July 17, 1915 to September 12, 2007
Born in Hanover County, Virginia
Civil War Historian, storyteller and retired government executive
The first black to serve on the Official Staff of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, William W. Layton was a poet, storyteller, lecturer and collector of historical documents related mostly to the abolitionist movement and the Civil War. He donated portions of his collection to public institutions. In 1977, Layton retired from a career spent in community relations and human resources working for local, state and federal government agencies. After retirement, he published two volumes of anecdotal, often humorous essays. Layton described himself as 'one-hundred-percent American and one-thousand-percent Virginian'.
William Wendell Layton was born on July 17, 1915 in the cottage where his parents lived on the grounds of The Virginia Manual Labor School (formerly, the Negro Reformatory of Virginia) a reform school for delinquent boys in Hanover County, Virginia outside Richmond. His father taught blacksmithing and was first promoted to school disciplinarian and later to principal, or Superintendent.
Layton was the second of four children and had an older sister, and two younger brothers. His brother Benjamin thought Layton was a genius because he was a voracious reader and began writing poetry at age eight. As a result of their mother's dressmaking skills, the Layton children were always well-dressed. Layton recalls a happy childhood that included spending Sunday's in church, exploring the expansive farmland of the reformatory campus and taking rides in the family's 'tin Lizzie' Ford car.
But Layton struggled to understand his own identity and heritage. His father, William Brown Layton, was the son of a slave who bore signs of, what William W. describes as, "the miscegenation that had taken place resulting in some of my forebears crossing the racial line to the white side." His mother Mary Amanda Sully Layton's ancestors had been free since at least 1737. Those maternal ancestors included Layton's great-grandfather Ballard Trent Edwards a black/Indian Virginia statesman and his great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Coy, who was a Pamunkey Indian.
To attend high school, Layton had to ride a streetcar a long distance to reach the only high school for blacks, Richmond's Armstrong High. In one of his essays, Layton describes a game made up to cope with the second class status he experienced. "The school books we got were always used by the white students first." He and his friends created a game called 'Who got the best book?' The object was to choose blindly from a stack of coverless texts the volume in the best condition. In another essay, Layton reports being frustrated by the segregation that denied him access to Richmond's main public libraries. One day, he says, he walked up the steps and into the doors of the big downtown branch, knowing his request for a book would be refused - which it was. He says he enjoyed the experience of pushing the envelope of societal norms.
Layton as a young man
After graduating from Armstrong High in 1932, Layton enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He majored in sociology with the goal of easing racial tensions. He graduated from Lincoln in 1937. In the late 1930s, Layton earned a Master's degree in sociology from Fisk University in Nashville. He did further graduate study at Michigan State University.
In 1933, Layton went with his family to watch the first inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt. Friends of his parents brought their children including a daughter named Phoebe whom Layton would eventually marry. Until donating it for public view, Layton kept the original souvenir program purchased that day for thirty-five cents.
After college, Layton worked in the Visiting Teacher Attendance Division of the Nashville public schools, a position he once described as being a 'glorified truant officer'. In 1940, he married Phoebe Anderson and moved to Columbus, Ohio where he worked for the Urban League.
In 1947, he bought his first television and added watching broadcasts - especially news - to his regular reading regimen. He also learned to operate a ham radio, earning an advanced FCC certificate in 1952.
In 1951, Layton relocated his family to Muskegon, Michigan where he was the Executive Director of the Urban League, served as president of a local interfaith council and in other community development and human resource positions, including director of education and community services for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in Lansing, Michigan.
As his career grew, so did his family. The Layton's had three daughters: Andrée Layton Roaf, Mary Layton Parkinson, and the late Serena Layton Davis, who died of cancer in 1988.
While the girls were growing up, every summer the Layton's returned to William's family home in Millwood, Virginia. The drive accentuated the difference in lifestyles between the desegregated north and still segregated south. One of Layton's more painful memories is of a trip in 1953 when his daughters were refused service on a stop for ice-cream near Millwood.
Layton moved to Washington, DC with his family in 1965, when he became director of contract compliance for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1971, he became one of the first African American senior staff officials of the Federal Reserve Board, where he was director of affirmative action hiring throughout the Federal Reserve System. He retired in 1977 but continued as a consultant to the Federal Reserve Board until 1981.
In 1973, Layton realized a long time goal of meeting President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth then 89 years old. It turned out they were both inveterate storytellers who enjoyed swapping anecdotes.
During his tenure at the Federal Reserve, and long after retirement in 1977, Layton used his considerable storytelling skills to deliver workshops on communication skills and, outside of work, to give lectures on history. Those lectures wove in tales from his personal background and the historical documents he was steadily acquiring. Layton says he comes from a long line of 'hoarders'. For example, after his father died in 1975, Layton found every letter he had ever written to his dad. He also found an 1814 Certificate of Freedom belonging to one of his ancestors.
But unlike his ancestors who simply saved everything, Layton took a methodical approach to collecting. He searched first for documents related to Abraham Lincoln and gradually widened the scope to the entire abolitionist movement, Confederate documents, Revolutionary War material and 20th century figures such as Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson and Eubie Blake.
In later years, Layton also became a philanthropist, donating portions of his collection and funds to public institutions and helping to found the Fort Collier Civil War Center. Layton also allowed the National Archives to duplicate some fifteen-hundred historical items from his collection on microfilm.
To celebrate his eightieth birthday in 1995 he flew over the Shenandoah Valley in a vintage bi-plane wearing a leather helmet and goggles.
After that, Layton experienced health setbacks as a result of Parkinson's disease and multiple back surgeries. In September 1997, he suffered a stroke. In August of 2000, while trying to climb the stairs at home, he fell nine feet but broke no bones, an outcome he attributes to the strength of his part-Pamunkey Indian constitution.
In describing her father Andrée has written that William W. Layton, "could work with his hands and make beautiful cabinets, use the most complicated Leica camera, beat almost anyone at tennis, compose poetry, deliver spell-binding speeches, hang wallpaper, clean a kitchen floor better than anyone else (down on his hands and knees with a razor blade to first remove the scuff marks: and drive us safely across nearly half of this country to Virginia every summer singing, and joking and teasing and teaching all the way."
William W. Layton passed away September 12, 2007 at the Methodist Home in Washington where he had lived for five years. He had Parkinson's disease.
John Hope Franklin's Visionary Page
URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/laytonwilliam