Leonard Gayton Family

  • By Thomas (Tomas) Gayton
  • Posted 4/20/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3749
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This People's History relates the history of the Leonard Gayton family. The jazz drummer, jazz singer, and band leader Leonard Gayton (1908-1982) was the fourth child of the early African American resident of Seattle John T. "J.T." Gayton (1866-1954) and Magnolia (Scott) Gayton (d. 1954). Leonard Gayton married Emma (Pigford) Gayton (1910-1992). The writer, Thomas (Tomas) Gayton (b. 1945), is their firstborn child.

The Gaytons of Seattle

Leonard Clarence Gayton was a proud and handsome man of medium height and chestnut brown skin with warm dark eyes. Daddy was born in Seattle, Washington, on September 12, 1908, the youngest of four children.

J.T. and Maggie (Scott) Gayton

His father, my namesake, John Thomas Gayton or "J.T." as his friends and family called him, was born in the rural delta town of Benton in Yazoo County, Mississippi, in 1866. He was the third of five children born to David and Betsy Gayton, former slaves and Delta sharecroppers. He was smart, proud and ambitious -- qualities that could get a black man lynched in the cotton field country of Yazoo County.

J.T. had a pioneer spirit inspired by the perilous horror of life in the Mississippi delta where his older brother, Jefferson, was lynched by a jealous white man. In 1888, J.T. found his way to the farthest point from Mississippi in the continental U.S.A., Washington Territory. He arrived in the wet and muddy Northwest in the service of Dr. Henry Yandell, a white doctor from Yazoo City, Mississippi, who hired J.T. as his coachman.

Once settled in Seattle, this short, slender, self-educated man became an influential member of Seattle's small but growing black community. He was a founding member of Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1890.

J.T. attended Business College and held a variety of jobs, including deputy sheriff during the Seattle fire of 1889. In 1904, federal judge Cornelius H. Hanford hired J.T. to work as his bailiff in Seattle’s new U.S. Federal District Court. During his off-hours J.T. studied law and was to have taken his bar examination with Judge Hanford’s son. Hanford’s unexpected death changed J.T.’s plans and he never again applied for the bar examination.

J.T. was appointed law librarian for the United States Court of Appeals in 1932. He had served under every federal judge since Washington became a state. When J.T. retired in 1953 the Seattle press referred to him as "the ageless patriarch of the U.S. Courthouse ... known among court attendants as a judge. In a testimonial Judge Stevens described Grandpa as a "kindly, thoughtful fellow, selfless in his acts. Mr. Gayton has spared no effort to be of service to the court."

J.T. was good humored and loved to socialize. Seattle's black society often spent weekends at the Gayton country home east of Lake Washington. After getting established in Seattle, J.T. met my grandmother, Magnolia (Scott), or Maggie as she was affectionately called by those who knew her.

Maggie was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and was an orphan when she arrived in Seattle in the 1890s. At the age of 18, the tall, lovely, fair skinned colored girl married the proud, little black man from Mississippi with the long unruly frizzy hair that rose from his head like a lion's mane. They had four children: one girl, Aunt Louise, and three boys, Uncle John, Uncle Jim, and the youngest, my dad, Leonard Clarence Gayton.

The Gayton patriarch, J.T., and Maggie, the matriarch, were Victorian in values and African Methodist Episcopalians in religion. Even though they were both refugees from the feudal South, J.T. and Maggie were paragons of conventional Victorian middle-class social values. J.T. loved his job as court librarian/patriarch and refused to retire until one year before his death at 88 on July 15, 1954. Life for a black man in early Seattle was relatively free and open. In the Pacific Northwest a man of color could develop a sense of pride and self respect without fear of lynching.

Leonard and Emma (Pigford) Gayton

Daddy was born on September 12, 1908. He attended Horace Mann middle school and Garfield High School in the heart of Seattle's Central District. Momma attended John Muir grade school and Franklin High School in Rainier Valley. Daddy was a virtuoso Jazz drummer, elegant crooner, and bandleader. During Prohibition Daddy played and crooned in the nightclubs and roadhouses of the Northwest.

