The small community of Tarry is not much more than a spot on the map in the flat farm country of Lincoln County, Arkansas, about 50 miles southeast of Little Rock, the state capital. Before the Civil War, the region's economy was based on slavery and cotton, and more than one-fourth of the state's population was held in bondage. It was here that Carl Connie Gipson was born on January 11, 1924, the only child of Alex (1898-1987) and Ollie (1899-1968) Gipson
Carl Gipson's paternal grandfather, Doc Gipson, was born into slavery in March 1863, the son of a white man -- probably a slave owner -- and a black or mixed-race enslaved mother. Arkansas would remain a deeply segregated society for much of the next century, but Doc Gipson accumulated substantial land holdings and became a successful farmer, growing cotton, corn, and alfalfa.
Carl was particularly close to Doc, who was light-skinned with straight black hair, known as a black man by his neighbors in Tarry, but able to pass as white in Pine Bluff, about 12 miles to the northeast. He went there to conduct business and to get his hair cut at a whites-only barbershop, and his young grandson would drive him in a Model A Ford, blocks strapped to the pedals so he could reach them. Doc "fit right in" with the white farmers in Pine Bluff, but young Carl, clearly African American, played only with other black children, learning early the realities of the time and place: "I was raised up with white folks and recognized what was going on" (Gipson interview).
Flood, Drought, and the Great Depression
The Flood of 1927 devastated Lincoln County, and the Drought of 1930-1931 -- the worst in the state's history -- destroyed the county's entire cotton crop and depopulated several small towns. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Gipson recalled, "it was tough for the folks to get food, tough to get clothes as a young kid" (Gipson interview). Bales of second- and third-hand clothes were distributed at the local church, and women made other clothing from used flour sacks. There was no refrigeration, and whenever a farmer in the area slaughtered a cow, the carcass was loaded on a wagon, and "he'd run around the countryside until it was all done ... . Everyone in the countryside would have fresh meat" (Gipson interview).
Black children in grades one through four shared a single teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Grades five through seven were the same, but with a different teacher. As Gipson recalled, the African American children of rural Lincoln County at that time, "never had a chance to have a good education" (Gipson interview). He went through the sixth grade in Tarry, then moved to Pine Bluff, where he repeated the sixth and completed the seventh, returning home on weekends to help work on the farm.
High School, Marriage, and a Brief Try at Farming
After completing seventh grade, Gipson moved farther north to Little Rock, too far to commute home each weekend. Walking to all-black Dunbar High School, he would cross the campus of all-white Central High, which won notoriety in 1957 when Governor Orville Faubus (1910-1994) called out the National Guard in an ultimately futile attempt to bar nine black students from enrolling.
It was in the cafeteria of Dunbar High that Carl Gipson met Jodie Mae Waugh. The sexes were separated during lunch, but queued up together when filling their trays. Gipson had been working shining shoes at the Little Rock USO club and always had a little spending money. One day in the cafeteria line, Jodie asked him if he would buy her lunch. He said he sure would, and a romance began that would last for 65 years. They married on December 27, 1942, after both had graduated.
America's economy was then booming with war work, but there were few jobs for a black teenager in Little Rock. The couple moved back to Tarry, where Gipson's father gave them five acres to farm and a house to live in, telling them "whatever you make will be yours." Those were happy days. "We had a great time. We were young, married, and in love, and we had a lot of time to spend together" (Gipson interview).
But Carl didn't like farming, and his opinion was vindicated within the year. It was agreed that his father would sell the crops from all the family land, and then divide the money proportionately. The couple went to his parents' house to collect their share, optimistic that their hard work would pay off. But then came the accounting, and the disappointment. After all was said and done, the couple earned less than $140 for a year's work. "We were crying like new-born babies," Gipson remembered, and he told his wife, "I'm done with the farm" (Gipson interview)
His prediction would prove correct, but not quite as he intended. The couple returned to Little Rock, where Jodie took a job in a laundry and Carl did odd jobs. But after two months and sparse work, they saw little choice but to return again to Tarry, where they at least had a house -- or so they thought. During their brief absence and without their knowledge, Carl's father had given the house and its furnishings to a cousin. "Our house had been taken away by my father -- he ran roughshod over everything. So we said, 'Well, that's it'" (Gipson interview).
