Carver Gayton’s legacy — and that of his family — is intertwined with the city’s.
Now retired in his mid-70s, Gayton built a successful career in public administration, with more than a half-century as an educator, consultant and advocate for social equality.
Gayton’s résumé includes such diverse positions as special agent for the FBI, as well as the first full-time African-American coach in any sport at the University of Washington. Along the way, the former Madrona resident married, raised four successful children and now lives in Magnolia.
“I’ve been pleased and blessed to be in some really challenging and important roles over the years,” Gayton said.
But even more colorful is Gayton’s family history.
His grandfather, John Thomas Gayton, was a Seattle pioneer who arrived in 1888 as the valet for a white physician, yet eventually achieved high esteem in the community. On his mother’s side was his great-grandfather Lewis George Clarke, a former slave who later became an influential speaker and activist for the 19th-century abolitionist movement.
Clarke was an acquaintance of key players in the movement, such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who based her defiant character George Harris of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on Clarke.
“Through his speeches and talking about his experiences, he contributed to that downfall of what people call ‘that unusual institution of slavery,’” Gayton said.
Clarke’s life is the subject of Gayton’s latest venture: his first published book. “Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke” recounts Clarke’s narrative as he originally dictated when he was about 30 years old. Included in the book is Clarke’s introduction to the story.
“Especially in his new preface, [Gayton] did an incredible job of making the narrative really have music,” said Barbara Earl Thomas, who has known Gayton for 25 years and is currently executive director of the Northwest African American Museum.
Gayton will talk about his book at the Leschi Community Council on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Central Area Senior Center, 500 30th Ave. S., and again on Saturday, Feb. 9, at 2 p.m. at the Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., in the Microsoft Auditorium.
Born into slavery, Clarke hardly knew his parents, saw his brothers sold away and was himself sold three separate times, according to Gayton. After escaping in his late 20s, he reconnected with a brother and aided in the rescue of another.
It was while staying at the home of Beecher Stowe’s sister-in-law that he learned to read and dictated his story. The narrative, chronicling this entire arch, was first published in 1845 and held in the Library of Congress as the first book by a slave to be copyrighted.
“It’s a shocking story of slavery,” said Diane Snell, co-president of the Leschi Community Council.
Gayton was not always completely aware, however, about the details of Clarke’s story. Growing up in the Madrona neighborhood, Gayton’s mother would read to him and his seven siblings from a copy of “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Their grandfather was a famous man, she told them, because his story was depicted in Beecher Stowe’s book. Yet, it would not be until later in life that Gayton would realize the profoundness of his family’s past.
“We didn’t think it was that big a deal,” Gayton said. “It was just kind of family folklore.”
Gayton graduated from Garfield High School and entered the University of Washington, where he played football and was a member of the 1960 team that won the Rose Bowl. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and began teaching at Garfield, the start of his career as an educator.
Returning to education
After two years of teaching at his alma mater, Gayton considered a new pursuit: working for the FBI. The Kennedy administration, at that time, emphasized the importance of public service, which Gayton said he found inspirational. He applied, “kind of on a dare,” he explained, after his brother suggested the idea.
In November 1963, just one week before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Gayton received his appointment. Handling mostly bank-robbery and fugitive cases, he was the first African American to be appointed as an FBI agent in Washington state. His work brought him to distant cities such as Kansas City, Mo., and Washington, D.C., but mainly to Philadelphia, where he said he endured his first exposure to extreme poverty and inner-city crime.
“As far as the eye could see, [there was] just filth, dirt, drug dealing, prostitution — all those things,” Gayton said. “It was almost overwhelming.”
He described his time in the Bureau as “eye-opening,” a learning experience that left him reeling with desire to get back into what he describes as the common thread through all his career: education.
“When I witnessed the things related to the terrible education system and terrible opportunities, particularly for African Americans, I knew I wanted to get back into education at some level,” Gayton said.
After spending four years with the FBI, he worked briefly as a special-security representative for the Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. in California, a position he appreciated because it brought him closer to home, he said.
Gayton was then recruited back to UW to work as the full-time assistant football coach, assistant track coach and special assistant to the vice president of university relations. Next, he accepted the position of director of affirmative action for the university, a role that inspired him to pursue a career in public administration.
“I saw myself probably staying in that field, probably within higher vocation as an administrator there,” he said, “but education was always the foundation of it all.”
He returned to school at the University of Washington, receiving his master’s degree in public administration from the Evans School of Public Affairs, as well as a doctorate degree in political science.
A ‘major player’ in history
A breakthrough on his great-grandfather’s story came shortly after, while Gayton was working as an assistant professor at Florida State University. A friend of Gayton’s, a professor at the university with expertise in the abolitionist era, revealed that he had a wealth of information about Gayton’s great-grandfather.
“It piqued my interest,” Gayton said. “He had all of this information that just opened a whole new world to me.”
But, again, life got in the way. The story of Clarke was pushed aside while Gayton assumed new roles, including director of college and university relations for The Boeing Co.; commissioner of the Washington State Employment Security Department; visiting lecturer in the Evans School of Public Affairs; and executive director of the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM).
Retirement from the NAAM in 2008 finally brought with it the opportunity for Gayton to fully delve into his and his family’s history. The project began as a narrative of Gayton’s own life, intended to include only a brief portion about Clarke.
That quickly changed.
“I realized I can’t just write a snippet,” Gayton said. “I need to focus on him because he was a major player in the abolitionist movement and in the whole landscape of American history.”
In his research, Gayton was especially inspired by an 1890 interview Clarke did with a young Boston Globe reporter. In that session, Clarke highlighted the importance of knowing about human history and of keeping hope for the future despite societal failures — visions that translate into the present.
“He was pretty prescient in what he said,” Gayton said. “He knew that we had to maintain hope; we had to continue to strive toward equality, and that needed to be an ongoing thing.”
It’s a wisdom that Gayton said he advocates, as well.
“We are American, and people should have pride in what we’ve been able to do, and that’s what my great-grandfather instilled in me was to maintain hope, to keep striving to better oneself,” he said.
His own legacy
The fight continues, he said, adding that young people especially need to have pride in their history.
“I see some of the things that have taken place, and I get concerned whether [youths] have that hope and desire that things can and will be better in this nation. We need to maintain pride in who we’re about; if you do have pride, you will continue to move forward and try to progress.”
Gayton himself is a living example of these values. Even in his retirement, he remains active in the educational sphere, undertaking volunteer work and serving on the boards and committees for various organizations, such as the visiting committee of the College of Education for the UW; the board of trustees for the Art Institute of Seattle; the Western Governors University, Washington, Advisory Board; and the National Advisory Committee of the Northwest African American Museum.
He is the president of Alpha Omicron Boulé, a foundation that contributes to social causes such as providing scholarships to worthy young, black individuals.
He is also the board president for BlackPast.org, an Internet resource that offers an abundance of information about black history.
“I’m busier now than when I was officially working,” Gayton joked.
On top of these commitments, he plans to continue his family’s legacy by publishing another book within the next year. That story, Gayton said, will chronicle Clarke’s life from the time he dictated his original narrative until his death.
Although he occupies himself with stories of the past, Gayton himself said he lives and works in the moment.
“Carver is very civic, and he’s a hard worker,” Thomas said. “He always keeps this incredible sense of humor in his approach to life.”
As far as the future, one fact is certain: Gayton will keep giving back to his community.
“If I’ve been able to do anything by that regard — to make a better place to live, to work, to enjoy life — I think that’s what’s important to me,” Gayton said. “If I have a legacy, that’s what it would be.”
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