Michelle L. Goshorn
“The Part She Played”, by Susie Cayton, is the story of Mrs.
Crosswaite, a woman who asserts her power as the moral backbone of
the family. In this short story, the end justifies the means when
Mrs. Crosswaite falsely presents herself as helplessly drunk in an
effort to subtly convince her husband of his duty to focus attention
towards the home for family stability.
Finally, some might say womanlike, Mrs. Crosswaite owned to
the part she played, but she said: ‘I thought you ought to spend
your time in your own home and you now have for your wife a very
As an educated African American woman in early twentieth
century America, Susie Cayton exercised the parts she played to
advocate for the social mobility of her race. The title of her
story spoke to the complicated roles Susie played in her own life as
an African American wife, mother, and social activist in twentieth
century America. Seattle was her home from 1896 to 1940, and in
that time she raised a legendary family, exercised her skills as a
newsworthy and talented writer, and was dedicated to the social
advancement of African Americans. The literary works left behind by
Susie Cayton provide a window into her personal life and help
clarify her commitment to the social uplift of the Northwest
Her husband, Horace Cayton, publisher of the Seattle
Republican and later Cayton’s Weekly, is well known to
historians, as are her two sons, Horace Cayton Jr., the eminent
sociologist, and Revels Cayton, the labor activist. Susie Cayton’s
biography is still being pieced together. Important contributions
have been made by Richard Hobbs, whose book The Cayton Legacy: An
African American Family, is based on extensive interviews with
Cayton descendents. Historian, Quintard Taylor, gives significant
attention to the Cayton family in The Forging of a Black
Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil
Rights Era and wrote several essays recognizing Mrs. Cayton’s
social activist efforts in the Northwest. Finally, local historian
Ed Diaz beautifully compiled Susie Cayton’s literary efforts in
Stories by Cayton. This essay builds on those sources while
also examining stories that Susie Cayton wrote for the Seattle
The Urban Climate
in early Twentieth Century Seattle
As owners of the Seattle Republican, the newspaper
that Horace Cayton founded in 1896, the Cayton family was one of
Seattle’s most prominent middle class African American families, but
the limited opportunities for African Americans in the area
continued to make their position within the social milieu
difficult. When Susie arrived Mississippi in 1896, the black
community made up less than one percent of the total population of
Seattle. In 1900, the black community numbered 406 out of nearly
81,000 total residents in Seattle.
Blacks were not the only significant racial minority, as was the
case in the South. Seattle featured a complicated demography where
Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Native American, and African American
communities all existed in a framework of white supremacy. Caught
in the employment restrictions exercised by Seattle’s largely white
dominated labor unions, unskilled blacks generally found themselves
limited to jobs as janitors, porters, and domestic workers.
Effectively locked out of lucrative professions and small in number,
Seattle’s pre-World War II black community lived in a space that
symbolized the lesser evil for those escaping the racial tensions of
the Northeast and South.
Despite the overt discriminatory practices in employment and
housing opportunity, Washington Territory was uniquely progressive
in comparison to the rest of the nation at the turn of the
nineteenth century. Black males were able to vote. In contrast to
segregationist laws, race riots, and the violence of white supremacy
prevalent in the South, Washington had no discriminatory laws on the
books at the turn of the century. In 1890, the Washington State
legislature passed the Public Accommodation Act which protected
civil and legal rights for all Washingtonians and banned racial
Yet, in 1895, the state dropped the penalties associated with the
act, thus nullifying any potential enforcement of the law.
Daughter of the
First African American Senator
Susie Cayton’s prominence within the black community came
partly from her being the daughter of Hiram Revels, the first
African American elected to the U.S Senate. Born Susie Sumner
Revels to parents Hiram and Pheobe Bass Revels in 1870, she was the
third generation of free blacks from her family, spanning before the
Civil War. Susie was given her middle name in honor of Charles
Sumner, the Massachusetts Senator who had let the fight in Congress
to abolish slavery. Sumner was also one of the architects of the
Reconstruction measures that had given former slaves the chance to
vote and hold political positions after the Civil War. Susie’s
father, Hiram Revels, had won election as Senator from Mississippi
in 1870, taking the seat that had once been held by the confederate
leader Jefferson Davis.
