African American Seattleite Joseph Isom Staton (b. 1910) was born in Fort Lawton, Washington, on September 19, 1910. His mother originally came from Kentucky, his father from Missouri. This is an excerpt of an oral history interview of Joseph Staton done by Esther Mumford on October 5, 1975. as part of the Washington State Oral History Project. It was edited by Stacy Carlson.
Excerpts from the Interview
"I first attended Longfellow Kindergarten then Harrison Grade school up to the sixth grade. From there to Garfield High School where I graduated in 1929. From Fort Lawton we moved to a house on East Howell Street where my sister was born in 1912. From there we moved into the Anderson residence, from there into the basement on East Madison and from there we moved up into 25th Avenue, 1800 block where I lived until I graduated from high school.
The Northwest Enterprise: A Negro Newspaper
"I was given the opportunity of working with the Northwest Enterprise, a Negro newspaper, Mr. Wilson came by the house and asked me if I’d like to work for him. W.H. Wilson…the editor of the Enterprise, and I told him yes. And so I worked with him until…around 1933, about four years.
"Mostly it was advertising, going around getting advertising for the paper, and I worked on a 25 percent commission. Didn’t pay very much, because it was hard to get ads, account of Depression. Christmas, or whenever big sales, or whenever an election time come along was the time a person could recoup his losses, because of slowness of business otherwise. It was very interesting work, naturally. I never covered any cases, [but] I was involved in some on the outside.
Coon Chicken Memories
"I was arrested once for cutting out the Coon Chicken Inn signs that people had on the back of their cars. Coon Chicken shack was out on the old Bothell highway, and they used to give away covers with a picture of a … the head of a Negro Bell-boy. The face was jet black, the lips were red, the teeth and eyes were white as snow and he had this bell-boy costume on naturally, and people would go out there for dinner, and it was excellent food that the man served.
"And they were given these, and they would put them on their, the old cars, to cover the tire, spare tire … to keep from rotting from the weather. So we didn’t like the looks of it, my friends and I, so we had a contest. We put in 50 cents apiece, and the one who had stopped the car carrying one of these things and take his pocket knife and cut out the face … the one who had the most at the end of thirty days would win the pot!
"Now there were five of us in this contest ... it so happened that I had seven at the time and I happened to be at lunch, and I was driving the editor’s car, it was a Thursday. The newspaper was always printed on a Thursday, and he and I were checking the copy, he would let me use his car at noon. I would pick up five, four friends of mine who used to work downtown, and we would go down, eat lunch, and then I’d return to the printing plant.
"We happened to spot one of these cars on Yesler, right in front of a barber shop on 3rd and Yesler. One of the fellas jumped out, took his knife and cut out the face, got back in the car, and I drove off. I didn’t know at the time but the car … belonged to this barber and he ran out and took the license number. We saw him run out, but we didn’t know what it could have been for.
"Later that evening, when I was home, the editor and the policeman came to my apartment and he was very angry. He didn’t tell me what the policeman was with him for, he just said 'You come on, and put your hat and coat on and go with us.' I did and the police took him home, and on the way home he bawled me out and raised Cain. Told me he was embarrassed, because the police came to his house and got him, and the neighbors saw it and naturally they must have figured that he had done something wrong. So after they found out who he was they asked him who could have been driving his car, and he said that I, Joe, who worked for me had had it for awhile that day.
"So they came by and got me, and took me on down to jail. And they booked me and lo and behold here were white fellas on the police force who I had gone to High School with, played baseball, football, and track with, and help win the championships at Garfield. And these same fellas were young men who signed up as I did to join the Police Department, but I was never called, of course, because I was colored. But they was surprised to see me there, kidded me about it.
"I was taken upstairs and I was placed in a room with five of the biggest men I’d ever seen. And I don’t know what they intended doing, but they looked like they … wanted to talk to me by hand, concerning this tire cover. And I was in no mood to get my schoolgirl complexion messed up, so I answered the questions that they asked. And I told them what I had done, and what the contest was all about and so forth, and they said, well, they would look into it, see if I was telling the truth. So I was taken home to get the tire cover, and took me back down to jail, and I was placed in jail where I stayed overnight. It was a very interesting … my stay in the open-charge tank. Very interesting.
"Well ... when I went in there, it was the first time I had ever been inside a jail. There was one Chinese fellow, three white and I made the third colored person. This happened to be on a Friday night and I was told that there’s no court on Saturdays so, I would more likely have to stay there all over the weekend, and this was strictly against my grain but I was resigned to the fact that there I was so I sat down on the cold cement floor which I wasn’t used to. Next thing I know here come another white person, about an hour later, here come another colored person. And then they would let one white person go.
"And this Chinese fellow kept asking whoever was going out, to get in touch with some Chinese person, and this person would give them a $100 so they would come up and get him out of jail. But no one would take this address, at least they didn’t do anything about this piece of paper, ‘cause no one came to get this man. But, when I finally woke up the next morning there were thirteen white, thirteen colored and still this one Chinese fella.
"It was one white fella there who started talking about why he was in jail and he said that he was in jail for beating up his wife. Well, I mentioned the fact that I couldn’t see any such reason for such a thing as that happening. I hadn’t had any experience, but I felt that if a man didn’t want a woman, he’d just walk off and leave her. And I stated this.
"He became angry about me, speaking about a white woman, and he jumped on me. He out-weighed me, and he had me down, was giving me a hard way to go, and I being a street-fighter, was able to get loose from him so then I became top man, giving him a hard way to go and the jailer come in with his keys and hit me in the back door with ‘em and naturally that made me react to the extent that I fell way across the other end of the room practically. And the jailer promised that such action continued, he was going to take those keys and knock us out with ‘em. So we behaved ourselves.
"Well, within couple hours, I found that the police had picked up my two friends and by this time the sister of one of the girls found out about it, and she called the editor, and the editor came down and got us all out of jail. So I didn’t have to stay in the jail over the week-end at all. I will never forget my experience of going home. They had streetcars in Seattle in those days. I got on the streetcar, every face turned toward me, I didn’t know that I was carrying the odor of the jail cell with me. So I sat way in the back all to myself, when the people’d get on the streetcar they’d look way in the back at me, which was very embarrassing.
"So when I finally got out, I don’t know to this day how the fellas of my gang knew I was home, but I went into the bathroom to take a bath and all of a sudden I heard some singing and these fellas was singing the ol’ Prisoners Song, so I was known as “Scarface #1” or two or something. However, after that why, we went to court, and the judge wanted to know why I took the cover … from this man’s car, said he wanted to see it. So one of the court attendants went out and came in with this face of this Negro bellboy and even the judge, as hard-nosed as he was had to laugh, the court room was actually in an uproar. So he said, 'Well, I’ll just fine you three dollars and you go on home.'"