Cayton, Horace 1903–1970

views updated Jun 11 2018

Horace Cayton 19031970


At a Glance

Overcome with Depression

Selected writings


Horace Cayton spent his lifetime attempting to reconcile his two halves. Inheritor both of wealth and of the slave legacy, Cayton found himself trapped between these two worlds, filled as they were with racial implications. By establishing himself as a preeminent sociologist dealing with the plight of urban African Americans, he concurrently attempted to resolve his own inner struggle for identity.

Cayton was born on April 12, 1903 in Seattle, Washington. His mother, Susie Revels Cayton, was the daughter of Hiram Revels of Mississippi. Revels was elected during the Reconstruction era of the 1870s as the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. Caytons grandfather became a symbol of achievement for all African Americans by attaining the highest position an African American had ever held in this country. Following his term in Congress, Revels was appointed president of Alcorn State College in Alcorn, Mississippi. At the other extreme, Caytons father, Horace Cayton, Sr., was the son of a slave and a white plantation owners daughter.

Both of Caytons parents were quite accomplished. His father, like his grandfather, was born a slave and migrated to Seattle after the Emancipation. After working as a political reporter for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cayton Sr. became the editor of the Seattle Standard, an African American-owned newspaper. In 1894 he published the first edition of the Seattle Republican, which for 21 years was a leading voice for civil rights, and, for a time, the citys second largest newspaper. When the Seattle Republican folded, Cayton inaugurated Caytons Weekly in August of 1916, a journal for Seattles African American community. Outspoken and politically-minded, he was the acknowledged African American leader in Seattle for many years. Caytons mother was also college educated. A writer and editor for the Seattle Republican, she maintained an independent writing business as well, taught at Rusk College, and was also very active in Seattles cultural affairs.

At the time of Horaces birth, the Cayton family was prosperous, middle-class, and living in Capitol Hill, the heart of wealthy, white Seattle. He was taught to be proud of the accomplishments of his middle and upper middle class heritage and status of his family, and his mother ensured that he was highly cultured. As a child, he even studied the violin. As Cayton explained in his autobiography, With such sterling examples to guide us, surrender to prejudice seemed cowardly and unnecessary. Our goals were dictated by our past; we were obligated by our family history to achievement in our fight for individual and racial equality.

As Seattles African American population increased, so did racial tensions in the city. Cayton experienced his share of discrimination. His father, moreover, was very vocal in his condemnations of the South. Not only was Cayton exposed to such viewpoints, but he also suffered the ramifications of them. At one point, for example, Caytons father ran a story in his paper about a cruel lynching in Mississippi. When the article appeared, subscriptions to the newspaper dropped dramatically, thereby plunging the family into financial

At a Glance

Born Horace Roscoe Cayton April 12, 1903 in Seattle, WA; died in 1970 in Paris, France; son of Horace Roscoe Cayton Sr. (newspaper owner, editor, publisher), and Susie Revels Cayton (journalist, teacher); married Bonnie Branch (divorced); twice married and divorced Irma Jackson; married Ruby Wright (divorced). Education: University of Washington, B.A. in sociology, 1931; University of Chicago, graduate work in sociology, 1931-35.

Career: Research assistant to Harold Gosnell in political science, University of Chicago, 1931-33; research assistant in sociology, University ofChicago, 1933-34; special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Harold lckes, 1934; professor of economics and labor, Fisk University, Nashville, TN, 1935-36; research assistant in anthropology, University of Chicago, 1936-37; leader, Works Projects Administration project, Chicago, IL, 1936-39; director, Chicago Parkway Community House, Chicago, IL, 1940-49; columnist, Pittsburgh Courier, 1934-61; researcher, American Jewish Committee, New York, NY, 1950-51; correspondent tothe United Nations for the Pittsburgh Courier, New York, NY, 1952-54; researcher, National Council of Churches, New York, NY, 1954-58; instructor, City College of New York, 1957-58; professor, University of California at Berkeley, 1961-68.

Selected awards: Anisfield-Wolf Award for Black Metropolis, 1945; Grant, National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, 1968.

turmoil. Perhaps as a direct result of being caught amidst the changing patterns of racial relations in Seattle, Cayton grew up confused and troubled about issues of race, identity, class, and place. From his early childhood years onward, he grappled with his place in society at large. Accepted by neither whites nor African Americans and without any idea of how to act in either world, Cayton embarked upon a life-long quest for self-discovery.

The fact that Cayton was troubled surfaced during his high school years. Despite the strong example set by his parents, he dropped out of high school during his sophomore year and worked as a mess man on the Alaska Companys SS Ketchikan. On the ship, there was no pressure to find ones place in a confusing world and certainly no pressure to succeed. Finally, Cayton found himself in an environment where he understood the rules of the game.