Carl and Jodie Gipson returned to Little Rock, discouraged and unsure of what to do next. Jodie's father, Charles Waugh (b. 1883), was working at the huge Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California, which during the war years employed more than 7,000 African Americans. He arranged a welding job for his son-in-law, who went West alone but soon saved enough to send for his wife. They lived in a little trailer there before moving into the shipyard's segregated housing projects.
One night at the shipyard, a man tapped Gipson on the shoulder and asked if he was "Carl Connie Gipson from Arkansas" (Gipson interview). When he replied that he was, the man identified himself as an FBI agent and said, "You're not going home tonight. We couldn't find you on the farm where you were supposed to have been for the last two years" (Gipson interview). Gipson wasn't intentionally avoiding the draft; he had simply left his draft card in Arkansas, gone to work building ships for the military, and neglected to tell the government he had moved. Nonetheless, he was taken into custody, held for two days, then inducted into the navy and shipped off to the naval air base at Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island. He was not allowed to see his wife, and would not see her again until she moved to Everett to be closer to him.
Gipson's failure to keep in touch with the draft board put him in the military's bad graces, and at Oak Harbor he was assigned what was considered punishment duty for black sailors -- cooking and cleaning for the base commander. But he was amiable and knew his way around a kitchen; he soon found favor with the commander's wife, who made sure that he got extra rations.
Building a Life in Everett
At war's end the couple moved briefly back to Arkansas, found nothing for them there, and decided to settle in the Northwest. During his time in the navy, Gipson had determined that "a black person couldn't get a place in Anacortes, or Mount Vernon, or on the [Whidbey] island" (Gipson interview). They didn't want to live in Seattle and decided to settle in Everett, then home to only five or six black families. There was not much work there for blacks other than in the local sawmills, and Gipson considered that to be as bad as farming. He started doing a variety of odd jobs and his wife worked at housecleaning and other domestic tasks. They moved into the city's housing projects and managed to scrape by.
In the late 1940s, the business elite of Everett did much of its socializing at house parties. Gipson, using what he had learned working for the Oak Harbor commandant, soon was picking up jobs as a waiter or bartender at many of these events. One of the families Carl worked for, both at parties and on odd jobs, was that of Paul J. Sevenich (1885-1963), the prominent owner of Sevenich Motor Company, a Chevrolet dealership that had been doing business in Everett since 1929.
In 1949, Gipson started haunting the dealership, showing up every Monday morning asking for work and being told every Monday that there was none. Eventually he found himself something to do -- clearing blackberry bushes off the dealership's back wall. When that was done, he pointed out that the wall needed whitewashing, and Sevenich hired him to do that as well. Next, Gipson noticed that an area for cleaning parts and washing cars wasn't being used because the drain of the sump pit was clogged. On his own, he got down in the pit and cleared the drain, then went to John Sevenich, the owner's son, with a proposal -- he would offer to wash customers' cars and pay Sevenich part of what he earned. He soon had a thriving little business going, washing cars and delivering them to the customers' homes when the work was done.
Gipson was a hard worker, highly personable, and had a talent for making himself indispensable. Many customers started asking for him when they phoned or dropped their cars off for repairs or maintenance. Within a year or two, he was put on the payroll and assigned to work the lubrication rack nearest the front door, where customers could easily talk to him when they brought their cars in. His long efforts to get a real job at Sevenich had paid off at last, and he thought, "Finally, I'm working for him" (Gipson interview).
Carl Gipson faced racism most of his life, from his earliest days accompanying his grandfather to Pine Bluff, through school and the military, then as head of a black family in a community that was almost entirely white. It came in many forms, subtle and blatant, condescending and threatening. But there were good people, too, and an experience while driving in the South in 1949 illustrates both prejudice at its most pernicious and the redemptive kindness of strangers. Stopping for gas in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the Gipsons were accosted by white racists. Ordered to follow the bigots out of town, Gipson sped around them and escaped. Hours later and nearly out of gas, he approached a white, Greyhound bus driver and asked for help. The driver offered to escort them along their way, saying, as Gipson recalled: "Whenever we stop, I'll tell you where you can get gas, and I'll go in the bus station and get you and your wife some sandwiches" ("Speaker Recalls Different Faces Of White America ..."). They stuck with the driver all the way to Memphis, Tennessee, where his run ended.
