Vivian L. Caver, a community and civil rights activist, former legislator and King County Democratic Party organizer, and a trailblazing public servant who worked for change behind the scenes and on the front lines in Seattle for more than a half-century, died Sunday.
She was 93 and passed away from what her daughter, Adrienne Caver-Hall, described as “old age,” finally resting after a life overstuffed with activities meant to uplift everyone around her.
“My mother lived a big life,” Caver-Hall said. “A big life.”
“I mean, you go through that list of accomplishments and awards and accolades and activities that she was involved in,” former Washington Gov. Gary Locke said of his former boss, “and you say, ‘Oh, my gosh, how could you have done all of it?’”
Caver was also the conscience of her community and counted scores of influential people among those who looked to her for inspiration. Locke, a former King County executive, also once worked at the Seattle Human Rights Commission, a city entity that Caver helped will into existence.
“That’s where I first got to know her,” Locke said. “Her reputation preceded her as a dynamic leader and breaker of glass ceilings.”
Norm Rice, Seattle’s first Black mayor, was a devotee, as is Bruce Harrell, former Seattle City Council president and current mayoral candidate. And she was a large influence on city politics as two-time chairperson of the 37th District Democrats.
Interviews, archival articles, and state and University of Washington sources depict Caver as a ceaseless campaigner over the decades. Most notably, she helped found and spent more than a decade at the Seattle Human Rights Commission, serving as director from 1975-81. She also briefly served in the Legislature, finishing out Locke’s term as state representative for 37th District, which covers much of south Seattle, in 1994-95 after he became King County executive.
That really doesn’t scratch the surface of her accomplishments. Her activism — probably instilled by her mother, Christine, a social worker — started decades earlier.
Born Vivian Leona Mead in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1928, Caver moved west with her family in 1939 as her father Kenneth — a high school principal and college dean — pursued a doctorate at the University of Washington. She grew up in Seattle’s Central District and graduated from Garfield High School in 1946.
After attending Morgan State College in Baltimore, Caver returned to Seattle and enrolled at UW. During this period, she worked with the Seattle Urban League to integrate the city’s department stores. She took a job in the book department at Frederick & Nelson, becoming one of the first two Black women to hold a significant role on the sales floor at a major store in downtown Seattle.
“It was interesting because I became a display,” Caver said in a video interview with The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project at the University of Washington. “People would walk by and point because it was a novelty to see a Black person in the stores at that time, selling — not as stock girls or not as janitors and so forth and so on. And, of course, it was in the paper. So people walked by there just to see me.”
She only stayed a year, but by the time she left, other stores in town were hiring Black employees.
She moved to Germany, finishing her college degree and marrying her husband Monroe Starkey Caver in 1954.
The couple returned to Seattle, and while raising three daughters Caver began working toward a goal of open housing in the 1960s, establishing race relations councils in white neighborhoods where redlining and anti-minority covenants were common at the time.
She was involved in operations in which the Urban League would send Black couples to test local landlords and home sellers. If they were turned down, the League would send a white couple to see what happened.
“And at that point in time the discrimination case would be referred to the state or the federal government,” Caver said, but those complaints often came to a dead end.
In response, the open housing groups pressured the city to establish a human rights department to investigate housing discrimination claims. The fight came to a climax in 1968, the height of the civil rights movement in America. Caver helped gather 18,000 signatures in support of the commission, which the City Council established as a city department with real investigatory power.
She was hired by the new department and helped oversee “the implementation of nondiscrimination law, the enforcement of affirmative action programs and the expansion of the growing ‘rights revolution’ to protect women and sexual minorities from discrimination,” according to the UW project.
“They kind of left the door open for me to design my own job,” Caver said.
She served as commission chairperson from 1975-81. She said in the video interview she was disappointed the responsibilities of the department were split and spread to other city offices over the years, diluting its mission.
“It seems like we’re going backwards instead of forward because we haven’t eliminated discrimination in Seattle,” Caver said.
After her tenure at the commission ended, Caver served as administrator of the Girl Scouts of Western Washington for 12 years, working to help the nationwide group become more diverse. The local troop hands out the Vivian Caver Diversity Award to a deserving Scout each year.
Caver eventually grew more interested in politics and became an important figure in the King County Democratic Party and the 37th District. Later in life she served on the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct from 2001-05 and was chairperson of Women in Unity.
Much of Caver’s early work was behind the scenes, but it did not go unobserved. Caver-Hall said her mother became a towering figure and everyday example to the girls and young women — including her daughters — as she navigated the male-dominated leadership of the civil rights movement.
“She had no problem being in the background, but she wanted her voice to be heard,” Caver-Hall said.
Caver worried that lessons learned during the movement were generally lost over time, however. Foreshadowing the events of the last few years in her 2005 oral history interview, she said she felt the civil rights movement in America had lost its fervor even though the mission remained unfinished.
“I think generations after that never saw some of those movements, other than what they see in the movies or somebody talking about it or reading about it,” Caver said. “They get complacent or they hear it and they just think it’s history so it’s nothing they can really (understand), unless they have the experience. …
“There’s this whole different type of movement in the area of civil rights right now, and I also think discrimination is very subtle. It’s there, but people don’t want to admit it.”
Caver is survived by her daughters, Caver-Hall, Denise C. Coleman and Cecilia Byndloss; five grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren. All were taught the lessons she learned over her years of activism.
“My mother raised me to be an activist,” Caver-Hall said. “She sent me to Howard University. That was her own goal for me. It was like the Harvard of the Black community. And she made sure that I knew everything that was going on.”