Chapter One: Born in the U.S.A.
In August of 1986, Mary Turner Henry, a middle-school librarian who had taken on an oral-history project for Seattle's Black Heritage Society, asked a longtime friend to sit down with her to tell his life story.
It was a typical sunny summer day. Contrary to popular belief, Seattle's clouds make way for beautiful July and August afternoons that Seattleites spend at the lake beaches and the waterfront on Puget Sound. On clear days when one can see the snowcapped tip of Mount Rainier, the city is covered with the lush, green grass and trees that exemplify its nickname, The Emerald City. Whenever there was no fog cover over Mount Rainier, Stokey would always notice from our home's picture window that held a magnificent view of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains to the east, Mount Baker to the north, and Mount Rainier looking south. "Look! The mountain's out!" he frequently exclaimed, as if he'd never said it before.
On this early Thursday afternoon, Mary arrived at Stokey's law office. It was a spacious two-office suite with a receiving area in the front and a hidden kitchen in the back. Apropos of his life as a retired judge, now just taking business from friends who might have elder law or estate questions, this place on the edge of the black community, near Seattle University, was comfortable and welcoming. In fact, when Mary arrived, she says that Stokey was holding court with some buddies who had stopped by to chat. "Now, it's time for you to leave," Mary says he told them. "I've got something to do."
The building was just a few miles from the slick, downtown law offices of his past, in the days when he had a great view of Puget Sound from his skyscraper window and a secretary to call in to take dictation. The wooden sign over the door, carved with the words on two lines, CHARLES M. STOKES/ATTORNEY AT LAW, attracted rich, poor, and in-between. The modest storefront location was a contrast to his sophisticated judge's chambers in the King County District Court downtown. Yet it was just right.
Seated in an upright red leather chair under the dulling oil portrait of Abraham Lincoln that was one of Stokey's prized possessions, Mary set up her tape recorder on the desk that Stokey had had since the beginning of his Seattle career. She sat near the electric typewriter that he was known for using, which had a ball he could insert to make the typeface look like exquisite script. He loved these gadgets that gave people the impression that he was ahead of his time.
After catching up on their friendship, begun in 1956 when Mary and her husband, Dr. John Henry, one of the first black surgeons of Seattle, had moved from Nashville, Mary asked the questions that made the life of Charles M. Stokes unfold on two cassette tapes.
STOKEY'S STORY: IN HIS OWN WORDS
My full name is Charles Moorehead Stokes, retired Judge Charles M. Stokes. I was named for my grandfather, who was Charles Garner. His middle name was Moorehead, so I was named for him.
My birthdate is February the first, nineteen-three. I was born in Fredonia, Kansas. My father was Reverend Norris J. Stokes -- J. meaning Jefferson. And my mother was Myrtle Garner, before she married. But my mother died when I was about three. I don't remember one thing about her.
But then my father remarried. I had a stepmother -- Josephine Stokes. And that's now my wife's name too. I tell my wife that my stepmother was such a lovely woman, I thought I'd get me a Josephine, too, like my dad did. She was a graduate of Baker College in Kansas, which was an astounding accomplishment for her, and for blacks, to graduate from college at that time.
My father was born somewhere in Kentucky. He got to Kansas, I suppose, by being a preacher. I understand he went to Macon, Georgia, to some sort of school they had down there. I don't know where my mother was born. I suppose there in Kansas.
You know, in those days they never did talk about things like that -- where they were born, what schools they went to, that kind of information Alex Haley got in Roots. And if you didn't happen to catch what your parents happened to drop sometime, you just never thought about it, and you never got it for posterity.
I don't know how my father happened to become a preacher, with the possible exception that it was the thing to be at that time. That was before the turn of the century -- it wasn't long after Emancipation -- when black folks were just evolving from the cotton fields and the plantations. And I suppose one of the few professions available was being a preacher, and it was the easiest profession to obtain because you didn't need a license, you just started preaching. If he had gone to school, I'm sure he had some reason other than just saying he was going to preach, because he wouldn't have taken school as lightly as that.
I had one brother, and one half-brother. I had a brother by my father and my natural mother. Named Norris, he was nearly two years older than I. I also had a half-brother by my father and my stepmother; his name is Maurice. I am eight years older than him. There were three of us. I -- being the middle one -- never got anything new. [Laughs]
My younger brother just left Seattle, after coming to visit me here for the first time. He had been to twenty-one countries, traveling around the world, but never had been here to see me. He'd been as near as San Francisco and never came to see me. Maurice is a retired professor of history at Savannah State College. He taught at Alabama State College before that. He now lives in our family's home in Pratt, Kansas.
