It is always interesting to think of famous people walking the streets of our city. That is the idea behind the Douglass-Truth Branch’s exhibit ‘When Langston Came to Town’. It memorializes the day in May, 1932, when Langston Hughes drove into Seattle for an author program at the First AME Church. The Seattle Times called the program, ‘an evening of poetry and its relation to the background and life of the Negro peoples.’ Hughes writes about being refused a room in Oregon, but his reception in Portland and Seattle was very positive. What kind of town was Seattle in 1932?
The African American population was very small and clustered into three of the new census tracts due to historical settlement patterns and restrictive housing covenants. Seattle was poor—not as poor, yet, as other cities, but suffering due to the growing Depression. Homeless and unemployed men had just constructed the first Hooverville. Seattle’s mayor, John Dore, ordered the destruction of the shantytowns, but they were just rebuilt. Washington’s governor, Roland Hartley, cut the state budget and refused relief services to cities. Washington State was heading for 33% unemployment, and conditions were worse in the cities.
How did people live? Betty MacDonald’s memoir of the 1930’s, Anybody Can do Anything, offers clues—frequent periods of unemployment, no visits to the doctor or dentist, clothing makeovers, cutting firewood in the city parks, and months of meatloaf dinners (but at least she had regular meals.) For African American families, life was much harder still. Howard and Susie Cayton, with whom Langston stayed while in Seattle, lost a business and could find no steady employment. The Cayton adult children lived at home with their parents. Horace Cayton, once editor of the Seattle Republican, did janitorial work and Susie Cayton, an educated journalist and teacher, did housecleaning. In Long Old Road, Horace Cayton Jr., talks about how poverty and race discrimination tore the family apart.
Washington was slow to feel the effects of the depression, and slow to recover. Activists on the left and right emerged with solutions to the state’s economic problems—but the economy did not really improve until the Second World War brought business to the state’s manufacturing, shipbuilding, and airplane companies. Seattle’s population changed drastically, and by the time of Langston Hughes’s second visit (in 1945), the city must have seemed totally different.