When I interviewed Maxey in April 1997, the grey-haired 72-year-old was predictably sharp and acerbic about those days, recalling getting repeatedly tossed out of the city's amusement park, even on nights when the bandstand entertainer was Fats Waller or Duke Ellington. He was also full of stories about taking restaurants to court, going after social clubs where it hurt them most (their liquor licenses) and heatedly debating the practice of redlining with the local real estate leaders. He was still full of disdain for certain hotels and restaurants, not because they still discriminated, but because they had dragged their heels so stubbornly 40 years earlier. And then, in the middle of the interview, he said this, “But you know, to really understand this story, you have to know where I come from.” And with that, Maxey started telling me his life story. Now, as a reporter with a deadline, my knee-jerk reaction was probably, “That's great, but I can't use it. I'm not writing your life story.” Fortunately, I did not say this out loud, because another thought soon crowded it out: “If Carl Maxey wants to tell me his life story, then I need to shut up and listen. And keep that tape recorder running.”
The story he told that day was absolutely stunning. He was a 12-year-old orphan in Spokane in 1936, when the orphanage kicked him out, along with the only other “colored” orphan. Maxey was able to quote the minutes of the orphanage board meeting verbatim: “The board (goes) on record as voting to have no more colored children in the Home, from this time forward. Motion carried – unanimous.” No other orphanage in Spokane would subsequently take these young two boys. Then Maxey said to me, “If you wonder where some of my fire comes from, it comes from a memory that includes this event.” At that moment, I realized that Maxey's life story had an uncommonly compelling dramatic arc. How does a child survive the worst possible start in life? And then, how does that child grow up to become the man whose bronze bust in the Gonzaga Law School library reads, “He made a difference”? At the time, I still had no idea how Maxey made that journey, but I knew it would be a great story.
Then, after Maxey committed suicide a little more than two months after our interview, I knew that the story had just become even more dramatic and complex.
More here. (Note: At least one daily post throughout February will be devoted to African American History Month)