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Not in your history book: When white strikers abducted black workers on a Seattle streetcar

Horace Cayton Jr., center, as an adult. Cayton worked many jobs before becoming an esteemed sociologist in Chicago - longshoreman and Seattle's first black deputy, among others.
Library of Congress
Horace Cayton Jr., center, as an adult. Cayton worked many jobs before becoming an esteemed sociologist in Chicago - longshoreman and Seattle's first black deputy, among others.

Horace Cayton was an African-American sociologist born in Seattle in 1903. His father was born a slave; his mother was the daughter of the first black U.S. Congressman. This is an excerpt from his autobiography, "The Long Old Road", published in 1963.

There was plenty of work in Seattle once the war was in full swing. Good jobs for Negroes, in the shipyards and in many other places where we had not worked before, because white workers had abandoned them for higher-paying war work.

The first time I went down to the waterfront I got a job as a longshoreman. I was told to report to the hiring hall the following morning at 7:30, so I went out and purchased a cargo hook – a long steel hook with a wooden grip – and a pair of work gloves. I returned home and showed off before my brother and the rest of the family. I felt that I was finally a man and ready to earn big money.

The next morning I got to the hall on time and sat on a bench waiting my turn. Crew after crew was dispatched to various piers, but my name was not called. I went up to the desk, and the dispatcher found my name on the lists.

“You can go out to Smith’s Cove with those two over there,” he said, indicating two tough-looking Negroes who had entered the hall not many minutes before. “But look out for strikers.”

The two men and I left the hall. We boarded the streetcar, and my two companions sat down together in the front seat of the car. There was no room for me, so I slid into the nearest seat behind them, alongside a red-cheeked, stout woman who smiled at me as I sat down. Seattle was not as pleasant for Negroes as it had been when I was young, and such a smile made me feel at ease.

I sat there daydreaming of all the money I would make and how I’d buy some new clothes and maybe even a little second-hand Ford I could strip down and make into a "bug." After I got everything I wanted, then I’d go back to school. The click-clickety-click of the streetcar wheels nearly lulled me to sleep.

Suddenly the car stopped. I looked up startled, for this was not a regular stop and we were miles from any settled community. Someone had pulled the trolley off the cable. Three men came boiling in the front door of the stalled car, and soon others entered from the back. The three went directly to the two Negroes sitting just in front of me. I realized that they were strikers and that we were in for trouble.

“Get up, you black son of a bitch! We’ll teach you to break a strike and take the food out of our kids’ mouths!” the biggest of them said to the Negro sitting on the aisle. “Didn’t you hear me, n——?”

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "145933", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201807/web_story_excerpt_2.png", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Illustration/Teodora Popescu"}]]Still the man didn’t move. With that the striker swung his cargo hook and caught him in the neck just below the ear, pulling him to his feet like a half of beef. “We should burn you alive like they do down South!”

The pinioned man gave a muffled scream and tried to express his willingness to do anything, but because of the cargo hook he couldn’t move his head. The striker pulled it out, and the two of them held the man upright as he swayed desperately. The blood spurted out of the wound and formed a little rivulet down the man’s collar, which drop by drop fell down onto my leg. Each drop seemed to burn through my overalls and sear into my flesh like acid. I tried to move my legs to avoid the blood, but I was unable to. I was completely paralyzed.

Two of the strikers led the wounded man out of the car, and the third turned to the second Negro. “Will you come along, or do you want us to hook you, too?”

The man stood up without speaking and was led out of the car.

Then several others from the rear of the car came up, and one turned to me. “Are you with them?”

I couldn’t answer; even to lie and save my own skin was beyond me. Then the apple-cheeked woman beside me threw her arm around my shoulder and said loudly and angrily, “Leave this boy alone. He’s with me.”

“Okay,” said one of the strikers. “He looks too young, anyway. All right ma’am, don’t get excited. No one is going to get hurt who isn’t scabbing.”

The other striker, less gullible, was looking down at the floor where my cargo hook had fallen from my nervous hands.

“Look,” he said, “the kid’s got a cargo hook. He’s a scab, too.”

But the first striker must still have been intimidated by my companion, who now had both her arms around me. “Hell, let the kid go, he ain’t worth bothering with. We better get the hell out of here before the cops come.”

I rode on for two stops in silence. The woman kept her arms around me, and a man behind me patted my shoulder. “Close call, son.”

The woman nodded but didn’t attempt to talk to me. And it was a good thing, too, because I was incapable of speech. At the next stop I mustered enough of my voice to say, “I’ve got to get off now.” The woman removed her arm and smiled. I got up and walked to the rear door of the car.

There was no one in sight in either direction. Were the two men dead by now, I wondered, or had they just been beaten up as an example? I couldn’t tell for sure. Not long before this, a strikebreaker had been taken under a pier and had his head split in two with an ax. I brushed at my pants where the blood had stained them, but they were still wet and rubbing only made it worse. I walked a few yards down the car tracks, then turned my back so that I could not be seen by a passing car and was violently sick.

When I straightened up again I saw that some of it had gotten on my pants. I realized that I had left the cargo hook on the floor of the streetcar. I walked on toward the next stop to wait for a car back to town.

I soon hardened myself to longshoring, but many mornings my mother had to soak my hands and gently massage my fingers until I could straighten them out—the weight of the cargo, especially the gunnies, which often weighed a hundred to two hundred pounds, all came on the fingers.

The waterfront strike was eventually broken, mostly by Negroes. I had been working on the docks for quite a while before I met a familiar figure one day walking gown a long pier. Recognizing him first, I hollered, “Hey, Red.” I had worked with Red months on the rail line in Yakima months before. He was a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW.

We went to a little grease joint just off the pier, and Red started in on me right away.

“You colored sure broke the strike,” he said. “How do you like working for an open shop?”

“Only way I’ve ever worked, Red.”

“Things aren’t so bad,” he said. “We’re reorganizing the union and taking in the colored. You ought to join.”

“They’ll just take us in ’til they get an agreement and then kick us out. I’m wise to that, Red.”

Horace Cayton did eventually join the union and encouraged other black men to sign up. But his initial instinct was right: As soon as the union was up and running, black members were discriminated against.

Reprinted with permission.