The hands on the wooden clock in Susan Cayton Woodson’s dining room haven’t moved since her repairman left town. Though it’s a Thursday afternoon in August, the clock–which has rotating windows displaying the month and day of the week–says it’s 6:26 on a Friday in March. Jefferson Davis gave it to Woodson’s great-grandfather, Hiram Revels, who in 1870 became the first black man elected to the U.S. Senate. Woodson, who runs an art gallery out of her Hyde Park condo, is one of Revels’s oldest living descendants. At 84 years old, she moves easily through her nine rooms, showing off a painting or a photograph with grace.
The art she sells takes center stage in Woodson’s home (she wouldn’t even allow herself to be photographed for this story), but history lurks in every corner. In the sunroom, there’s a photograph she took of Paul Robeson; on either side of the dining room clock hang portraits of her mother and sister painted by WPA artist Eldzier Cortor; gracing the hall is the signed original of a poem Langston Hughes dedicated to her mother. Each souvenir has a story. The clock, Woodson says, was in her nursery when she was a baby, “right over my bed.”
Woodson spent the earliest years she can remember in an apartment house in Seattle. Born in 1918, she was raised as the youngest child of Horace Cayton Sr. and Susie Revels, one of the senator’s six daughters. When Woodson was an adult she learned she was actually the child of the Caytons’ eldest daughter, who died when Woodson was a year old. Her grandparents gave Woodson their name and raised her as their own.
“The Cayton story has everybody in a beautiful home, a coach, horses,” she says. “I wasn’t there. I was at the end of the story.” She was born after Horace Sr.’s newspaper had folded and many of the events that had made Cayton a well-known and respected name in Seattle were history. When the older Cayton children began to build their own reputations, Woodson was too preoccupied with the transition from youth to adulthood to ponder the significance of their accomplishments. “There’s so much I didn’t know. And that was because of the age difference.” She’s particularly surprised by how much she didn’t know about Horace Sr., the man she knew as her father. “It blows my mind to know what a fantastic daddy he was. I just knew him as a soft place to sleep on. I didn’t know that I was living in the arms of someone that had created history in that city.”
The family’s achievements are chronicled in Richard Hobbs’s The Cayton Legacy: An African American Family, published last
spring by Washington State Uni-versity Press. After leaving Congress, Hiram Revels became the first president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi. Horace Cayton Sr. attended Alcorn (where he first met Susie Revels, while dating her older sister), graduating in the early 1880s. He migrated west and in 1894 launched the Seattle Republican, a weekly newspaper aimed at an interracial audience. It stayed in business for 19 years. According to Hobbs, Cayton earned a reputation as a staunch Republican, outspoken and unafraid of courting conflict in order to make a point. Susie graduated with honors from Rust College in Mississippi and, after an epistolary courtship, moved to Seattle to marry Horace. She served as associate editor of the Republican and immersed herself in civic activities that earned her the respect of her community. “Mother was an international person,” Woodson says. “She could talk to anyone. She could talk to the working-class people of Seattle. Read to them, talk to them, and settle their minds–even though they were hungry and on the street–she was great. Mother could talk to the world.”
The Cayton children distinguished themselves as well. Madge, the oldest, was one of the first black women to graduate from the University of Washington. Horace Jr. studied sociology at the University of Chicago and became director of Chicago’s Parkway Community House, a social-service center in Bronzeville. In 1945, with coauthor St. Clair Drake, he published the landmark survey of Chicago’s south side, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. Revels Cayton became a prominent labor and civil rights activist in San Francisco. Lillie, after years of alcoholism and estrangement from her family, became a counselor and spokesperson for Alcoholics Anonymous up and down the west coast.
The Cayton Legacy celebrates the Caytons as “examples of how to retain self-respect, to struggle, to achieve, and to help others.” But there are enough references to sibling rivalry and addiction to reveal that all was not perfect in the family. Woodson admits that the dynamics were odd. The parents played favorites. “Daddy’s favorite was Horace, and I knew that,” Woodson says, “even as a child sitting in his lap. And I would always want to edge up and be number one. I can remember asking him, ‘Do you like me better than Horace?’ He never answered. And I knew it was Horace. Mother loved Revels because Revels was named after her father….Madge became the mother to the entire family because Mother was busy reading, learning Japanese, doing civic things.”
But every family has its quirks, and in spite of the Caytons’, Woodson feels that she was loved and had a happy, normal childhood. She helped Revels steal their father’s car so he could stop a ship of nonunion workers from landing in the city’s port. On the day she was to come out to Seattle society, she absconded with some buddies and destroyed her white dress climbing up a flagpole in protest of some now forgotten injustice. Langston Hughes was one of the numerous starving artists and leftists who lodged in the Cayton home on visits to Seattle. “Nothing unusual,” Woodson says.