Moving to Everett did not shield the Gipsons from prejudice, although it came in less perilous forms. He had not been too long on the job at Sevenich before the company's shop foreman quit, upset that customers preferred dealing with a black man, and one of lower status in the company, than with him. It was a Friday, and John Sevenich, who managed the shop, pulled Gipson aside and said, "Guess what? Come Monday, you're the shop foreman" (Gipson interview). Gipson could hardly believe his ears.
It was not a smooth transition at first. When Gipson came to work the following Monday morning, dressed in white coveralls, none of the mechanics were in the shop; they had punched in, but refused to go to work. Gipson reported the situation to Paul Sevenich, who would have none of it. He called all the workers together and told them that they could either go to work within the hour or he would give them their last paychecks on their way out the door. They all returned to the job, and years later when Gipson left to start his own business some of the same men who had refused to work under him were moved to tears.
After Gipson was hired by Sevenich, the couple moved out of the projects and into a rental home on Lake Stevens owned by his employer. By 1954, they were ready to buy a home of their own in Everett. The only area where realtors would then sell to African Americans was on the east side of the railroad tracks that paralleled Smith Avenue. But Gipson had made many contacts among Everett's business leaders, both working at Sevenich and serving at parties. A friendly realtor showed them (at night) a house at 19th Street and Hoyt Avenue, an all-white neighborhood. Jodie Gipson told her husband that it reminded her of her parents' home, and they decided to buy it. A banker they knew called the seller and arranged for the purchase funds to be deposited in the sellers' account.
Then Gipson received a phone call from the seller, telling him that the neighbors were up in arms, threatening to burn down the house, and that she couldn't go through with the sale. But the deal had closed, and he knew his rights. He told the woman, "Well, you can do one thing. There can be two families in that house, because we're going to move in" (Gipson interview). They did, without further incident, and they eventually found acceptance, and later respect. It was in this house that they would raise their family.
Gipson would again and again draw out the best in people: the Sevenich family, the white banker and white realtor who helped the family buy their home, those who patronized his businesses when he struck out on his own, and later, the thousands of voters who elected him to the city council in 1971 and re-elected him again and again. There was a deliberateness to what he did; describing his early days in Everett, he said, "I began to learn how to maneuver." Working at white-society parties meant much more to him than just extra money. "I was working my way into people's hearts and homes ... . It gave me a lot of insight into people ... . When Martin Luther King came along, I was well on the way here in Everett to making it easier for people to relate to me and what I was doing" (Gipson interview).
Asked if the broader Civil Rights Movement eased his way, Gipson smiled and said, "No, I had been through all of those things before the Civil Rights Movement. I'd been down that road." With considerable understatement, he added, "Everyone was not always friendly to black folks," and recalled the days when only one tavern in Everett would serve African Americans. "They would let you have a beer, but then they would break the glass" (Gipson interview).
Although he had made his way on his own through determination, integrity, and hard work, Gipson did not turn his back on the cause of civil rights. He could be proud of how far he had come, but he could not forget how hard it had been. In 1967, he was elected president of the Everett branch of the NAACP, and after election to the city council, he was hired in 1973 to work for Snohomish County administering a federal program that helped find jobs for the hard to employ. When this project ended, he was appointed the County's affirmative action officer. City-council pay in Everett was low, and for 17 years Gipson earned most of his income from his County employment.
Business and Politics
Gipson left Sevenich Motor Company in the early 1960s and bought a service station on the corner of Hewitt and Rucker avenues. In 1968, he and a partner opened a car dealership, but Gipson sold his interest the following year and took over another service station. He and his wife also opened a popular Everett tavern and restaurant, the Ebony. The Gipsons, now with three sons, were doing well, and soon his life was to take another surprising turn.
For decades a city commissioner headed Everett's municipal government, but a new city charter adopted in 1968 established a nonpartisan system having a strong mayor and a city council. Later that year the voters elected their first mayor under the new system, Robert Anderson (b. 1929), and he took office on January 1, 1969. He was a progressive and an able administrator, and he soon straightened out the City's tangled finances.