Her birth came the same year her father was sworn into Senate.
Susie spent the beginning years of her life in Washington D.C. until
her father moved to Mississippi to lead Alcorn University.
Raised in the shadow of her father’s political success,
Susie’s upbringing was remarkable in comparison to the majority of
blacks of her time. Young Susie pursued her interest in writing and
by the age of sixteen she received a degree from Rust University in
Holly Springs, Mississippi. She taught at the university for three
years and later returned to the school as a student where she earned
a degree in nurse training at the age of twenty-three.
While in Mississippi near her parents, she came across the
Seattle Republican, a Northwest newspaper sent to her father,
Hiram Revels, by the editor, Horace Cayton. Horace had attended
Alcorn University during the time Susie’s father led the school and
developed a deep respect for the former Senator.
In Seattle, he had been able to navigate his way into a position of
power within the Washington State Republican Party. A position
significant enough that he could successfully publish a partisan
newspaper that impressed both Susie and her father. Susie responded
to Horace’s journalistic success and submitted her own work to the
Seattle Republican. Which was the beginning of the personal
connection and long distance courtship between the two.
A Writer in Her Own
Susie Cayton not only played the part of a highly motivated
woman within the African American community she sought to write the
part that would contribute to the history of African American’s in
the Pacific Northwest. In 1896, Horace Cayton premiered Susie
Revels’ work to the Northwest audience in the January 4th edition of
Seattle Republican. The edition of the paper featured a
photo of Susie and an article she wrote entitled, “Negroes at the
Atlanta Exposition.” In this article, Miss Susie Revels reported
meeting with Chief John Tevi of the West African Dahomey tribe. Tevi
had been accused of exploiting villagers he guided around the world
to perform at events such as the World’s Fair.
But Susie Revels was unimpressed by the accusations, and instead
expressed great respect for the Africans Tevi traveled with and the
message he offered. In her article Susie wrote:
And these were human beings to whom the world of letters was
if it were not; human beings for whom the day of life in all its
richest beauty had never dawned; human beings who were not conscious
that the great age of progress was rolling onward and upward….Is
there hidden in those minds a genius the uncovering of which would
surprise the world and make it a more inhabitable “tenting ground?”
Yea, came the answer; as surely as those bodies contain souls
capable of the highest impulses and desires… –Susie Cayton 1896.
Six months after the article was published, Susie moved to
Seattle to marry Horace Cayton. The arrival of Susie to Seattle is
described by Richard Hobbs in The Cayton Legacy: “When she
arrived in Seattle, her betrothed—a proper Victorian
gentleman—arranged separated lodgings until they could be married.”
The two wed on July 12th, 1896, when Susie was 26. Susie and
Horace’s joining was a complementary exchange of academic, social
and political status combined with a fervor to assist in the
advancement of the black race.
Tales of the exotic laced with irony, horror, humor, and deep
sentimentality, were common themes found in Susie Cayton’s writing.
In 1902, Seattle Republican published, “In the Land of Fire,”
a short story by Mrs. Susie Cayton, wherein Barkri, a woman raised
in a rural society in South America, matures to discover the customs
of her land as intolerable. Children are raised to forget their
familial ties, sickly children are thrown into pits of fire, and
useless women are victims of cannibalism. When her husband dies at
sea, and the tribe threatens to send her sickly baby to the fire
pits, Barkri seeks refuge and raises her daughter in anonymity in
the mountains to avoid the tragic result of tribal tradition. The
baby survived but grew to forget the origins of her family.
…Barkri was becoming elderly and thereby one of the useless
women of the island, and her daughter never by look or sign
recognized her, who was ever near in time of sickness or trouble,
never asked how or why the most choice fish and portions of seal
fell to her lot.
