Willetta Esther Riddle Gayton was the first African American professional librarian in Seattle. She was the daughter of Whatcom County pioneers William and Salome Riddle, and wife of James Gayton, who was a member of the prominent Seattle African American pioneer family. Willetta Gayton's life story is a tapestry of state history and personalities.
As was the case with most African Americans who traveled west, Willetta Gayton's roots were in the South. Her grandparents lived in Selma, Alabama, but in 1879 they left and moved to Yankton, Dakota Territory. This major change in their lives was due to reports they heard about the area after the Battle of Little Big Horn.
According to Gayton's oral history, one by one, black families from Selma moved to Yankton. Amos Lewis, her great uncle, became a master builder whose buildings still stand today in Yankton. Her parents, William and Salome Riddle, met there and married in 1907.
Whatcom County and Bellingham
Hearing about the booming Northwest, they packed up as newlyweds and settled in Nooksack, Washington, hoping to be successful in farming. Willetta was born in Nooksack on August 7, 1909. Finding the area unproductive, they moved to Bellingham where Mr. Riddle found employment as a custodian for the Puget Sound Power and Light Company building.
This building was built in 1891 as a bank and known as the Pike Building. In 1912 it became the Puget Sound Traction Light and Power Building and by 1919 it was the Puget Sound Power and Light Company. Here at 301 East Holly, little Willetta remembered happy days living in one of the second-floor apartments in the building and looking down over a railing at the activity on the business floor.
The business was owned by Stone & Webster of Boston and interns from Boston lived in the other apartments. They would leave newspapers from the East, The New York Times and the Boston Tribune, which she would retrieve from the trash cans and read voraciously.
Because of close quarters in the apartment, her father would take Willetta walking to interesting places in the city such as the park, the bay, and once to a mortuary where the body of a bank robber was on a slab revealing the bullet holes in his chest and head. This made quite an impression on the little girl about what happens when you are not good.
Childhood and Race
Salome and William Riddle were loving and conscientious parents who tried to shield their daughter from racism in Bellingham, so it was not until she was a teenager that she experienced it. She had two friends, one whose father owned a department store and one whose father was a minister. They enjoyed each other until high school when the two friends started dating and going with the "Country Club" set and excluded her.
She was the only black student in her French class and Mrs. Riddle found out that the class was going to Vancouver to see the play Cyrano de Bergerac on a Saturday. She knew her daughter had been excluded because Willetta knew nothing about it. Mrs. Riddle took her on the bus to Vancouver and they saw the play, much to the astonishment of the teacher. One southern mother thwarted her ballet and music lessons by threatening to remove her daughter from classes if the teacher included Willetta. These were lonely years for her and she looked forward to her excursions to Seattle where she could enjoy the company of young black people.
Willetta graduated from Fairhaven High School in 1929 and wanted very much to attend college in Seattle but this was not to be. (A childhood visit to Yankton caused the delay in graduation.) The family had bought a home in Seattle on Dexter Avenue N where they had planned to move but instead the City purchased the house for construction of the Aurora Bridge.
They then purchased a home in Bellingham at 207 South Garden Street on the edge of Washington State Normal School (at present Western Washington University) where Willetta now must enroll. She felt it was like being in college but not in college.
Pacific American Fisheries and Goon Dip
During the summer of 1930 there was a great sockeye salmon run and Pacific American Fisheres in Fairhaven needed workers, so Willetta found work there. Pacific American Fisheries was one of the world's major salmon canning operations and operated between 1899 and 1965 with headquarters in Bellingham. It was here at the fisheries that she developed a great admiration for Goon Dip (1862-1933), the prominent Chinese labor contractor, and consul for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
He supplied workers for the Pacific American Fisheries and made certain that young Chinese students from around the country were hired and that they had adequate living arrangements. She worked alongside Chinese students from MIT and other eastern colleges as well as those from California. It was he who gave her such an appreciation for oriental rugs because she had seen those he had given to the managers of the company and in the homes of some of her young friends on Chuckanut Drive.
Years later she met his daughter Lillian Goon Dip in a Mercer Island Nursing Home where Mrs. Riddle was being cared for. Lillian had lived on waterfront property on the island, had participated in the China Day parade at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and was a ballet dancer and a horseback enthusiast until a tragic accident ended her physical activities. She had graduated from the University of Washington in education but was never allowed to teach in Seattle. When Willetta Gayton noticed her name on one of the rooms, she went in and spoke to Lillian expressing her admiration for her father.
Moving to Seattle
After Willetta completed a year in the Bellingham college, the family moved to Seattle bringing her great joy, for now she could have the company of young black people and would not feel so isolated and lonely. Instead of enrolling at once at the University of Washington, she decided to just enjoy herself by working and taking ballet lessons at Mary Ann Wells's downtown studio at 209 Seneca, which advertised offering classical, ballet, interpretive, and character dancing.
Later she began working to save money for the University of Washington. She found employment in diverse places. One was with a black woman named Lodi Biggs, a bacteriologist employed by Crescent Biological Laboratory and one of the few black professional women in Seattle.
Lodi Biggs provided early leadership in the NAACP and in the Seattle Urban League. Her office was in the Stimson Building and Willetta ran errands and picked up specimens from doctors in the Cobb Building, the Medical Dental Building, and the Stimson Building. The exciting part of the job for Willetta was seeing and talking to the black people who dropped by the office: Bernice Gray, daughter of black pioneer William Grose (1835-1898); Joseph Jackson, first executive secretary of the Seattle Urban League from 1930 until 1938; and visitors from out of town.
Bertha Campbell (1889-1990) an early civil rights worker and member of the board of the Seattle Urban League, hired Willetta to work at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA part time while she attended the University of Washington. She became the Girl Reserves director.
During those college years she also worked in the Art Department at the University of Washington, running errands and typing but also meeting artists who suggested that she model. So, for extra money, she would walk up 15th Avenue to Volunteer Park and the Seattle Art Museum where she modeled for Mark Tobey and Kenneth Callahan. She met many artists who were members of the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters and who became her friends.
Librarian in a Family of Librarians
After graduating from the University of Washington in 1939 with a B.A. degree she continued her education, receiving a B.A. degree from the School of Librarianship in 1946. She was the second African American to receive this degree, the first being Lucille Smith in 1942.
Willetta Gayton married James Gayton in 1942 and they adopted one daughter, Susan. After Mr. Gayton's death, Mrs. Gayton was to marry two more times, but she retained the Gayton name.
Mrs. Gayton worked briefly as a cataloger at Boeing and then in 1947 became the first African American librarian hired in the Seattle Public Schools. She was hired as assistant librarian at the Edison Technical School. From 1952 until 1968 she served as librarian at Hamilton Junior High School, at Queen Anne High School until 1971, at Jane Addams Junior High School until 1972, and at Nathan Hale as assistant librarian until she retired in 1974.
Willetta Gayton's father-in-law John T. Gayton (1866-1954) was one of Seattle's earliest black residents and held the position of U. S. District Court Librarian for 20 years, retiring in 1953. Her niece, Guela Gayton Johnson, was the first African American librarian to head a branch library at the University of Washington. Guela Gayton Johnson retired as head of the Social Work Library in 1992.
Willetta Gayton was the first recipient of the Black Heritage Society Pioneer Award for her early service in librarianship. She was a founding member of Roots, an organization of pioneer families of African American descent in the Pacific Northwest. She was also a member of the Seattle Chapter of Links, a professional women's service organization and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Willetta Gayton died on March 29, 1991.