My other brother is a singer, and led quartets. Norris aspired to be a Wings over Jordan-type. He traveled with the Jackson Jubilee Singers, which were of quite some notoriety in Kansas. Have you heard of the Jackson Jubilee Singers? Etta Moten [Etta Moten Barnett; an actress and singer, the first to play Bess in "Porgy and Bess"] was in that. Well, he was connected with them -- if not, of that same type of gospel group. He also had his own quartet, and would go to high schools, and sing in Canada, places like that.
Norris didn't get married until he was seventy-five years old. I told him at the time, "Why bother?" But he married a nice lady named Louise, and stopped traveling and settled down in Beckley, West Virginia. He's eighty-five now.
Maurice never did get married. And neither one of them had children.
My first schooling was in Paola, Kansas. My father was pastoring at a church there. My first school was a black school, as I remember it. When you got to the third grade, then you transferred to the other school, the north school, where the white and black went, in Pratt, Kansas. We were living there then.
I went through the elementary school grades very well. Then I got a little older, and I had other ideas. I started shooting craps, and chasing the women, and not doing a doggone thing. I was seventeen or nineteen, when I messed up. It was during high school -- an integrated school -- and my older brother had gone on to college.
I was in a place all by myself, not staying at home, but in one of my dad's houses in which there was a kitchen shack. You know what a kitchen shack is, where they have a thrashing machine outfit, and they have a kitchen? Well, in Pratt, the shacks are box cars, and I had one of those on a lot that Dad owned in Pratt.
I had quit school, because I went one year and flunked everything I took. I think the teachers ganged up on me. They knew that I could do better work and that I wasn't doing it. And I just didn't much care. I would go there unprepared, so they said, "We ought to cure his slothfulness." So every one of the teachers flunked me.
Then I said, "Well, if I'm going to flunk, I may as well quit."
So I quit and laid out of school three years -- gambling, running around, kicking around, doing nothing. [Laughs] Then I went back and finished high school.
But I didn't go back to the high school in Pratt right away. Dad came over one day and asked me, "What are you going to do -- to make of yourself?"
There was a colored school in Topeka called, at that time, Kansas Vocational School. It was run by Baptists. So Dad asked, "If I send you up there, would you go?" I said, "Yes."
Well, I thought that indicated he was going to pay for everything. He sent me up there and never paid a dime after that! [Laughs]
Well, I had to carry big rocks -- to help build what they called the Trade Building. I had to carry milk from the Agricultural Department over to the cottages where the teachers were. I had to sweep out the Administration Building -- all to stay in school. Then they took me out of school entirely. And I was still doing this work.
I did that, oh, about two or three weeks, and someone came to me and said, "Stokes, you're a fool. You're sitting here working, getting beans and syrup, whatever they're feeding you, and a place to sleep, and that's all. If you're not going to school, you can go out and work and get some money, and get paid for it."
So I called my brother Norris, who was then at Ottawa University. He was working at a barber shop or something. And he sent me four dollars -- two dollars of which was my fare to come to where he was in Ottawa, Kansas. The other two dollars was just for incidentals or getting there, that sort of thing.
But there was a commandant named Winston there, who later went to Tuskegee Institute, and was the commandant of ROTC at Tuskegee. He heard I was leaving. And he must have thought there was some good in me, or something he wanted the school to have. So he says, "Oh, what's the matter?"
I said, "Well, I came up here to go to school. I didn't come up here to work free, like a slave or something."
He says, "Is that all?"
I said, "Yeah."
He said, "If you were in school, would you stay?"
I said, "Yes, I'll stay."
That was on a Friday. He said, "Unpack your things. I'll seat you in school Monday."
I don't know what he did, but I was back in school Monday. So I finished out the year.
It was an all-black vocational school. But I was taking regular high-school subjects -- geometry, and I suppose English. But geometry is mostly what I remember. They had agriculture, tailoring, and carpentry. I was in the carpentering end of it.
