Trombones We Have Known

Nothing then was as nearly so obvious as it seems to be now, so far away.

Back in 1961 there was a new President Kennedy who gained office with the votes of southern Democrats.  We all thought his Boston accent quite strange but he was young and had a great sense of humor. He made his brother Robert his Attorney General. At first they both saw Martin Luther King as a threat to America, and had him watched by Hoover’s FBI. Many Republicans and northern Democrats pushed integration of the races while other Republicans and the southern Democrats favored segregation. There were still “whites-only” water fountains in parts of the country and many hotels in large cities which would not admit black professional athletes when they were in road games. A tremendous number of upscale neighborhoods in major cities still required contractual covenants which would not allow any subsequent owners to sell their property to blacks or Jews.

My grandmother, who came to Oklahoma from Tennessee in a covered wagon, and was a great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett, was an intelligent, kind Southern woman who rocked me in her rocker and sang songs like “There was an old darkie whose name was Uncle Ned, He died long years ago, He had no hair on the top of his head, The place where the hair ought to grow….Lay down the fiddle and the bow, Lay down the shovel and the hoe, Ain’t no more work for poor Uncle Ned, He’s gone where the good darkies go.”

At seven years old, I never dreamt that song — or my grandmother — would be called racist, a word I’d never heard and would not hear for years. Later while in college I argued with my grandmother about Martin Luther King, and she said she saw they had good reason, but they were trying to “move too fast.”

The curious thing about segregationists in America was that quite a few blacks agreed with them. I am using the word “blacks” as this was considered a neutral descriptive term for several interim decades, and represents the best of adjectives used for African-Americans at that time and for some time thereafter. The gentleman I am about to describe was the epitome of what was called “Black Pride.”

Keve Bray did not cater to integration, though he was a high school teacher and it might have benefitted him to do so. He never wanted integration because if someone has to be integrated then automatically that made them a victim, and Keve Bray was not going to be anyone’s de facto victim.

Googling Keve Bray doesn’t get you much of anywhere. Like they say of the great Gayle Sayers running the football, you had to be there.  What they have to say online is all so far removed from the contact that I had with him in 1961, that I have to remember him in a more innocent time when all our roles seemed so much more innocent as well.

First of all, you have to know that Keve Bray was an actor. A big baritone of an actor, but with a wry intelligence that transcends the usual stage. He would be on anyone’s short list to play Othello, probably even Shakespeare’s. I got to know Keve because in 1961 I took a playwriting class at the University of Washington and wrote a short (forgettable) play and he was teaching high school drama and had me read it to his class.

Seattle was ever the place where social movements took root. First it was friendly relations of settlers with Native Americans, living alongside tribes whose living came from the land – and sea – in this temperate climate. There was so much meat and fish and berries and corn and wood to burn that almost no one could die of cold or hunger. There was so much plenty that ever so often a rich family was obliged to hold a public potlatch where they gave away everything they had to the many visitors, and were judged socially by how much they had to give away. I guess you would call the potlatch societies both pre-capitalist and post-capitalist (since they obviously had to accumulate something in order to give it away).

Later the American Communist party took infiltrated the docks, and Woody Guthrie came to write songs and sing songs about the new progressive movements, most specifically “The Great Grand Coulee Dam.”

So it was fitting that many blacks in Seattle at that time were seeking an identity that had been denied to them since the Civil War…They were mostly descended from slaves, but were still not any kind of equal citizen.  Keve Bray felt that blacks in America should own their own banks and their own insurance companies and their own farms, and hire their own people to build their own houses and run their own grocery stores to feed their own communities. He felt that until blacks could stand proudly with their own institutions parallel to the rest of society, then this new integration phenomenon was merely patronizing condescension from the white community.

So when $50 was a lot of money, and I was working three jobs to stay in school at the University of Washington, I invested $50 in Keve Bray’s Evergreen Insurance Company, the first black insurance company I know of anywhere. And when Keve Bray put on All Gods Trombones as a benefit play based on a collection of sermons in verse, at the Opera House downtown, I agreed to play the white foreman on a slave plantation. Barely having started college, it was probably the only role in life I was then qualified to play.