Later, Barkri is
met by a detective who tells her she is a U.S. citizen, but Barkri
refuses to leave the daughter who had already forgotten her. The
night before the detective is to leave Barkri attends a tribal
…the subject of discussion was the slaying of several old
women, and among those named was Barkri.[…] When Barkri’s name was
called a tall woman of middle age arose and spoke for a portion of
her body on which to feast. ‘Twas Barkri’s daughter.
Needless to say,
Barkri leaves to the U.S. with the detective but her heart still
remained in the “Land of Fire”.
Barkri is an outcast in her community because she is able to
recognize the inhumane acts carried out as custom in her land.
Perhaps Susie tried to capture the beginnings of enlightened
thinking among captive slaves, or her own juxtaposition within black
society as an educated woman. The notion of severed familial ties
alludes to the social destruction blacks experienced during
slavery. “The Land of Fire” is a provocative tale which, like many
of her stories, allowed Susie to relay larger societal issues
through literary imagery.
Wife and Associate
Editor of Seattle Republican
Susie’s privileged family heritage coupled with the success
of the Seattle Republican made many blacks skeptical of the
Cayton’s intentions. Mrs. Cayton stood apart from her female
counterparts, white and black. Following emancipation and in the
aftermath of reconstruction, most women of Susie’s time were caught
up with the demands of individual and familial survival. Many
blacks were reduced to the simple task of keeping food on the table
during the early twentieth century. As an elite and educated third
generation free black woman, Mrs. Cayton was self consciously
different. Much like the integrity Seattle Republican wished
to portray, many of the characters in Susie Cayton’s stories were
ambiguous in racial affiliation. Stories such as, “The Part She
Played”, “Last Rites”, and “My Meeting with the Presence”, focused
on themes central to human experience. Susie also contributed to
the success of Seattle Republican as associate editor by
delivering newsworthy articles for the black and white community. A
short article found in Seattle Republican entitled “Stop Your
Paper” illustrates the complicated nature of the Cayton’s position
as a middle class black family providing a newspaper for a
multiracial Seattle audience:
A colored subscriber wants the paper stopped because “it has
nothing in it.” A white subscriber orders his paper discontinued
because “it has too much colored news in it.” So between the two,
the financier has the devils own time to keep things going.
– Seattle Republican, 1906.
majority of Seattle Republican’s patrons were white, Horace
and Susie struggled to meet the needs of both the black and white
community. The complicated editorial strategy did not always sit
well withvthe black community. Some in the community saw the
Cayton’s as catering to white society.
In 1970, University of Washington students interviewed
Virginia Clark Gayton. The Gayton family has a prominent history in
20th century Seattle Susie Cayton was the godmother of Virginia
Gayton’s husband, John Jacob Gayton.
But in the interview, Virginia, who was only a child at the time of
the Caytons’ greatest success, recalled the prominence of the Cayton
family with a backhanded compliment that suggested their difference
from the rest of the African American community: “They [the Caytons]
had a beautiful home on Castle [Capital] Hill and had Japanese
servants and what not. And so they didn’t have to do any
Gayton went on to suggest that the Caytons didn’t represent the
average African American, and in turn, were inattentive to the
practical needs of the black community. She added that “They had a
good educational background and a history of disagreeing and, you
know, fighting for what they….”
It is with this statement that Gayton stops short without ending her
sentence, but the impression is that the Caytons were perceived as
neglecting black issues and focusing on their own success.
Gayton also drew a distinction between middle class and laboring
blacks in general arguing that, “In the South the educated Black
people…they had the same [problem] copying white culture. They
looked down on people who did laboring work.”
While there is no evidence to suggest that Susie treated blue collar
workers any differently, her indifference to menial labor didn’t go
unnoticed by the black community. In her interview, Virginia Gayton
went on to share that “of course after they lost the money
[following the demise of the Seattle Republican], why they
didn’t know exactly how to cope with that. I think that’s because
Mrs. Cayton didn’t know to keep house and it was such a blow to Mr.
Gayton’s comments seemed to express resentment about Mrs. Cayton’s
heritage as she adds, “She had been raised to have maids.”