I remember an eccentric, hard-nosed guy there named Burke, who was a splendid fellow. He was a teacher of carpentry who was building a hospital there on the grounds. He'd say, "Boy, if you're going to hit the nail -- hit it! Don't play with it! Hit it!" [Laughs] And I'd go BAM! BAM! BAM! You can drive a nail quicker if you hit it! [Laughs]
I didn't graduate from this school, though. I was a sophomore then. I went back to Pratt, Kansas, and re-entered the high school there. Then I went on to graduate. I was the feature editor of the newspaper at school. I was reciting Paul Lawrence Dunbar poems, and all that crap. [Laughs]
There was one teacher there who taught journalism, and I was under her tutelage. I had a column in the newspaper, and called myself Sparkey. I wrote one day that the football guys did all that playing for the school and didn't get a dime, didn't get a dollar, didn't get anything but a blanket with pee on it. [Laughs]
I wanted to put that in the paper, but she said, "We can't do that, Charles."
I said, "Why not?"
She said, "Well, the school board wouldn't like that." So we didn't put that in Sparkey's column.
But she always thought I would be something. We got to talking once, and she said, "When you get to be something, I'm going to bring you a chicken." And years later, when I was in politics and had come back to Pratt, she came and brought me a chicken. [Laughs] Yeah, Lettie Little -- she wrote a book about Kansas and gave me a copy. She was a lovely lady.
There was also another teacher who was important in my life. In college at Kansas University, E. C. Beauchler taught debate and speech -- that sort of thing. He was very nice. He was loose and easy; he'd come in talking, and laughing, and tick you around. He'd teach you something, and make you want to please him. I always thought he was very nice.
You ask, did my father pay for college, or did I go on a scholarship? Girl, I had to work!
I waited tables. See, the Alpha Chi Omega girls would have these rush parties, and that would be a week or two before school started. And they'd have teas, and they'd give you two dollars to serve that tea. I served those things! I also played in a band, a dance band there in Lawrence, Kansas.
When school started one year, I was still working for those Alpha Chi Omega girls. Their sorority house had a furnace, which a white man was tending to, but he didn't stay there, and the girls were always complaining about being cold. So I told them, "Well, let me fire the furnace."
And they said, "Oh, Stokey, you can't fire the furnace."
I said, "Oh, yes, I can too. I can fire the furnace. I've done that kind of work before."
They said, all right, they'd let me do it. But I didn't have anyplace to live and it was a little chore for me to keep them warm if I wasn't there. So I told them, "I could do a better job if I lived here, see?"
They said, "Stokey, there's no place for you to live with the sorority."
"Oh yes, there is."
"In the trunk room."
In the trunk room was where they stored all the trunks of the girls coming to school. They said, "There's no place there."
"If I make a place, can I stay?" I asked.
They said, "Yes."
So I got in there and I packed all those regular trunks and wardrobe trunks on top of each other, and pushed them back and made a place for me along the wall. I had a table there on which I'd study. It had a mirror over it. I had my own wardrobe trunk for a dresser. Next to me was the lavatory and basin -- no tub. If it was cold weather, I'd take a tin tub and take a bath right there. I was right on the edge of the campus and could go up to the gymnasium and take a shower. So I just made out that way.
They were paying me five dollars a week, and board and room. When you are working for your board and room, you don't lose your appetite. They had a very good, lovely cook there, a woman named Mary Harvey. She and her husband had a farm five miles outside of Lawrence. And she brought cream and milk, and eggs and chickens, and watermelons and things to the sorority. She was just a lovely old lady.
During the summer I had to stay there for summer school. There I am without any money. Herbert Duckett [a schoolmate] and I were there together. Duckett would get money from home every Monday morning. And every Tuesday morning, he'd spend that money just like he was going to get some more the next day. So finally I told him, "Duckett, quit spending our money like that! You can't do that!"
I was getting two dollars a week to cut the lawn while the Alpha Chi Omega girls were gone home for the summer. My two dollars would last longer than Duckett's money he was getting, because he would spend it all. [Laughs] We'd starve from one Monday until the next Monday when he'd get some more money. But he cut down on it. We set it up so that we'd go to a little mom-and-pop grocery store with a dime. When one would buy something with that dime, the other one would have to steal something so we could get by. [Nervous laughter]
There was a lady down the street from the Kappa House [his own fraternity's house] who would charge us a quarter for a meal, and we'd have one meal in the evening between us. That was in 1931. Even then, charging us a quarter was helping us. She was being nice to us. She had children of her own and wanted to help us. A quarter didn't pay for the work she did for us to eat, but it was just a lovely thing she did. And that's the way we had it.