A couple of nights before the first dress rehearsal of All Gods Trombones, and we were playing a critical scene in which I played the white plantation foreman who was to throw the main character down and run him off. ( FYI – My word processor now suggests I use the word supervisor instead of foreman.) The main character was a sprightly singer and dancer who stole the rehearsals with his talent and charm and was sure to steal the show when we put on the play. All the cast was in high spirits as we rehearsed in the basement of a church in downtown Seattle. This was a chance to show off everything good, and also raise money in a real way for real businesses, in the black community.

I was the only white person in the play, and everyone was gathered around in a cheerful mood when Keve said we had to put maximum energy into this scene, so it would look real from far out in the audience. I moved onto the stage, and on cue grabbed the main man and threw him down, spouting my rehearsed invective, and one of the other “slaves” caught the fall on his knee. There was a groan from the star, and he rolled over holding his ribs.

The eyes which had been laughing and cheerful turned mean on me. I may have ruined their show, and I was a white guy. It was not my fault and yet, in a much larger sense, it was my fault. I was the only one here who was privileged to be white. I felt the helplessness of a baby on the beach, looking up at a large wave. Keve Bray stepped into this vacuum of solid, silent resentment and said, “OK, let’s change roles.” He pulled the groaning dancer to his feet. “You’ll be the foreman.”

I was so glad to be grabbed, so glad to be thrown to the floor in front of all the cast. They were all laughing in that release of sudden bad feelings. I was OK. We were all just playing roles. And Keve’s play went on that week and made money. Soon I was involved in other college classes and activities, and later involved in combat and in a few business conflicts, but this command decision, made by a director to save his play, stuck with me as one of the more brilliant and perceptive moves I have ever seen.

From Tulsa, where I was in graduate school in 1965, I saw an article from the Seattle Times that Keve had organized a group to ban the children’s book Black Sambo, from the Seattle Public Library. I smiled at this, envisioning his gusto and his self-assurance on the steps of the city library. And then, being in my own war and trying to return from that strange role to a different America than I left, I heard no more about him until now. One of the better accounts online omits a lot of grisly detail, but reads like  this:                                                Seattle businessman and political activist Keve Bray played an essential role in the local civil rights movement and is especially notable for his role in the black power movement in the Central District. Bray was born on June 9, 1925. Very little is known about his childhood background. By the 1960s Bray emerged as an early opponent of integration as the best means to advance equality for African Americans in Seattle. As early as 1964, he spoke out against the integrationist rhetoric of many civil rights leaders. This political dissent foreshadowed the emergence of black power ideologies in Seattle later in the 1960s.
By 1968, Bray had become a leader of the “black nationalist” faction of the African American community in Seattle. He and his followers asserted their dissatisfaction of the direction of the civil rights movement, under the leadership of the Central Area Civil Rights Committee, at a particularly heated community meeting in March 1968. From that point on, many young black Seattleites openly supported the black power rhetoric of Keve Bray, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, and other leaders of the Black Nationalist movement.  Bray was very active in community organizations and carried a strong voice in Seattle. He co-founded the Negro Voters League in 1966 and was a member of the United Black Front (UBF).  In 1969 he joined other UBF members and eight Seattle Black Panthers in presenting a list of Central District grievances to the Washington State Senate Ways and Means Committee. Bray was also a frequent contributor to the Afro American Journal, a short-lived publication in Seattle that openly supported the black power movement.                                                                                                                                                       In addition to his involvement in political activism, Keve Bray was a major supporter of African American arts and culture in Seattle. Bray headed the Black Cultural Center, a center that promoted black community education and served as a place for young African Americans to display arts and crafts. The Center also housed the Banneker School, an alternative private school for African American youth in the Central District. In 1972 Bray moved to Denver, Colorado after becoming a Black Muslim.  He changed his name to Keve X and was assigned by Nation of Islam, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, to reorganize the Denver Mosque. Bray was assassinated in the doorway of his Denver home on November 17, 1972, allegedly by Denver members of the Nation of Islam.

We travel through events and roles in life. The events mostly become slips of paper in old drawers (or on old web sites) and the most momentous ones are usually far away in the news and are never like the personal ones which form the real course of the world. And the roles…It may not matter what roles you chose, or why you chose them, but only how you played the role. The role Keve Bray played was his creation and yet a creation of the times, and — when all the lights fade on all of us — I have to think he played his role to perfection.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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