In his biography of the Cayton family, Richard Hobbs provides
a contrasting picture of Susie as someone who had servants but
didn’t think herself above them. Recounting an argument described
by Horace Jr. in The Long Old Road, Hobbs wrote that Horace
Sr. tried to forbid Susie from talking to Nish, their Japanese
servant, and Mr. Fontello, the garbage man, stating, they should be
“kept in their place.” Mrs. Cayton is said to have defiantly
retorted that the garbage man was “one of the most intelligent men
she had ever met, and I will continue to talk with him for as long
as I please.” Susie said she could learn Japanese from Mr. Nish,
and that Mr. Fontello was a good conversationalist.
Horace himself, rather than seeing his wife’s desire to write
and be active in the community as a detriment, saw it as his
greatest strength. In the July 23rd, 1909, edition of Seattle
Republican, Susie Cayton’s husband praised his wife in the
article, “Good Woman’s Helping Hand.” Horace described Mrs. Cayton
as a woman “…who not only makes husbands men in the true sense of
the word, but who makes the men and women of tomorrow.” At the time
of this article, Susie and Horace Cayton had just celebrated their
thirteenth anniversary. In 1909 The Seattle Republican was
recognized by the Seattle Times for not missing an issue
since its debut and in the following July 23rd article Horace
attributes this achievement to Susie:
Not partially due, but we ourselves, sometimes think wholly
due to the fact, for bless her heart, she has for all these years
stood like a stone wall by our side and some times when the battle
for existence was so severe that to live through it seemed more than
human, she never waivered.
As an Activist in
the Black Community
Susie’s piece, “Black Baby Dolls,” speaks to the progressive
nature of the issues she addressed in the black community. Ahead of
popular opinion and academic scholarship on the issue, Susie warned
of the psychological harm of having black children play with white
baby dolls. She encouraged black parents to make their own dolls,
and not to settle if retailers refused to stock black dolls.
It was from the ground up that Susie saw change needed to be made
and she recognized the message white dolls were sending to black
At a time when blacks were consumed with economic survival in
the face of discrimination, children’s toys may have appeared a bit
of a privileged topic. But in fact it was part of a broader social
vision that Mrs. Cayton chose to address. The majority of women’s
social work within the black community centered on activism through
the church. Susie Cayton often acted outside these boundaries, and
took it upon herself to exercise her ingenuity and social status to
tackle particular problems.
In 1906, Mrs. Cayton organized a group of black women in the
community to assist twin baby girls orphaned and sick with the
rickets. King County Hospital sent the girls to a mental
institution in Medical Lake, Washington. Through her organizing
efforts, Susie not only rescued the girls and sponsored a foster
family for them.
In the same stride she founded the Dorcas Charity Club, which was
recognized as one of the more active clubs in the Seattle area.
Susie’s social circle focused on welfare issues and the progress of
the black opportunity. The Dorcas Charity Club alleviated some of
the harsher conditions facing African Americans. They provided toys
for orphans and living expenses for widows in Seattle’s black
The Dorcas Club sought to help the most destitute of the black
community. Possibly Susie Cayton’s most well documented legacy,
with exception to her literary works left behind, the Dorcas Charity
Club focused on social welfare issues and individual advancement in
the black community. In 1907, The Dorcas Club aligned with the
founders of Seattle Children’s Hospital to establish a policy of
prohibiting discrimination of race, religion, or ability to pay when
it came to accepting and treating sick or malnourished children.
This alliance was a great advancement to the social services
extended to blacks at the time. There are also reports of the
Dorcas Charity Club greeting black troops in Spokane during World
From Progressive Reformer to Communist Party Activist
In the early 1930s, in the midst of the Depression, with the
Republican Party tied to failed economic policies and the Democratic
Party still the party of southern segregationists, Susie Cayton
split with her husband and joined with her son Revels in supporting
the Communist Party.
While some might have been surprised by the shift, there were
earlier indications that Susie was more attached to uplift than
political boundaries. In her 1918 story, “My Meeting with the
Presence,” Susie describes in first person the experience of
spiritual awakening through the extension of empathy to mankind.