Eventually, Cayton returned to Seattle and resumed his studies. However, he soon dropped out of school again. Suffering from extreme feelings of alienation, Cayton drifted into crime. Various illegal activities, which culminated in his arrest for driving a getaway car from a gas station robbery, landed Cayton in the State Training School in Chehalis, Washington. Within six months, he was released. Still searching for an identity, Cayton began to travel widely. Along the way, he supported himself with various manual labor jobs, working most extensively as a longshoreman. Once again, Cayton returned to Seattle and finished high school at a Young Mens Christian Association preparatory school. In 1925, he enrolled at the University of Washington and earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology in 1931. Concurrently, Cayton worked as a sheriffs deputy in King County, becoming the first African American to be appointed to this position. This job helped to solidify his commitment to sociology, for he came to realize that he was more interested in learning about life than in punishing criminals. Ultimately, Cayton left the force because he did not want to utilize the incredible power that policemen held over the lives of others.

During college, Cayton met and fell in love with a fellow classmate, a white social worker named Bonnie Branch. The two were married in 1929. This relationship proved devastating for Cayton. In many ways, he and his wife removed themselves from society in anticipation of the isolation that they felt would be cast upon them for their interracial relationship. Forever anxious of societys judging voice, they denied themselves acceptance into either world. Unfortunately, during Caytons graduate school years, the two drifted apart and eventually divorced.

Upon graduating from the University of Washington, Cayton won a fellowship to study sociology at the University of Chicago. He eagerly left Seattle and relocated to Chicago. Between 1931 and 1935, Cayton completed all of the coursework for his doctoral degree, although he never finished his dissertation. Through his study of sociology, he noted in his memoir, he became aware that there was a greater Negro community throughout America in which I might play an important and vital role if I could gain acceptance there. Cayton also came to the realization that African Americans were not the only group to have experienced prejudice.

In 1934, in conjunction with his work at the University of Chicago, Cayton was offered a job as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. The job gave him the opportunity to study the effects of the New Deal legislation on African American labor. Based in New York, Cayton spent one year interviewing and observing the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the role of the African American worker in the steel, meat-packaging, and railroad car shop industries across the United States. He also traced the economic effects of racism on African American workers during their movement from agricultural-based occupations to industrial-based employment. As a result of his inquiries, Cayton wrote his first book, entitled Black Workers and the New Unions, in conjunction with George S. Mitchell.

Such professional success, however, did not help to ease Caytons personal struggles. Following his divorce, he was wary of entering into another interracial relationship. However, he felt more comfortable among white people, especially the university crowd. As Cayton claimed in Long Old Road, he didnt relish taking a Negro wife and settling down in some southern university to teach sociology for the rest of [his] life. In the throes of a deep depression, he accepted an invitation to travel in Europe. He soon discovered a world seemingly free of racial tension, a world in which race did not dictate everything. However, after a several-month stay in Europe, he ultimately decided to return to the United States.

Upon his return, Cayton accepted a teaching job in economics and labor at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He quickly discovered that he could not tolerate the blatant racism of the South, and returned to Chicago in 1936. Now married to Irma Jackson, an African American woman, Cayton settled into life in an African American section of Chicago. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he felt secure within the African American community.

Professionally, Cayton continued to blossom. In conjunction with W. Lloyd Warner, he outlined a large research project that focused on Chicagos African American community. With the help of government funding, the two men submitted a proposal to study the problem of juvenile delinquency. Their ultimate goal was to study the entire social structure of the African American community and its relationship to the rest of Chicago. When the funds were awarded, Cayton became the only African American to lead a large white-collar Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. This earned him stature within the African American community. He was later joined in the project by St. Clair Drake, an African American anthropologist from the University of Chicago. In 1941, an additional grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund allowed Cayton and Drake to organize the materials gathered during the WPA project and supplement them with information from the 1940s. The project formed the basis of Caytons major work, Black Metropolis, which was published in 1945.

Black Metropolis blended the two dominant social scientific methodologies used during the interwar years for the study of race relations: the Chicago school of sociology, which viewed race relations as a dynamic process of assimilation; and the anthropological study of case and class. The book focused on the effects of the rapid migration of African Americans into Chicago. As Richard Wright discussed in the introduction to the book, the facts of urban life were presented in their scariest form, their crudest manifestation with the expressed purpose of preserving the humanity of African Americans. Cayton and Drake argued that racism prevented African Americans from assimilating into the dominant culture and relegated them to a separate, subordinate status, which made them unique among ethnic groups in the United States. With the purpose of educating white America, the book further exposed and explained African American conduct, personality, and culture which emerged from the conditions imposed by the white world. Ultimately, Cayton and Drake concluded their book with a call for the government to work more aggressively to help African Americans achieve equality. Like his father, Cayton expressed an on-going concern for racial equality and civil rights, a theme to which he repeatedly returned in his regular column for the Pittsburgh Courier.

In 1940 Cayton assumed the position of director of the Chicago Parkway Community House, a large community center for African Americans. In this role, he was a regular speaker at community affairs and attended city-wide activities as the African American representative. Cayton soon transformed the House into a focal point for African American cultural life, and luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Paul Robeson, and Richard Wright often visited.

