Celebrating Black History Month in Washington

John Gayton and Carl Maxey, Washington legal pioneers

February is Black History Month, and we’d like to recognize some of Washington’s notable African-American legal historical figures. If you’d like to learn more about black history in Washington, we suggest Seattle’s Black Victorians by Esther Hall Mumford or The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era by Quintard Taylor.

Washington’s first African-American lawyers
Not much is known about these legal pioneers, but it’s worth noting their contributions to Washington’s legal history.

  • In 1889, Robert O. Lee became the first African-American to practice law in Washington. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Lee was a native of South Carolina and graduated from Columbia Law School. He was admitted to practice in Illinois, but after facing racial discrimination, he turned to the newspaper business. When the newspaper failed, Lee decided to practice law in the new state of Washington, “where race prejudices would not interfere with his prosperity.”
  • In 1895, John Edward Hawkins was admitted to the King County Bar, becoming the first locally trained African-American lawyer. Originally from Galesburg, Illinois, he worked as a barber while attending law school at night.
  • In 1899, the University of Washington School of Law admitted William McDonald Austin, who became the first African-American graduate of UW Law. A native of Barbados, Austin was a student of the University of Washington’s Department of Law. That inaugural class had at least 34 students and was surprisingly diverse, including Austin, a Japanese student, and three women. Unfortunately, he found few professional opportunities in Seattle, and soon after graduating in 1902, Austin moved to the Phillippines to practice law.

John T. Gayton (1866–1954)
Born to former slaves in Mississippi in 1866, John Gayton arrived in Seattle in 1889 as a white physician’s coachman. Although Gayton had little formal education, he became a waiter and then head steward at the Rainier Club while taking bookkeeping classes. In 1904, Gayton became a messenger for the newly established Federal District Court of Washington. He eventually rose to bailiff and was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to the position of federal court librarian in 1933. On his retirement in 1953, he had served every presiding federal court justice since Washington’s admission as a state. See our profile on John Gayton in the February 2015 issue of NWLawyer.

While Gayton wasn’t a lawyer himself, he left an impressive legacy of trailblazing descendants:

  • Gayton’s grandson Donald Gayton Phelps became the first African-American secondary school principal in Washington.
  • Grandson Carver Gayton was the first African-American from Washington appointed as an agent for the F.B.I.
  • Granddaughter Guela Gayton Johnson became the first African-American to head a departmental library at the University of Washington in 1969.
  • Grandson Thomas (Tomás) Gayton graduated from the University of Washington Law School and served as a civil rights litigator and public defender.
  • Grandson Gary Gayton also became a lawyer; in 1962, he became the first African-American assistant U.S. attorney, and is a founder of the Loren Miller Bar Association.

Marjorie Pitter King (1921–1996)
Marjorie Pitter King served as state representative for the 37th district from 1965–1966 and was the first African-American woman to serve in Washington’s Legislature. After attending the University of Washington and Howard University, King worked in the Pentagon during WWII. She fought to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 National Democratic convention. King served as chair of the 37th District Democratic Party, vice president of the King County Democratic Party and treasurer of the Washington State Federation of Democratic Women. She was also one of the state’s earliest African-American businesswomen: during college, she and her sisters ran a speechwriting and typing business, and for nearly 50 years, King owned and operated M & M Accounting and Tax Services. King served on the board of the YMCA and the Seattle Urban League and was a member of the Black Heritage Society.

Carl Maxey (1924–97)
Born in Tacoma, Carl Maxey grew up in a Spokane orphanage until age 12, when the orphanage adopted a ban against black children and expelled him. Maxey saw the law as a way to prompt social change; he was one of Gonzaga University School of Law’s first African-American graduates and was its first African-American graduate to pass the Washington state bar exam. Over the course of a 40-year career, Maxey became Eastern Washington’s most renowned lawyer on civil-rights, anti-war, and free-expression issues. In 1964, Maxey traveled to Mississippi to campaign against segregation and advance civil rights. His work led to recognition of the rights of black citizens to teach in public schools, to live in any neighborhood, and to be served at local businesses. He was a co-founder of the Loren Miller Bar Association. Maxey was posthumously presented with the WSBA’s Courageous Award in 2013, in recognition of over four decades of service to civil-rights and access to justice issues. See our full profile on Carl Maxey in the February 2015 issue of NWLawyer.

Charles Z. Smith (1927– )
Judge Charles Z. Smith, the first and only African-American to serve on the Washington Supreme Court, was born in the segregated South in 1927, the great-grandchild of slaves. Under the guidance of his mentor Dr. Gray, Smith enrolled in college at 15, and after serving in the U.S. Army in WWII, he chose a career in the law, which he viewed as a “helping profession.” In 1955, Smith became the first person of color to clerk for a Washington Supreme Court justice. In 1961, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy selected Smith to lead his “Get Hoffa Squad,” which painstakingly built a case against Jimmy Hoffa for bribery and fraud involving Teamster pension funds. In 1965, he became the first African-American to serve as a Seattle municipal court judge. In 1966, he was named to the King County Superior Court bench. In 1973, he joined the faculty of the University of Washington Law School as a full professor and associate dean until 1988, when he was appointed to the state Supreme Court. He retired in 2002, but continued to lead the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission until 2009. See photos of Judge Smith and listen to audio clips and an oral history.

Charles M. Stokes (1903–1996)
Civil rights attorney and judge Charles Moorehead Stokes championed the Civil Rights Omnibus Bill, one of the most progressive civil rights measures in the nation. After graduating from the University of Kansas Law School, Stokes opened his own law practice in Kansas and was later appointed an assistant attorney to the Kansas Commission of Revenue and Taxation. He moved to Seattle in 1943. As the local NAACP lobbyist, Stokes became an executive member of the Washington State Committee Against Discrimination in Employment, which was largely responsible for the passage of the 1949 Washington State Fair Employment Practices Act. Elected to the Washington Legislature in 1950, Stokes was Washington’s second African-American legislator (the first was William Owen Bush in 1889). In 1962, Stokes joined Charles V. Johnson and William “Fred” Lockhart to form one of Seattle’s first black law firms; this three-person minority firm produced two of King County’s first three black judges. When Stokes was appointed judge in 1968, he became the first African-American to serve on the King County District Court. Seattle’s Judge Charles M. Stokes Overlook is named in his honor.