The author goes through a series of accepting steps or prayers for
saving her individual soul, then her family’s souls, the souls of
the Negro race, and, finally, with her last prayer to save the souls
of all mankind, she is “transformed”: “‘God save the world,’
vehemently I prayed”.
She goes on to write:
Then intently I listened. Clearly I could distinguish the
different sounds: the cries caused by poverty, discontent and
greed; by malice, injustice and immorality and high above them all
rose the piercing wails caused by the selfishness of mankind.
Perhaps communism resonated with Susie Cayton’s values of
social equality and community commitment. The Cayton matriarch had
surely benefited from both witnessing her son Revels rise in
political power through his involvement with communist factions of
the West Coast maritime labor movement, and from the famous
communist-affiliated visitors she received at her Seattle home.
…one day Susie answered a knock at the front door. A large,
tall man nearly filled the doorway. ‘I’m Paul Robeson,’ he said.
‘I’m on concert tour here, and so many people have told me about you
that I just wanted to come up and see you.’”
The part she played
as an activist in Seattle’s black community provoked legendary
African Americans Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes to take up
company in the Cayton home while passing through town.
As Mother and Wife
In June of 1900, Susie’s older sister Lillie died, leaving
the Caytons to raise their orphaned niece, Emma. Six months later,
her father Hiram Revels died, and only a month after that, her
mother passed away. It is important to note that Susie was also
pregnant and gave birth to her second daughter, Madge, during this
difficult time. After dealing with the deaths of his in-law’s,
Horace returned to Seattle and found himself in the center of a
controversy involving the Seattle police chief. Susie endured
Horace’s arrest and lengthy trial.
Due to a hung jury, the judge discharged the case, yet, as “The Part
She Played” suggests, the experience may have shaken Susie. In that
1902 story, Susie introduces Mrs. Crosswaite as a lonely wife
suffering from anxiety, headaches, and unhappiness in her marriage
and ready to take extraordinary measures to convince her husband to
refocus on the family. .
Perhaps it was in the regions of the heart where her trouble
lay […] How it was only a short time since she could choose from
several invitations where and how she would spend the evenings.
Never a thought seemed to reach him of the happy home circle he had
broken when he took her away to reign queen of his own home. It was
enough to make her heart ache.
While Susie’s dedication to her family never seemed to waver,
her writing reveals the importance of black women’s roles in the
family. As a mother, Susie Cayton gave birth to five healthy
children, but raised seven; Emma, Ruth, Madge, Horace Jr., Revels,
Lillie, and Susan. And in her reflection, many of the Cayton
children’s destinies would take them down the path of their mother’s
Perhaps one of the most difficult heartbreaks Susie endured
was the death of her eldest daughter Ruth, in 1919. Ruth was a
revolutionary in her own right, breaking from the ingrained moral
principles of the family legacy. Susie and Ruth were very close
despite the daughter’s choices in life. As her brother Revels
…she made the most healthy adjustment of all of us
children…And she was the first in our family to break away and seek
full membership in the Negro community with no apparent thought
about our family mission or the manner in which we had been raised.
Susie had faith
that Ruth would find her way and the young woman would go on to
continue her part in the Cayton legacy. Unfortunately, Ruth was cut
short from fulfilling her mother’s wish, and Susie became a mother
to her infant granddaughter, Susan.
Susie Cayton raised her children with the vision of equality,
education, and self respect as a tool to overcome the insanity of
institutionalized racism. As a tool to combat the negative forces
that met them when they went out in the world, Susie encouraged her
children to take pride in their racial and family heritage by,
telling stories of family memories, and stressed education as the
Madge Cayton, the second eldest of the Cayton daughters, took
her parents advice and received a degree in Business Administration
from the University of Washington in 1925.
When Madge ventured out into the world, she faced the employment
restrictions that prevented blacks from obtaining jobs in the
professional fields. In the University of Washington interview,
Virginia Clark Gayton recalled:
There weren’t any jobs for [educated blacks] even teachers
and nurses couldn’t get jobs here either, but there wasn’t any of
that... […]. There should have been some opportunity for …Negroes,
but she [Madge] couldn’t find anything here.