What made me decide to go to law school? Well, to tell the truth, I really don't know, except people kept telling me, "The way you are, you ought to be a lawyer." That was because I liked to talk.
I didn't know about being a lawyer, but I knew I didn't want to be a preacher. I felt that had my daddy been Adam Clayton Powell's daddy, I could have been a preacher, too, because he had some money. But my daddy had nothing. And I didn't want to be a preacher and not have money, and have people giving you clothes, and food, and stuff. I didn't want to be depending on people. I didn't want to be cold all the time.
I'd seen my dad put gunnysacks on his feet to keep his feet warm while he went out in the country to cut wood in the snow. And I'd seen him lay brick making paved streets out of the dirt streets. He had to pick them up about five or six at a time and carry them up to the guy who was handling the bricks. I said to myself, I didn't want any of that.
There was a fellow named Elijah Scott in Topeka, and a fellow named William Harrison in Hutchinson, which was not too far from Pratt. They were doing pretty good as lawyers, so I said, heck, I'd try to be a lawyer.
At that time, we had to do pre-law in college. You could take the fourth year of college as the first year of law school. So I did six years.
In 1931, I graduated. I would have gotten my diploma at that time, but it would have cost me eighteen dollars to put on a robe and cap, walk down the line, and have all the folderol that goes with it. I didn't have eighteen dollars. So I skipped all that.
But I was able to take the bar because I had graduated -- even though I didn't walk down the aisle. So I did take the bar, and I passed it.
I didn't get my diploma until 1946. That was because before then, I didn't quite have the money, and when I did have it, I didn't want to spend it for that. I was practicing law and really didn't need my diploma. Then later on, I said, "Well, I'll just get it." And I finally got it.
After I got my law degree, then I needed a job. In Leavenworth, Kansas, there was a noted black lawyer named T. W. Bell. He had expertise in habeas corpus. I went up to Leavenworth to work with him. To help me along, he gave me ten dollars a week. I spent five dollars a week for board and room, and I had five dollars left. I started with him in 1931 and stayed until 1934, when I opened my own office.
After I opened my own office, I picked it with the chickens. I mean, I had some hard times.
One day, the phone rang and it was Central. [The phone company] She said, "Mr. Stokes?"
"We're going to have to turn off your phone."
"Why? You can't do that!"
She said, "Well, you know you're behind three or four months."
"Yes, I'm behind, but you can't turn it off!"
"Why can't we turn it off?"
I said, "Because if you do, nobody's going to hire a lawyer who can't even keep a telephone on! If you turn it off, you'll never get your money, and neither will I."
"Well we've got to get paid." So they turned it off until I could pay it.
I had some hard times. The principal of the school got a new car. The fellow I'd started with, T. W. Bell, got a new car. Dr. William McKinley Thomas, who got to Leavenworth about two weeks before I did, he got a new car. I -- like a damn fool -- said, "I need a new car." And I had a car that would just hit and miss: Tick-a-tick-a-tick-a-tick. But I, like a fool, got a new car. I got a Ford that had three chrome bands on it, from front to the side. A distinctive thing, it was a beauty, that car.
But the fellow I was buying my house from said, "If you can get a new car, you can pay me." I didn't pay him, so he sued me to take over my house. Then after a while, I'm sitting up in my office and a fellow came from Topeka and said, "Where's the automobile?"
"I'm not going to tell you."
He was the agent from the mortgage company. He said, "I know where
"Where is it?"
"It's impounded because I picked it up."
"You couldn't have picked it up," I said, "because it was locked."
"Well, I had it towed away."
So I called up the sheriff. I said, "Jim, this guy stole my car. And I know who did it."
"Where is he?" he asked.
So the sheriff came and said, "Get in here!" And he put the agent in jail.
The man was hollering about getting out, and called his people in Topeka, and then they were calling me. His daddy was a Kansas meteorologist. And this guy had never been in jail before. The cockroaches bit him up. And the other inmates took his money and held kangaroo court. Oh, he was fit to be tied!
His people came calling me, saying what they were going to do to me. I said, "That's all right. I live dangerously. Go ahead."
The next day, they saw he wasn't going to get out, so they said to me, "You let him out, and we'll give you back your car."
And I said, "All right, that's what I want."
So I let him out. And we went over to the garage where he was to turn the car loose. Got there and he wouldn't do it.
I got on the phone and said, "Jim, this guy won't give me my car."