Overcome with Depression

As a result of his own accomplishments, Cayton once again found himself a part of the well-to-do African American upper class. However, he remained possessed by profound feelings of loneliness and hostility. Through repeated psychoanalysis, Cayton came to understand that he despised white people. He also realized that he feared them. Such self-discovery was extremely painful, and seemed to increase his emotional and psychological burdens. A stint at Yaddo, the writers colony in Saratoga, New York, brought Cayton some relief because he was able to write. However, he returned to Chicago deeply disturbed. On the verge of a mental collapse, Cayton abandoned Chicago in 1949, moved to New York City, and completely severed all ties with the world.

During the 1950s, Cayton was in and out of various New York treatment centers for alcoholism and drug addiction. At one point, he had plummeted so far that he found himself selling his own blood. Unable to hold steady employment, he floated between various research positions. As Cayton later admitted, racial hatred played a part in his breakdown.

Cayton moved to California in 1960 to join his brother, Revels, with whom he was never particularly close. In 1961, he ended his column with the Pittsburgh Courier and began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. Cayton began work on his autobiography, which was published in 1965. According to John P. Jackson, Cayton viewed Long Old Road, as a form of therapy, a way to grapple with the demons of racism and loneliness that had plagued him for most of his adult life. In 1968, he received a grant from the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities to write a biography of Richard Wright. Cayton traveled to Paris to conduct his research and, in 1970, died there of natural causes.

Caytons contributions to the world of sociology and, in particular, to an understanding of the African American community in Chicago, remain significant. However, while his studies enabled him to decipher social facts, they proved powerless in helping him to cope with the anger, rage, and ambivalence generated by racism. Tragically, Caytons inner struggle to find his place in the jumbled world of race relations created a conflict within him that he was never able to resolve.

Selected writings

Black Metropolis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1945.

Black Workers and the New Unions, McGrath Publishing Co., College Park, MD, 1939.

Changing Scene: Current Trends and Issues, 1965.

Long Old Road, University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA, 1965.



Black Metropolis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1945.

Cayton Legacy, University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA, 1989.

Long Old Road, University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA, 1965.


Atlantic Monthly, June 1986, pp. 31-55; July 1986, pp. 54-68.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Seattle General Strike Project website, June 7, 1999.

Lisa S. Weitzman

Cayton, Horace

views updated May 11 2018

Cayton, Horace

April 12, 1903
January 22, 1970

Sociologist and educator Horace Roscoe Cayton Jr. was born in Seattle, Washington, the son of activist and newspaper publisher Horace R. Cayton Sr. and Susie Revels Cayton, the daughter of former U.S. Senator Hiram Revels. Cayton dropped out of high school in his junior year and signed up as a messman on a coastal steamer, and in the four succeeding years traveled to California, Mexico, and Hawaii. At the age of twenty, he returned to Seattle. After enrolling in a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) preparatory school, he entered the University of Washington, supporting himself by working as a detective. In 1932 he graduated with a degree in sociology.

Invited by eminent sociologist Robert Park to the University of Chicago, Cayton became a research assistant and did graduate work there. In 1934 he became an assistant to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and helped draft a study of black workers in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1935 he was named instructor of economics and labor at Fisk University in Nashville. In 1936 he returned to Chicago, where he headed a Works Project Administration (WPA) research project that focused on Chicago innercity life. He also worked as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier and various magazines. In 1939 he and George S. Mitchell coauthored a book, Black Workers and the New Unions, which discussed prejudice in the labor movement and examined the integration of blacks into steel, railroad, and meatpacking unions. The following year, after a study tour in Europe financed by a Rosenwald Foundation grant, Cayton was named director of Chicago's Parkway Community House, a black settlement house and study center. During World War II, Cayton refused to serve in a segregated army and enlisted in the Merchant Marine.

Cayton's best-known scholarly work is Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945), which he cowrote with St. Clair Drake. Focusing on African-American life in Chicago, the book was hailed as an original study of urbanization in the United States. It received the Anisfield-Wolf Award and was named the outstanding book on race relations for 1945 by the New York Public Library.

In 1950 Cayton left Parkway Community House and was briefly a research assistant for the American Jewish Committee. Some time later, he was hired as a researcher by the National Council of Churches. He continued to write scholarly articles on such subjects as the sociology of mental disorders and the psychology of prejudice. In 1955 he and Setsuko Matsanuga Nishi cowrote The Changing Scene: Current Trends and Issues, a discussion of the attitudes of different churches toward social work. During this period, he also served as the Pittsburgh Courier 's correspondent at the United Nations. In 1959 Cayton was hired as professor of sociology by the University of California at Berkeley, a position he retained until his death. He published an autobiography, Long Old Road, in 1964.

In the late 1960s, Cayton became interested in writing a biography of his friend, the writer Richard Wright (who had written the introduction to Black Metropolis ). In 1968 he edited a special issue of Negro Digest devoted to Wright, and the next year traveled to France to do research for a biography. He died while in Paris, collecting material on Wright.

See also Black World/Negro Digest ; Revels, Hiram Rhoades; Wright, Richard


Fabre, Michel. "The Last Quest of Horace Cayton." Black World 19 (May 1970): 4145.

Page, James A. Selected Black American, African, and Caribbean Authors. Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1985.

greg robinson (1996)