As she entered adolescence, the other Cayton children moved away, leaving her to look after their aging parents. After Horace Sr. died in 1940, the family decided that it was time for Woodson, then 22, to find a suitable husband. They sent her to join Madge and Horace Jr. in Chicago.
When, due to illness, Horace and Revels were unable to complete the cross-country drive to Chicago as Woodson’s chaperones, the family found a trustworthy substitute: Paul Robeson. According to The Cayton Legacy, Robeson had heard so much about Susie Cayton’s community involvement that on a trip to Seattle sometime in the 30s he’d felt obliged to pay her a visit. The meeting sparked a long-lasting friendship between Robeson and the Caytons.
“Let us off here,” Robeson told the driver as they approached 47th and South Parkway (now King Drive). He asked the driver to meet them at Madge’s apartment, and he and Woodson got out to stretch their legs. But the first thing Woodson did was lean against a building in shock. There had to be more people in that intersection than in all of Seattle.
She and Robeson walked down 47th toward Madge’s apartment at the Rosenwald Building. Black people crowded the sidewalks, dressed to impress, entering and exiting black-owned businesses–the first she had ever seen. When they arrived, Woodson took a photograph of Robeson and the waiting driver to mark the moment. Robeson, dressed in a suit with a hat in hand, smiled into the camera, dwarfing the man next to him. That evening Woodson and Madge went to hear Robeson sing. Woodson was too stunned by the audience to pay much attention to the show. “You know something?” she said to Madge. “All we have to do is drop a bomb and all the black folks in the world would be dead.”
For Woodson’s first few months in the city, “my sister hired a woman to stay with me. To walk up and down 47th Street, to go to the lake. In Seattle you spoke to everyone, you knew everybody….You couldn’t do that in Chicago, and I didn’t know the difference. So she was hired to stay with me for two or three months until I knew how to act in a big city. And where to go and where not to go.”
The family clock was already in Chicago when Woodson arrived. It had been passed down to Madge, who kept it on a desk in the living room of her basement apartment in the Rosenwald. The building spanned 47th Street from Wabash to Michigan and was a popular place for those who had the money but not the skin color to live in neighborhoods like Hyde Park. To get an apartment in the Rosenwald you also had to know the manager, CHA commissioner Robert R. Taylor. Woodson remembers Olympic runner and politician Ralph Metcalfe living there, as well as Bobby Sengstacke, son of Chicago Defender publisher John Sengstacke. “Those with money–and that could get in–would be in the building,” Woodson says. “It was really a social register.”
One of her first jobs in Chicago was operating the switchboard at Parkway Community House, where Horace Jr. served as director. Working at Parkway brought her close to the center of the Chicago Renaissance, an era lasting roughly from 1930 to 1950 when many of the city’s black artists and writers–including Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Charles Wilbert White, and Richmond Barthe–produced some of their earliest recognized work. Similar to the Harlem Renaissance, the explosion of creativity drew white Chicagoans–some curious, some wealthy and willing to donate–to the black community. Horace’s apartment at 51st and South Parkway was a place to see and be seen. He and his second wife, Irma–attractive personalities in their own right–entertained visitors like Richard Wright, Arna Bontemps, Eldzier Cortor, Langston Hughes, and Robeson late into the night. As a member of the Parkway board, even Marshall Field III–whose store wouldn’t allow black people to try on clothes until years later–mingled with the racially mixed group.
When an ailing Susie Revels joined her children in Chicago in early 1942, Horace’s apartment became even more popular. Susie, who had joined the Communist Party late in life, spent weekends with her daughters and weekdays in Horace’s guest room, and she loved to talk politics with his visitors. “The people would visit Horace, and they’d sit and talk, and they’d go over to the bedroom and spend the rest of the time talking to mother,” Woodson remembers. “Almost every person of every high level made their way into that bedroom where mother was sitting.” Hughes spent months in Chicago as a visitor and sometime artist-in-residence at Parkway, and he especially enjoyed Susie’s company. In the spring of 1943 he wrote “Dear Mr. President,” a poem protesting the racist treatment of black soldiers. He signed the original, “For my friend, Susie Cayton.”
When it was clear that Susie was dying, Horace Jr. commissioned Cortor to do her portrait. He wanted to capture his mother’s image for history’s sake. “He could visualize it better than I could visualize it,” Woodson admits. “I wouldn’t think like that. But his vision of history was always there so that, yes, you paint the last daughter of Senator Hiram Revels.” Even in her weakened state, Susie did her best to stress political points with the more conservative Cortor as he worked. “She was mad when he’d leave,” Woodson says. “And the next day when it was time…she was looking out to see when he was coming.”
