Gayton, Gary David (b. 1933)

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 2/28/2002
  • Essay 3714
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Gary David Gayton, a prominent Seattle lawyer and businessman, was the fourth child of John J. (Jacob) Gayton (1899-1969) and Virginia Clark Gayton (1902-1993), and the grandson of Seattle pioneers John T. and Magnolia Gayton. At Garfield High School, Gayton starred in track and was the school's first black student-body president. He attended the University of Washington, excelling in academics and as an athlete, and becoming the first member of this leading Seattle family to graduate college. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Gayton attended law school at Gonzaga University in Spokane. His legal career, in which he won many notable cases involving the civil rights of African Americans, Native Americans, and women, began with an appointment by Robert Kennedy as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. He also served on numerous civic boards and commissions and worked an investment banker. His honors include the University of Washington Distinguished Alumni Award in Political Science (2005), Garfield High School Hall of Fame (2007), the National Bar Association's Wiley A. Branton Award (2008), the NAACP's Social Justice Award (2008), and Gonzaga University's Distinguished Alumni Merit Award (2009).


Gary Gayton's father, John J. Gayton (1899-1969), was the first child of John T. Gayton (1868-1954) and Magnolia (Scott) Gayton (1880-1954). John T. Gayton moved to Seattle from Mississippi in 1888. The child of former slaves, he was one of the earliest black residents in Seattle. He was a intelligent, hardworking man with a strong presence and personality who earned the respect and admiration of everyone he met. He was one of the charter founding members of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (est. 1886) and the East Madison YMCA. (est. 1936). He retired as U. S. District Court Librarian in 1953, after 20 years of service.

Gary Gayton's parents, John J. (Jacob) Gayton and Virginia Clark Gayton (1902-1993) raised eight children: Guela, Sylvia, John Cyrus, Gary, Philip, Carver, Leonard, and Elaine. Throughout the Great Depression, John J. Gayton never went on public relief, often holding down two or three jobs to feed his family. Gary and his siblings were instilled with respect for education, a dedication to family life and the Gayton name, and an intense pride in their black heritage. The Gaytons attended the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, spent a lot of time at the YMCA, and spent many a night hosting parties with card games, music, and dancing at the Gayton house on 26th Avenue N, in Seattle.

Growing Up in White Seattle

When Gary was five, his parents and siblings moved to an all-white neighborhood in Madrona. They dealt with harassment, but stayed put. Windows were smashed and one neighbor offered them twice the worth of the house if they would move out, but there was little trouble after the neighbors finally got to know them. Gary and his brothers were told to look out for each other. They had permission to fight if anyone called them a "nigger," and they knew there would be trouble at home if they didn't stick up for one another. With five brothers, the Gaytons didn't have to fight very often.

Gary was an entreprenurial youth, clerking a 10-cent store while still in grade school. When the proprietor went away for a month, he left 10-year-old Gary in charge. Gary went to Garfield High School, becoming the first black student body president and the "All-City Miler" on Garfield's championship track team. He graduated in 1951, with academic honors, and won the first Garfield Alumni Academic Scholarship to the University of Washington.

College and the Army

At the University of Washington, Gayton lettered in track his freshman year, and became captain of the track team under renowned coach Clarence S. "Hec" Edmundsen. He was the first black man to captain a varsity sport at the UW, and was the first to be admitted to the "Big W" club on campus. In 1954, he won the Northwest Cross Country Championship, and in 1955 became the track captain and received an athletic scholarship. "When I was at the U, there were guys like Howie O'Dell. And Hec Edmundsen ... He treated you like a man. They were great people for a kid to know ... so even where there was discrimination and prejudice -- and I was aware that it existed -- I didn't feel it" (Holt).

Even with all his accomplishments, Gary still had chores back at the Gayton house. In a 1969 Seattle Magazine article by Patrick Douglas he recalled, "My job was to do the dishes. Even when I was at college I still had this chore. I would go to classes in the morning, run a track meet in the afternoon, then wait tables at the Seattle Tennis Club at dinner time; and when I got home, the dishes would still be waiting for me." Gayton majored in Political Science and got his B.A. with honors -- becoming the first member of his family to graduate college.

After graduation, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was assigned to Special Services and also ran on the Army track team. As part of that track team, he toured through the South. "We didn't have any trouble, but when we got back, I decided to try it again, alone, without an army running interference. I rode a bus through North and South Carolina and into Virginia. It was enlightening. And humiliating. And I was treated like any other black, not Gary Gayton from Seattle. You had to be off the streets at sundown, that whole scene" (Holt). He served for two years, then was admitted to law school at Gonzaga University in Spokane.

Early Career as a Lawyer

He received his L.L.B. in 1962, and was appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He was the first African American to hold this position. He served under Brock Adams, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, representing the United States in Washington state for three years. During his time in this position, Gayton presented the first Federal prosecution involving a National College Athletic Association (NCAA) college basketball fix (fixed games) at Seattle University. On behalf of the Federal Government, and under supervision of Ramsey Clark (then Assistant U.S. Attorney General), Gayton also successfully sued the State of Washington to allow Native Americans to sell fish caught on the reservation to people off the reservation.