Anderson was a customer of Carl Gipson's Richfield service station at 25th Street and Colby Avenue in Everett. One day in 1971 he stopped by, mentioned that there were city council members running unopposed, and suggested that Gipson enter a race. Gipson ran the idea past his mailman, who had the improbable name of Davy Crockett, telling him that if he ran, "Hey, look. My name now will be in the paper, and I'll get some business for my shop" (Gipson interview). Crockett was not particularly enthusiastic, but Gipson went ahead and filed for Position 4, held by incumbent J. Howard Vognild (1899-1975).
When Crockett asked him what came next, Gipson admitted, "I don't know what I'm going to do" (Gipson interview). As a family man, he had little extra money to spend on a political campaign. The first to help were some of his women customers, many of whom he also knew from the city's Second Baptist Church, where he was a deacon. They started bringing in pies and cakes to be sold to raise money, but as Gipson recalled, they would "bring one and buy one, bring one and buy one" (Gipson interview). This gave him a start, and then a financial angel appeared, a man named Jenkins whose wife had served on the Mukilteo city council. He provided enough for Gipson to buy some advertising and make a race of it.
Gipson may have started his campaign as a bit of a lark, but his showing in the primary shocked him into reality. In a field of seven candidates for Vognild's seat, Gipson won more than a third of all the primary votes cast. He admitted that this was sort of an "uh-oh" moment: "When you do that, you've got to make sure that you start working now. You couldn't take that and not run with it. I had to do a lot of work" (Gipson interview).
Gipson's plain talk and common touch struck a chord with the voters. He recalled:
"to all the candidate activities, I always wore my coveralls, and my theme was 'the same guy you see here with this lunch bucket, is the same guy as left your house this morning with a lunch bucket. I've got the same kind of lunch bucket as he's got'" (Gipson interview).
It didn't hurt that Carl Gipson had made a lot of friends and had a reputation as a hard and honest worker. In the November general election, he swamped Vognild and began what would be the first of six terms on the Everett City Council. The closest he came to defeat was in 1983, when he won by 1,240 votes. His popularity was such that he drew no opposition for the 1979, 1987, and 1991 races. His only misstep came in 1977, when he decided to run for mayor and lost in the primary by 67 votes. Said Gipson, "That was the only election I ever lost, and I was happy when I lost it, too" (Gipson interview). When he decided not to run for reelection in 1995, his youngest son, Ron, won the seat, and as of 2013 there was still a Gipson sitting in Position 4 on the Everett City Council.
On the Council
Of joining the council, Gipson recalled:
"I'm the new kid on the block, and I had a lot of friends in Seattle who were working on different things. You think about what you didn't have here, and what Seattle had lots of ... so my thing was to get involved in things like the swimming pool, the aid car" (Gipson interview).
He'd talk to his constituents, get their ideas of what Everett needed, then work on the council to address those concerns. He also worked to make city government accessible, meeting with all comers, hearing their concerns, and giving them advice on how to proceed. Even if he couldn't promise support, he'd tell them, "you've got to do it this way, or that way. I'm not saying I'm going to vote for you, but I'm telling you what you're doing wrong. People thought that was a nice thing to do" (Gipson interview).
A 24-year council career cannot be easily summarized, but its broad contours can be sketched. Gipson maintained a focus on things that would make the city more livable for everyone. He worked to improve services for the elderly, the poor, and the disabled, and to provide recreational opportunities for the young. He was less concerned with broad issues of public policy and more concerned with how government could actually serve the people, keep them safe and healthy.
This focus carried over into even the big issues. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Navy was looking for a place to base its nuclear aircraft-carrier taskforce on Puget Sound, and on April 17, 1984, it was announced that Everett would be that place. The taskforce would bring 15 ships, 10,000 crewmembers, and a $200 million annual payroll to the area. As much of an economic boost as that could be, many residents were strongly opposed, worried about the effects that such a large military presence would have on their city.
The construction of Naval Station Everett and its supporting facilities spanned the presidencies of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), George H. W. Bush (b. 1924), and Bill Clinton (b. 1946). Groundbreaking did not come until 1987, and the first pier was not dedicated until 1992. Throughout these years, Gipson was invited back to Washington, D.C., again and again, and what he wanted to talk about there was what effect the influx of naval personnel, many of them black, would have on the city, and the city on them. He believed the keys to a success was education and recreation:
"I wanted to make sure that when the gangplank went down, that the navy knew what they were doing ... . I wanted everything in place to make sure that the guys and girls coming off those ships know that they've been treated right and that they will be treated right" (Gipson interview).