Susie died in 1943. A year later, Madge came down with rheumatic fever. Once again Horace commissioned Cortor to paint a portrait, this time of his older sister. Knowing she was dying, Madge expressly willed the family clock and the Cortor portraits to Woodson and Lillie, the sister who still lived in Seattle.
But Horace was increasingly irrational and addicted to alcohol. In 1948, with his fourth marriage on the verge of collapse, he abruptly left Chicago for New York. Woodson was left behind to pack up his apartment. She found the portraits of Madge and Susie lying facedown in a closet and took them home with her. Horace had taken the clock, which eventually ended up in the possession of Brunetta Bernstein, a teacher and actress who had been in the cast of The Sun Do Move, a play Hughes had written for Parkway’s in-house acting troupe. She kept the clock for years, along with two paintings from Horace’s personal collection.
With her brother’s departure, Woodson found herself with no more family to depend on in Chicago. It was easy to look to Harold Woodson–a chemist to whom Horace had introduced her–for support. They eventually fell in love, married, and had a son. Woodson and Horace later made amends, but she didn’t see the clock again until 1970, when he died while doing research on Richard Wright in Paris. The day his death was announced, Woodson got phone calls from all over the country. She didn’t know everyone who called, but she remembered seeing Brunetta Bernstein in The Sun Do Move nearly 30 years before. “I’m on my way to Chicago,” Bernstein said. “I have two paintings and the family clock.”
They’ve been with Woodson ever since.
Above the fireplace in Woodson’s living room, colors swirl and blend into an image of two black women framed in the window of a brick building. One hangs out the window to smoke a cigarette, revealing the tips of her breasts. The other primps in a handheld mirror. The painting is Charles Wilbert White’s Kitchenette Debs (1939), one of the paintings Bernstein brought to Woodson after Horace died. It isn’t for sale.
There are rooms and sections of walls that she thinks of as the Susan Woodson Gallery and other areas that are simply her sunroom, her kitchen, her deck. But there isn’t a single room that doesn’t have a piece of art or some historical relic on display. A small Richmond Barthe sculpture sits near the doorway connecting the living and dining rooms. Blue Boy (1940), a Charles Sebree painting, hangs in her dining room, along with the Cortor portraits of Susie and Madge and a Currier & Ives print, The First Colored Senator and Representatives in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States. In the guest room, a self-portrait of a young Gordon Parks with his camera hangs on one wall, a soiled FBI poster of Angela Davis on another. In the bathroom, from a tub-turned-altar draped in Kente cloth, African masks and statues watch visitors use the toilet. In the main hall, the personal and gallery collections merge. There are currently about 113 works for sale, mostly paintings. They range from work by Irene Clark and WPA artists William Carter and George Neal to a couple of acrylics completed in 2002. Woodson holds two or three openings a year, usually showing the work of an up-and-coming local black artist.
She and her husband retired on the same day in 1985, she from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, he from the University of Illinois School of Public Health. “We spent our first week at home together, and I said, ‘Now this I can’t take every day of my life.'” As a board member at the South Side Community Art Center, she had heard about a widow in Oak Park who was having trouble selling her husband’s collection of art. Woodson paid the woman a visit and was excited when she saw the work by Sebree and Carter. “I said, ‘Bring it to my house, and I’ll open up one of the rooms and sell it.’ And so I took it into the large room–which was the bedroom–put it up against the walls, and people came in and they started buying it. All the money coming in went to the art center.” Slowly she began selling work from other collections, but she still didn’t consider herself a gallery owner. “And then I sold a Charles White, and the commission was $1,000. I gave it to the South Side Community Art Center. And my husband says, ‘No more Art Center in my house. You sell it and you make a living in that room.’
“A lot of artists came along and helped me. For instance, I had two chairs–comfortable chairs–thinking everybody coming in the gallery would relax and look at the art. And [painter] Sylvester Britton said, ‘Oh, no. You don’t make it comfortable. You have them walking around and you sell it. This is not a living room, this is a gallery.’ I was really unhappy about taking those comfortable chairs out of there. But I learned from the artists that this is a business. The business of getting good art and selling it.”
Woodson intends to run the gallery for as long as she is physically able. But even after the gallery art stops coming in, her personal collection will remain in her home for as long as she does. “You get accustomed to it,” she says. “If one picture was gone I’d miss it.” The other children of Susie and Horace Sr. have passed away, and so has the renaissance that welcomed her to Chicago. But in her condo in Hyde Park, a Cayton still holds court, the artists still visit, it’s 6:24 all day, every day is Friday, and April never comes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Courtesy Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Chicago Public Library/Lloyd DeGrane.