Gayton, John Jacob (1899-1969)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 11/27/1998
  • Essay 397

John Jacob Gayton, the oldest child of Black pioneers John T. Gayton (1866-1964) and Magnolia Scott Gayton (1880-1954), continued the legacy of his parents by providing a solid family structure, respect for education, and Christian values to his eight children who have made major contributions to civic betterment in Seattle. They include a university librarian, former Boeing executives, a lawyer, a high school teacher, and a businessman.

Coal Mines and Franklin High School

John Jacob Gayton, born December 27, 1899, was the first child to be baptized in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of which his father was a founding member. His godmother was Susie Revels Cayton, writer and associate editor of the early black newspaper the Seattle Republican and daughter of Hiram Revels, the first black U. S. Senator.

John Gayton grew up in the family home at 26th Avenue E and E Mercer Street and attended the local schools. When he became a teenager, the family moved for several years to a five-acre homestead in Hazelwood, a small community east of Lake Washington and just west of Newcastle.

He worked in the summers as a screener in the coal mines of Newcastle and Coal Creek, walking miles back and forth. During the school year he took a ferry to Rainier Beach and then rode the interurban to attend Franklin High School. He missed military service by a few months because, just as he was about to be drafted, World War I ended.

A Fine Tenor Voice

Blessed with a fine tenor voice, John Gayton sang at community gatherings and studied under John Pain, a Black vocalist in the 1920s, who went to England and encouraged him to join him there for further study. Roland Hayes, the noted black tenor, heard him sing on a visit to Seattle and urged him to study in Europe. He sang on the radio when it first began broadcasting, accompanied on the piano by his sister, Louise.

Despite these encouragements to study abroad, John Gayton stayed in Seattle because he had met young Virginia Clark, whom he married on April 26, 1926. John Jacob and Virginia Clark Gayton raised eight children: Guela, Sylvia, John Cyrus, Gary, Philip, Carver, Leonard, and Elaine.

The young couple found housing at 24th Avenue and Olive Street, and he worked at E. N. Brooks and Company, a local haberdashery store, and later at Striker and Company, a millinery business. During the Great Depression he found employment as a dogcatcher with the Humane Society and later became a deputy sheriff. He continued his vocal training when he was awarded a scholarship to the Cornish School of the Allied Arts in 1940. His final career was with the U.S. Postal Service, from which he retired in 1967 after 25 years of service.

A lifetime member of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, he served on the steward board, as president of the church choir and as a member of the board of trustees. He was a member of the East Madison YMCA, where a room has been named in his honor. He was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Seattle Urban League, and president of the International Chorus, which was sponsored by the Christian Friends for Racial Equality.

After his death on September 20, 1969, the family established a library at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in honor of John and Virginia Gayton.


Oral History Interviews of: Louise Adams (1976); Leonard Gayton (1976); Virginia Gayton (1976); Guela Gayton Johnson (1998), Washington State Oral History Project (Washington State Archives, Olympia). 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. Note: This essay was corrected on April 22, 2002.

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