The book by Carver Gayton illuminates the ties between Seattle’s Gayton family and a former slave who played a key role in the fight for freedom.
Few things in life are entirely black or white, even people. A new book by Seattle resident Carver Gayton illustrates that reality as it applies to identity and character and to this nation’s complex history.
The book: “When Owing a Shilling Costs a Dollar: The Saga of Lewis G. Clarke, Born a ‘White Slave.’ ”
Gayton’s family story has been part of Seattle history since his paternal grandfather arrived here in 1889, but this book is about his mother’s grandfather, an escaped slave who played an important role in the fight against slavery, then largely disappeared from history.
Clarke was praised by his acquaintance Frederick Douglass. Harriet Beecher Stowe interviewed him many times and used the information to help shape her epic book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” particularly the character George Harris, who escaped slavery.
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Clarke traveled the country speaking out against slavery, helped people escape through the Underground Railroad and helped many establish themselves on farms in Canada, where he lived for many years.
Gayton first heard about his great-grandfather when his mother read passages to the children from another book by Stowe, “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which mentioned Stowe’s debt to Clarke. It was published a year after the novel came out to assure critics that Stowe’s depictions of slavery were based on facts.
Only as an adult did Gayton learn more than that — after a family friend told the Gaytons about a narrative of Clarke’s life as dictated to an abolitionist in 1845. That book inspired Gayton to write a family history.
He worked at it while he was a professor, of public administration at Florida State University, but mostly laid it aside while working for Boeing in Seattle and then nursing the Northwest African American Museum into existence. He poured himself into the effort only during the past few years after retiring for real, and the book began to morph into a history for all Americans.
Clarke was born in Kentucky in 1815. His Scottish father had fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War and afterward married an enslaved woman who was classified as a quadroon, meaning she was one-quarter black.
Clarke was to all appearances white, but America operated — still operates — on the one-drop rule (just a drop of black blood makes a person black), so he was black and a slave on a plantation owned by his white maternal relatives.
The one-drop rule was about economics, Gayton said, when we talked about the book this week. More slaves meant more profit.
The book title is drawn from something Clarke said in his first speech in the North, in Brooklyn in 1842. He said, “My grandmother was her master’s daughter, and my mother was her master’s daughter, and I was my master’s son; so you see I han’t got but one-eighth of the blood.”
He said that even assuming it was allowable to make a fully black person a slave, “I want to ask gentlemen acquainted with business, whether because I owe a shilling, I ought to pay a dollar?” A shilling was about one-eighth of a dollar. Clarke’s point was that there is no logic in the racial-classification system.
I will never understand what kind of person could enslave his own child, or the impact that would have on a child. Gayton said most of us flinch from the horrible physical tortures associated with slavery, but the many psychological wounds of being treated like property, and nothing more, were even worse.
Clarke embraced his identity as a black man, even as he called out the irrationality of the classification. His brother Milton Clarke handled race differently.
In researching the book, Gayton found that the Library of Congress tried to contact Milton in 1900, but Milton sent a letter to newspapers demanding that they make no mention of “so-called anecdotes” about his history, so as not to embarrass his family.
He’d married a white woman and declared himself a white person, though he acknowledged he’d been enslaved. His descendants lost touch with those of his brother Lewis and didn’t know there were black ancestors in their family until recently. Gayton met some of them, the first meeting of the two branches in more than a century.
Gayton said he doesn’t condemn Milton for his choices. “There was no right or wrong with regard to it,” Gayton said. “Here he was concerned about his children.” Gayton, who is light-complected, can recall other children at his mostly white elementary school in Seattle reacting to him differently after he told them he was black.
Gayton is proud that his grandfather and so many other people chose to fight against a cruel racial caste system.
He said black people took the one-drop rule, which was intended to bring them low, and constructed an ethnic group, creating a uniquely American culture that embraces the widest spectrum of skin tones and physical features.
Surviving generations of physical and psychological cruelty would have been miracle enough, but to keep moving forward and making a strong mark on the world is remarkable.
Remnants of slavery are still present in America, Gayton said, and we will not get rid of them without knowing our history. Black Americans especially need to be proud of what we accomplished during 300 years of slavery and in the short time since, he said. We need the sense of self that pride provides in order to keep moving forward.
I’ve only dealt with one thread of Clarke’s story, the book covers much more and sheds light on a fundamental part of American history. It ought to be of interest to anyone who wants to better understand why in contemporary America we are so often stuck seeing in black and white.