It's difficult to judge how large a role Gipson played in the navy's planning, but in 1993 ground was broken for the Naval Support Complex at Smokey Point, 11 miles north of the main base. When finished, it provided many of the amenities Gipson had advocated, including comfortable housing, educational programs, a fitness center, swimming pool, food court, single-sailor center, movie theater, ballroom, and a family-services center.
One thing Gipson remembers with special pride from this period is being called to First Lady Hillary Clinton's (b. 1947) White House office during one of his many trips to the capital. She wanted to learn about his concerns, and he recalled it as a very proud moment. When the meeting was over, "she let us roam through the building to talk to people" (Gipson interview).
One Last Slap
When Gipson first won election to the city council in 1971, he told a reporter for the Everett Herald that "it seems as if race is no longer an issue" ("Gipson: Seems as if ..."). Five years later he would be proved sadly wrong. Despite his wide popularity and success at the polls, prejudice was to inflict on Gipson one more very hurtful experience. In 1976 he was invited to apply to join the Everett Elks Club, and for Christmas that year one of his sons gave him the $80 application fee. He had over 50 endorsements from other members, but was the only one of 67 applicants to be rejected. Although the vote was supposed to be confidential, newspaper reports said that one member had placed several black balls in the ballot box. The rejection was greeted with consternation in the Everett Herald and was front-page news in The Seattle Times. Gipson recalled:
"It was devastating, because I was on the City Council and I had worked in the city since 1945 and worked my way through my own business. It made you feel like you were in the Deep South again" ("The Last Days of the Elks Lodge").
Several members of the Elks resigned in protest; Gipson was told he could reapply, but never did. The Everett Elks diminished over the following years, dropping from nearly 5,000 members to only 900 by 2007. Peter Jackson, whose father, Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983), was a native of Everett, a neighbor of the Gipsons, and a longtime Elks member, believes the beginning of the decline started with the Gipson incident: "The Elks kind of did themselves in, in some ways, taking so long to progress as an organization" ("The Last Days of the Elks Lodge").
Saying Goodbye to Government
According to Gipson, it was his wife who told him when it was time to leave office. "My wife said, 'You don't want to go out a loser, and you've been there for 24 years ... . You don't want to stay there until people will no longer vote for you. You came in on a high, and that's the way you need to go out'" (Gipson interview).
When Gipson announced his retirement in 1995, those in the crowded council chamber gave him a standing ovation. He had served 24 years on the council and was then the longest-serving African American elected official in the entire state. But he had done much more; he and Jodie had been residents of the city for 50 years by then, and through kindness, integrity, and hard work they had freed many white people in their community from the bondage of their own prejudice.
A grand farewell was held for Gipson at the Everett Yacht Club on October 24, 1995. Speaker after speaker hailed him for his leadership, his big heart, his talent for finding the best in people. A letter of congratulations from then-President Bill Clinton was read, and then it was Carl Gipson's turn to speak. He asked the audience to pick up a Bible when they got home and look at the 20th chapter of Exodus "to see what controls me." Anyone who looked found there the Ten Commandments. He also invoked the Golden Rule, saying, "Treat others as you'd like to be treated, and when you finish plowing your own field, remember your work's not done until your neighbor's field is plowed, too" ("Carl Gipson: After 24 Years ...").
In December 2009, the City of Everett named the city's senior service center in his honor. At the dedication, Mayor Ray Stephanson said:
"Carl has made a mark on city government and the Everett community. His straight talk and common appeal has earned Gipson the respect and love of a city that is far better for his years of service" ("Building Named ...").
As of late 2013, Gipson, widowed since 2007, was still living in the house at 19th and Hoyt, visited often by his two sons, their families, and many of the friends he has made over the years. Once a week he goes for lunch at the senior center that bears his name. He reflects on his enormous accomplishments with great modesty and seems to have no regrets, except perhaps one. In an October 2013 interview, he said (with a smile), "If I'd have had a good education, I'd have been really something" (Gipson interview).