Paul de Barros in his colorful and insightful Jackson Street After Hours, says that when Leonard Gayton graduated from Garfield in 1927, his band and the pianist Evelyn Bundy’s jazz band, the Garfield Ramblers, were the only two organized Jazz bands working on a regular basis. He writes:

“Leonard played the 908 Club (formerly Doc Hamiliton’s), the Plantation, and the New Harlem. In 1930, he was the inaugural act at the Chinese Gardens, at Seventh and King…

"In the late 1930s, Leonard was a reporter for the Northwest Herald and the Northwest Enterprise. He covered the sensational murder trial of two policemen who killed a black man in 1937.”

Leonard also wrote light verse and essays on subjects personal and political.

The Pigford Family

Momma (Emma Pigford Gayton) was born in Roswell, New Mexico, on November 15, 1910. Her father, Henry Pigford (1877-1910), was born on December 29, 1877, in Limestone, Texas. He married Pearl (Walker). Momma was born and her father died of pneumonia when she was in her first year. My maternal grandfather was one of 11 children born to Georgiana and George Pigford. According to the History of Negroes in Limestone County, my great-grandfather, George Pigford was an "outstanding Negro player in the old Texas Colored Baseball League." The Pigfords had migrated to Texas from Mississippi.

Grandma Pearl (Emma Gayton's mother) was born on September 1, 1887, in Tehuancana, Texas. She was one of three daughters born to Emma Walker, and my great-grandfather, William Walker. The town of Tehuacana, Texas, was named after the Indian tribe that inhabited that area and from which I am descended. Emma Walker was a Black Cherokee and her second husband William was of Celtic-Indian stock. Like the Pigfords, Emma was originally from Mississippi.

My great-grandmother Emma was first married to Monk Bell, a Tehuacana Indian chief, and they had two children. Mattie and James Bell were Grandma Pearl's half-siblings.

Soon after grandfather Henry's untimely death, Pearl moved with her baby Emma (my mother) to the wilderness of Idaho where they lived in a cabin on a lake with Pearl's sister Salina, and Selina's Scottish husband.

Shortly thereafter Grandma and Momma moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they lived with Pearl's older half-brother, James Bell. James was a sharp-looking light brown complexioned man. He worked as a cook on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Pearl and Momma moved south to Seattle with James after a short stay in Canada.

Pearl married a local black jazz bandleader. They bought a large white Victorian boarding house in a white urban neighborhood on Seattle's Mt. Baker Ridge. Mt. Baker ridge separates large, idyllic, fresh water Lake Washington on the east and vast green Rainier Valley to the west.

That a colored family could move into such a respectable white neighborhood without any public objection or protest is testimony to Seattle's racially tolerant atmosphere, even back then.

Seattle's Love Couple

My parents met in Seattle’s Roaring Twenties when Daddy was playing drums and crooning with Momma's stepdad's Jazz band. Young Leonard was one of the town’s hippest gentleman bachelors. He would take the streetcar across town to court Momma at Grandma Pearl's house. According to Momma, after a respectable period of courting, she put Daddy on the spot by asking him point blank, "What are your intentions, Leonard?"

Being a gentleman and the son of a Washington state pioneer, John Thomas Gayton, of Mississippi state, Daddy naturally had the purist of intentions and proposed to Momma on the spot. The charming man-about-town had met his match in fair and lovely lady Emma. In 1931, Seattle’s love couple married in grandmother Pearl's beautiful white Victorian house on Mt. Baker.

The rest of the story is rather mundane. They married during the depression and with the end of prohibition and the Jazz Age Daddy had to get a day job. He loaned his drum set to a musician who was working the tourist boats to Alaska and he never saw it again. He gave up the music business to save his marriage and went to work in the shipyards during World War II. Mom had me at the end of the war on April 11, 1945, the day before Roosevelt died, and she had three more children in quick succession.

Leonard and Emma raised a family in Seattle and we were blessed by their love for each other, for their children and all people regardless of race, creed, color or station in life. From them we learned what family is really about. My brother Lynn and I have never married. Perhaps because the example of our parents seemed unachievable. Quien Sabes.


Note: John T. Gayton's birthdate of 1866, reported in some sources as 1868, is derived from a Yazoo County, Mississippi, census record dated July 2, 1870, at which time John Gayton was reported as 4 years old.

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