly in an article written by her husband that appeared in the July 23, 1909, issue. Titled "Good Woman's Helping Hand," the tribute described her as someone "who not only makes husbands men in the true sense of the word, but who makes the men and women of tomorrow," according to the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project website. Cayton was also active outside of her home and office as a member of numerous charitable and cultural organizations. She also founded the Dorcus Charity Club, which raised funds to help the poorest of Seattle's black community through Christmas toy drives and financial stipends to elderly widows, in an era long before company retirement benefits or Social Security income aided Americans aged 65 or older. In 1907 the Dorcus women played an instrumental role in urging Seattle Children's Hospital to officially adopt an anti-discrimination policy.

The Caytons' newspaper, however, began to lose advertisers, thanks to a Seattle that was becoming increasingly segregated, and Horace's attacks on local elected officials and public figures further damaged its support base. He was arrested twice for libel, and was the defendant in several lawsuits, one after he accused the Seattle's police chief of graft; fortunately, the trial ended with a hung jury, but the skirmish earned the newspaper some influential enemies. Horace had been a well-known figure in local Republican Party politics, and served on the party's state committee, but when racism intensified in the city, many of his political cohorts failed to publicly support him, out of fear of losing their voter base. Finally, the Seattle Republican was forced to close due to lack of revenue and mounting debt around the time of World War I. Horace went on to publish Cayton's Weekly for several years, but that, too, had folded by 1921.

Impoverished Later Years

Cayton and her husband sold their Capitol Hill home, relocating to Seattle's Italian-American neighborhood, and their financial situation worsened over the years. They had some income from rental properties they owned, and Horace continued to write for other publications, but eventually he was forced to take a position as a janitor, while Cayton worked part-time as a domestic. They were ostracized by some of the black community when their financial status shifted, and their downfall was viewed as a comeuppance for their earlier success.

Except for Ruth, who died young, the Cayton children followed in their parents' footsteps and accrued many professional achievements in their respective careers. Daughter Madge graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in international business, but worked in restaurants for years, unable to find a job in her field. She eventually became a social worker in Chicago. Her sister Lillie overcame alcoholism and was active in the Pacific Northwest organization of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Caytons' son, Revels, became a sailor and then a union organizer, while his brother, Horace Jr., emerged as a prominent sociologist who co-authored a landmark study about blacks in Chicago, Black Metropolis, published in 1945. His mother joined him and Madge in that city after the death of Horace Sr. in 1940. She died on July 28, 1943, and her passing was noted in the New York Times.

The Cayton family has continued to fascinate scholars of black life in America. In 2002 their saga was chronicled by historian Richard S. Hobbs in The Cayton Legacy: An African American Family, published by Washington State University Press.

Books

Notable Black American Women, Book 3, Gale, 2002.

Periodicals

Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2003.

Seattle Republican, February 14, 1908.

Seattle Times, October 8, 1998.

Online

"Susie Revels Cayton: The Part She Played," Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, http://www.depts.washington.edu/civilr/susie_cayton.htm (December 9, 2006).

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