Mossback's Northwest: The amazing Seattle legacy of the Cayton-Revels family

A Black family thrived in Seattle in the early 1900s, but growing racism derailed their dreams. Their one-time home tells a story about their struggle and achievements.

Knute Berger on the porch of the Cayton-Revels home, on 14th Avenue E. on Seattle's Capitol Hill.  The house has been designated a City Landmark. (photo by Stephen Hegg)

Historic landmarks are often treasured for their architectural style. But the true significance of a place is if it tells a remarkable story about its inhabitants.

That’s the case with a modest Victorian rental house on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. It’s a survivor of more than 120 years, uncommon in a city of rapid change. But it also embodies a story of triumph and tragedy as few other landmarks in the city do. It was here that a Black family created a legacy that spanned a century, a legacy more relevant than ever.

Horace Cayton Sr. was a young Black man, enslaved at birth, who with freedom got an education and came West to seek his fortune in the late 19th century. He got a job at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but eventually decided to start his own newspaper, which he did in 1894. The Seattle Republican, his newspaper startup was called. It was for a general, mostly white audience — Seattle’s Black community was small at the time — and it succeeded brilliantly. It was said to have become the second-most read newspaper in Seattle. The paper’s politics were progressive in the era of Teddy Roosevelt and reform.

Horace was aided by his wife, Susie Sumner Revels. She, like Horace, was from Mississippi and college-educated — she had a degree in nursing. Her father, a minister of renown, was the first Black man elected to Congress. He was selected as a U.S. senator from Mississippi — incredibly, a post once occupied by the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

Hiram Revels was a giant figure during Reconstruction, a university president and a preacher, and he was much respected. That defender of slavery Jeff Davis reputedly said that he did not want a Black man representing the state, but if there had to be one, he was glad it was Hiram Revels.

Susie Cayton met Horace in college, but they reconnected through the newspaper when Horace sent a copy of The Republican to her father, who was impressed by it. Susie came west, they married, and she wrote for and edited the paper as its associate editor. She was said to be the first woman newspaper editor in Seattle. She contributed articles and short stories, too. Horace voiced his opinions on all manner of things, including the struggle for equal rights and the politics of both the white and Black communities.

Seattle seemed to be a good place to make that work. Racial lines were less visible, not so entrenched. Horace hoped his success was an example of progress and racial tolerance, the reward for honest, hard, principled work. It lifted his family into the upper middle class.

Historian Quintard Taylor, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, has said Cayton was “by far the most prominent African American in the Pacific Northwest in the first decade of the 20th century.” He was one of the few Black men to be allowed into the exclusive sanctum of state GOP politics of the time.

Success allowed the Caytons to move into a lovely home near an affluent section of Capitol Hill known as Millionaire’s Row. Prominent guests found their way to the Caytons’ door. Horace once took Booker T. Washington on a carriage tour of the neighborhood. There was a brief time in Seattle’s early history, Taylor has observed, when Blacks could succeed. “A moment of hope,” he said.

But something soured in Seattle, and Cayton’s hopes were slowly dashed. As the Black population grew from a few hundred to over 2,000, “whites only” signs began to appear. Neighborhoods began inserting covenants banning people of color from living there. Whites moved in, bringing intolerant attitudes. Blacks were used as strikebreakers, often intentionally to inflame racial hostilities to break strikes in mines or on docks. This alienated many working-class whites who blamed them for lost jobs. As the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings in the South began to increase and Horace Cayton decried the violence more vociferously, he began to lose white readers and, crucially, white advertisers. White newspapers editorialized that by attacking lynching Cayton was arguing against protecting “white womanhood.”

Something shifted between 1902 and 1907, time when the Caytons lived in their Capitol Hill home. The paper’s fortunes shifted, too, and The Republican eventually folded in 1913. Horace and Susie were forced to sell the house and move to the segregated Central District. It was a rise and fall that took a toll. Horace started other publications, but none was as influential as The Republican. Cayton’s plan of gaining the American dream was dashed.

But the family was committed to civil rights and equality. Horace helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. Susie herself became a social and civil rights activist. She founded charities and worked for equal access to health and social welfare services.

The Caytons’ eldest child, daughter Madge, was one of the first Black women to graduate from the University of Washington. Their two sons were deeply affected by their experience and the family story. The elder of the two, Horace R. Cayton, was the first Black deputy sheriff in King County, a job he did while working his way through the UW. He left for Chicago, where he became a prominent sociologist who broke new ground as co-author of the first book on the Black urban experience — Black Metropolis — based on extensive interviews with Black people in Chicago. He became close friends with Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and other major figures.

Younger brother Revels became radicalized by his family’s experience. He went to work in the maritime trades, joined the Communist Party — as eventually did his mother, Susie — and worked for equal rights and fair housing. Paul Robeson was a close family friend. Revels, a labor organizer in San Francisco, rose in the ranks of waterfront unions and worked with likes of longshore leader Harry Bridges.

The Cayton-Revels family hit hard times, but not only did they struggle through it, they left a legacy that is valuable today, not just about hard work, but devotion to seeking equal rights and justice for all through writing, education, civic engagement, activism and scholarship.

And half a century later, in a remarkable symbolic happenstance right across the street from the Cayton-Revels house, a baby lived his first year of life, an infant named Barack Obama. He lived in an apartment there with his mother, Anna, a UW student. His success would not have been possible without the trailblazing of people like the Caytons and the Revels.

A valued memento, still in the Cayton family, is an artifact of unusual significance, almost too incredible to believe. Jefferson Davis presented Hiram Revels with a clock. It passed to daughter Susie Revels, who kept it on the mantel of their Capitol Hill home. It is still in the family, an object of pride going from one generation to the next. It’s a timepiece that marks the hours and days. It also embodies the complexities, the triumphs, hopes and tragedies of our collective history. The clock is still running.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.