In 1965, Gayton and three partners formed the law firm of Stern, Gayton, Neubauer and Brucker. Some of his clients included the Black Panthers and anti-Vietnam war activists. Gayton often received frightening telephone threats from angry whites. One of his secretaries quit in response. In 1966, he was invited to be one of five delegates from Washington state to attend President Johnson's "To Fulfill Three Rights" -- the first White House Civil Rights Conference.

The year 1967 brought more interesting cases. Gayton successfully represented tennis player Trish Bostrom. Years before Title IX (the 1972 act that guaranteed equal opportunities for both sexes in sports), the case centered on Bostrom's right to try out for the University of Washington men's tennis team. At the time there was no women's team. Also in 1967, Gayton and future federal district judge Jack Tanner threatened to sue the Washington State Bar Association when they moved their law offices into the College Club building. The College Club (est. 1910) was a social club for male college graduates. It had no specific language in its charter that excluded minorities or Jews, but none had ever been admitted. With the threat of a lawsuit, the College Club changed its policies, and in 1968 Ester Wilfong, a teacher from Tacoma who was president of the 38,000-member Washington Education Association, became the first black man admitted, and the first black member of any non-black social club in Washington.

A Mover and Shaker

In 1968, Gayton helped organize the Democratic black caucus that spearheaded the Presidential nomination of Channing Phillips, sat on Mayor Dorm Braman's advisory Park Board and on the Seattle/King County Youth Commission, participated in the local NAACP, and served as the Chairperson of the East Madison YMCA. These represent just a few of the many boards and commission on which he has served.

In 1969, Gayton represented black Husky football players who were suspended for refusing to take a loyalty oath to Coach Jim Owens. Gary's brother Carver Gayton, the first black Assistant Coach ever hired at the UW, resigned over the debacle.

In 1973, Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox invited Gary Gayton to be part of his staff as Senior Special Prosecutor. (He declined for personal reasons.) Also, Mayor Wes Uhlman appointed him to serve as arbitrator for the City of Seattle in negotiations with the State Department of transportation in the construction of Interstate-90. This resulted in the lidding of the Seattle side of I-90.

Gayton represented Claude Harris, the first African American firefighter in the Seattle Fire Department, when Harris's appointment as a Battalion Chief was challenged by local and national fire fighters as well as by national police organizations because it was based on affirmative action. Harris prevailed in the case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and later became Seattle's first black Fire Chief.

Washington D.C. Years

In 1977, Gayton was appointed Special Assistant to the United States Secretary of Transportation, Brock Adams, and moved to Washington D.C. He served as the Department of Transportation's White House Liaison, and then was appointed as the acting administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation administration. While with the Department of Transportation, Gayton wrote the Department Minority Business Enterprise and Women Business Enterprise Programs.

President Carter urged all Government departments to adopt these programs in his 1978 Domestic Policy speech. Because of this, Gary Gayton was asked to serve on an inter-departmental task force called the Interagency Committee on Women Business Enterprise. He resigned from the Carter Administration in 1979, and returned to Seattle.

Back in the Pacific Northwest

Following his return, Gayton was "of Counsel" at several law firms in Seattle and Washington, D.C. In 1985, he became an investment banker. He served as Senior Vice  President of Siebert Brandford Shank & Co., the largest minority and female bond-underwriting firm in the nation, while continuing to practice law in his own law office.

In 1992, Gayton was the Finance Chair of the Clinton-Gore Presidential Campaign for the State of Washington. Bill Clinton, then President-elect, appointed him to serve on the transition team in Washington D.C. In 1996, he served on the Platform Committee at the Democratic Convention. He also served on Gary Locke's transition teams when Locke became King County Executive and also when he became Governor of the State of Washington.

In 1998, Gary Gayton was appointed to the Executive Committee of the National Advisory Council for the Small Business Administration. Later, he chaired the nine-member Senior Advisory Board of the Ninth Federal Judicial Circuit.

Over his career, Gary Gayton served on more than 60 boards and committees of cultural, civic, charitable, political, and professional organizations, including service as president of the East Madison YMCA and PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural, and Charitable Organizations). He was also involved with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the NAACP, Boy Scouts of America, the Goodwill Games, and the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), among others.


David Wilma, "College Club becomes first all-white social club in Washington to welcome an African American on May 13, 1968," Timeline Library (; Gordy Holt, "Gayton Brothers: Troublemakers or What?" Seattle Post-Intelligencer April 26, 1970; Patrick Douglas, "The Family of Two Revolutions," Seattle Magazine, January 1969; Dan Raley, "Apple Cup '69: Right is Right," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 17, 1999; David Foster, "Pioneer's Legacy: A Family Tree with Roots in Pride, Service, Confidence," The Standard Times , February 20, 1996; Alyssa Burrows Personal Communication with Guela Gayton and Gary Gayton, February 2002; ; "Gary D. Gayton," Loren Miller Bar Association website accessed April 23, 2018 (;  Candice Richardson, "Former Fire Chief’s 'Don't Quit' Mentality Paved the Way for Affirmative Action Policies," The Seattle Medium, April 2, 2015 (  
Note: This feature was updated on January 14, 2010, and corrected and revised on April 23, 2018.

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