He said, "Where is he?"
"He's sitting right down here."
"I'll be right there!" In five minutes that white man was there, and he put that other white man back in the jail. Well, I got my car out that time.
The same day, I had to go to Kansas City, so I drove the car down. Coming back, driving this car with the distinctive three chrome bands on it, I could see the agent coming home. I met him going toward Kansas City. And I could see him do a double take -- he recognized the car. Then I'm looking in the rearview mirror, and I see him stop and turn around, coming back. I commenced going faster and faster, faster. I commenced hitting eighty and ninety. He commenced hitting eighty and ninety behind me. Then he's driving with one hand, pulling off his coat with the other. He's going to work me over good, see? He was way bigger than I was. So I'm doing all this fast driving, speeding. But here come this sign that says, "Entering Leavenworth County." He saw that and I guess he thought, "I'd better let this bastard go on now, or he'll put me in jail again." [Laughs]
But he called me that night and said, "Don't ever come to Topeka."
And I said, "Well, I'll be there. I'll be there."
What he didn't know was that in the front seat was a prison guard, a black fellow, who had just been learning jujitsu. And in the backseat was one of my brothers-in-law. They had been lying down there sleeping, so the guy couldn't see anybody but me.
When I told them what happened, they said, "Why didn't you let him catch us?"
I said, "That man could have shot you or something! We aint got no gun!"
And the prison guard said, "Why didn't you let me? I wanted to try my jujitsee on him!"
"Well, I'd rather outrun him," I said. "A good run's better than a bad stand."
Yeah, I had some hard times, but I eventually paid for the house and the automobile too. I got married [to first wife Evangeline Goddard] and stayed in Leavenworth until 1939, at which time I became an assistant attorney in the Kansas Commission of Revenue and Taxation and went to Topeka.
One day I wasn't feeling well, and the wife, Eva, came upstairs where I was and said, "A man's downstairs to see you."
"Who is he?"
She said, "I don't know -- some white man."
I'm sick with a cold, not feeling good, all stuffy. I go downstairs, and there he is, the agent, knocking on the door and inviting me out.
I said, "You old fool, you!" I shut the door and went back upstairs. [Laughter]
He had told me not to come to Topeka, and there I was, see? He was going to try again to beat me up, that's what he was going to do! He lived in Topeka, his father lived there, and he was going to work me over for that jail time he did. [Laughter]
I moved to Topeka, because I was going to get a regular salary. It wasn't much, but it enabled me to pay all my bills, keep ahead, and have a little left each time. Having a little security at that time was worth changing for.
But I was sitting up there in the Kansas Commission of Revenue and Taxation, and they didn't give me one damn thing to do. Not one thing. I'm not exaggerating -- nothing! I just sat there and collected a check each month.
Why? Because I was black! And the white lawyers were at the other end of the floor -- three of them.
What I'd do to amuse myself is that I'd go down to the law library and just start reading. I'd read anything. All I had to do was report. That's all I had to do. They'd given me a secretary. She started doing work processing the tax returns from sales tax and compensating tax, which gave her something to do rather than just sitting there looking like a bump on a log.
I made one mistake. I asked them how much they were paying me. I should have left that alone, because otherwise I would have been paid what the white boys were being paid. When I asked them that I think they realized, "Well, he's not expecting so much." So they cut me below what the white boys were getting.
I took that to get on my feet, get a little affluent, and get the feeling that I wasn't tied down or scared and all. Then I told them to raise me to what the white boys were getting or else I was going to quit. And I suppose they thought -- which I have no reason to think, other than for purely personal piffle -- "This man's a fool. He's not going to quit the job, because he's not doing nothing. A lot of us want a job to not do anything."
But I felt I was atrophying. The little law I knew, I was losing, because I wasn't practicing it.
They didn't raise my salary.
When I told them I was going to quit, I either had to go back to Leavenworth or go somewhere else. I thought, I didn't do too good in Leavenworth. I'd be a fool to go back there. Where shall I go?
Ray and Ted Jones, and Elmo Johnson, lived across the street in Topeka. One family lived to my right, and the other to my left in the next block. They had come out here to Seattle to work for Boeing. They told me to come, because there were no black lawyers here at all other than one -- Johnnie Prim -- and he was in the prosecutor's office. I said, "That sounds like a pretty good thing."
So in 1943, I came out here to Seattle.
Copyright © 2004 by Stephanie Stokes Oliver