Despite her degree, Madge found herself limited by the
constraints of white society, and resorted to taking sociology
courses and moved to Chicago to embark on a career that centered on
social work in the urban black community.
The Part She
Sumner Revels Cayton died July 28th, 1943, in Chicago, where she
lived with her daughter Madge after the death of her husband. Her
remains were cremated and returned home to be scattered in the
waters of Puget Sound. It is here where her husband’s ashes were
scattered as well.
Susie was the matriarch of the Cayton legacy and a driving
force behind her family’s accomplishments. The forty-four years
Susie dedicated to Seattle helped to define and assert African
American identity in the black community as well as her family. As
an educated black woman, the part Susie Cayton played as an astute
writer was a voice that most likely would have gone unheard had she
not had the success of the family newspaper to back her up. Like
many of the social and political efforts of women during the early
twentiethn century, especially ones married to prominent men, the
legacy of Susie Sumner Revels Cayton has been overlooked in the
chronicles of Pacific Northwest history. Susie was able to employ
her political heritage and assert opinions that would have otherwise
gone unheard to the dominant white society that had little interest
in the opinions of African American women. The stories and essays
left behind by Susie Cayton provide a window to the past to explore
the complicated roles she played as a writer, wife, community
activist, and mother in early twentieth century Seattle.
Susie Cayton. “The Part She Played”. Seattle Republican.
3 October 1902
Quintard Taylor. The Forging of a Black Community:
Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil
Rights Era (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press), p.
Esther Hall Mumford. Seattle’s Black Victorians 1852 –
1901 (Seattle: Ananse Press), p. 31-2.
Geraldine Cook. “Introduction.” Stories by Cayton,
ed. Ed Diaz (Seattle: Bridgewater-Collins) p. 1.
Richard S. Hobbs. The Cayton Legacy: An African
American Family (Pullman, WA: Washington State
University Press), p. 9-10.
Buffalo Museum of Science, John Tevi, http://www.sciencebuff.org/john_tevi.php
(accessed 10 Dec 2004).
Susie Cayton. “Negroes at the Atlanta Exposition”.
Seattle Republican. 4 Jan 1896.
Hobbs, p. 21. Ch. 4, Note # 30. Interview with Revels
Cayton and Bonnie Branch Hansen.
Susie Cayton. “The Land of Fire.” Stories by Cayton,
ed. Ed Diaz (Seattle: Bridgewater-Collins) p. 55.
“Stop Your Paper”. Seattle Republican. 26 Jan
Mary T. Henry. “Gayton, John Jacob.” 22 Apr 2002.
(accessed 10 Dec 2004).
Virginia Gayton, interviewed by Rich Berner, Tom McAllister,
and Karyl Winn, African American History Project,
Univ. of Washington, 16 June 1970, Transcript p. 15.
Richard S. Hobbs. The Cayton Legacy: Two Generations of
a Black Family 1859-1976 (Univ. of Washington
Dissertation, 1989), p. 190.
Horace Cayton Sr. “Good Woman’s Helping Hand.” Seattle
Republican. 23 July 1909.
Quintard Taylor Jr. “Susie Revels Cayton, Beatrice Morrow
Cannady, and the Campaign for Social Justice in the Pacific
Northwest.” The Great Northwest: The Search for
Regional Identity, ed. by William Robbins (Corvallis,
OR: Oregon State Univ. Press, 2001) p. 32.
Sandra Haarsager. Organized Womanhood: Cultural
Politics in the Pacific Northwest, 1840-1920 (Norman,
OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1997), p. 214.
Mildred Tanner Andrews. Washington Women as Path
Breakers (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1989), p. 46.
Susie Cayton. “My Meeting with the Presence.” Stories
by Cayton, ed. Ed Diaz, p. 63.
Susie Cayton. “The Part She Played”.
Hobbs. The Cayton Legacy: Two Generations of a Black
Family 1859-1976 (Univ. of Washington Dissertation), p.