Room Full of MirrorsA Biography of Jimi Hendrix
Hyperion BooksCopyright © 2006 Charles R. Cross
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780786888412
Chapter One BETTER THAN BEFORE
* * *
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON January 1875-November 1942
"Dear Al: Congratulations on your fine son. Mother and son are well. Conditions lots better than before. Lucille sends love." -telegram from DeLores Hall to Al Hendrix
JIMI HENDRIX WAS born the day after Thanksgiving, 1942. The healthy arrival of this eight-pound, eleven-ounce baby was seen by all as a true thanksgiving sign from God. When his aunt wired his father with the news, her short telegram included the line "Conditions lots better than before." That statement could serve as an epigraph for the larger history of the Hendrixes to that point, and, in an even wider context, as a wishful summation of the African American experience in the United States: Things had been bad for a long time, and perhaps this new generation could hope for an improvement and a more righteous world. Relatives on both sides of Jimi's family celebrated his birth as a new beginning. "He was the cutest baby you would ever want to see," recalled his aunt Delores Hall. "He was darling."
Jimi was born in the maternity ward of King County Hospital, later called Harborview, in Seattle, Washington. The hospital commanded a majestic view of the large natural harbor of Puget Sound. Seattle was slowly emerging as one of the major American port cities on the Pacific Coast and had a population of 375,000 in 1942. In the wartime years, it was a boomtown where shipyards cranked out navy vessels and the Boeing Airplane Company churned out the B-17 bombers that would win the war for the Allies. In 1942, the factories ran round-the-clock shifts, and a huge influx of laborers expanded the city and forever changed its racial demographics. In the 1900 census, there had been only 406 Seattle residents who reported themselves as black, about one half of 1 percent of the population. In the decade from 1940 to 1950, fueled by the war machine's need for labor and a large migration from the South, the city's population of African Americans ballooned to 15,666, and they became Seattle's largest racial minority.
Neither Jimi's mother nor father was part of the wartime migration, but World War II would nevertheless play a major role in the circumstances of their lives. At the time of Jimi's birth, his father, Al, was a twenty-three-year-old private in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Al had asked his commanding officer for paternity leave to visit Seattle, but he was denied furlough and jailed instead. His superiors told him he'd been imprisoned because they were convinced he would go AWOL to attend the birth. Al was in the stockade when the congratulatory telegram from his sister-in-law arrived. He later complained that white soldiers had been given leave in similar situations, but his complaints fell on deaf ears. Al would not meet his son until the boy was three years old.
Jimi's mother, Lucille Jeter Hendrix, was only seventeen when Jimi was born. Through an inopportune stroke of timing, Lucille found out she was pregnant the same week Al was drafted. They married on March 31, 1942, at the King County, Courthouse in a ceremony performed by a justice of the peace, and they only lived together as man and wife for three days before Al was shipped out. The night before Al left, they partied at the Rocking Chair, a club where Ray Charles would later be discovered. Lucille was under the drinking age, but in the wartime frenzy, that didn't matter to bartenders. The couple toasted an uncertain future and Al's safe return from the service.
The circumstances of fate that gave the newly married couple their first child when Al was three thousand miles away created a wound that would forever fester in the marriage of Al and Lucille. Of course their separation wasn't unusual in the turbulent time of World War II. Once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a harried madness developed in Seattle and other West Coast cities, where fear of a Japanese assault was a backdrop to thousands of families being torn apart. The day before Al and Lucille were married, Seattle became the first city in the nation where Japanese Americans were gathered up and sent to internment camps. Eventually, 12,892 persons of Japanese ancestry from Washington State were imprisoned, including friends and neighbors of the couple.
Yet the relationship between Al and Lucille was strained by more than just the turmoil of the war. Al was short but handsome, while Lucille had an extraordinary youthful beauty that turned heads when she walked down the street. Other than their physical connection and a mutual love of dancing, they shared little to build a marriage on. Both had come from backgrounds of extreme poverty, and Al left Seattle knowing that he would be able to do little to provide for his new wife and child while overseas. Theirs had been a quick romance-a shotgun wedding, really-without the support of friends and family. As a teenage mother-to-be, Lucille faced extreme challenges in the form of her age, race, class, and economic situation. It was Lucille's very poverty that helped breed a deep distrust in Al Hendrix that would cause him to later raise questions of loyalty, fidelity, and paternity.
* * *
PATERNITY AND BLOODLINE had been contentious issues in the Hendrix family tree for centuries. The family history mirrored that of many other slave descendants in that little of it was recorded in the annals of history being written by whites. Jimi Hendrix would become one of the first black rock musicians to appeal to a largely white audience, but his own ethnic ancestry was multiracial and included a complex mix of Native Americans, African slaves, and white slave masters.
Jimi's maternal grandfather was Preston Jeter, born in Richmond, Virginia, on July 14, 1875. His mother had been a slave, and like many former slaves in Richmond, she continued in the same domestic position after the Civil War. Preston's father was his mother's former owner, though whether Preston was the result of rape or a consensual act-if such a thing can be possible in a slave-master relationship-is unknown. As a young man, Preston made the decision to leave the South after he witnessed a lynching. He headed for the Northwest, where he had heard conditions for blacks were better.
Preston was twenty-five when he arrived in Roslyn, Washington, a small mining town eighty miles east of Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. Unfortunately, he found riotous racial violence in Roslyn that mirrored the South, the result of mine management bringing in African Americans to break a strike by white miners. The county sheriff wrote the governor, warning, "There is a bitter feeling against the Negroes and ... I fear there will be bloodshed." A number of racially motivated killings followed. "Murder is a regular thing," one town resident observed.
By 1908, African Americans had become a tolerated, if not an accepted, part of Roslyn's fabric. A photo from that year captures Preston among a group of black miners in front of the only saloon they were allowed to patronize, Big Jim E. Shepperson's Color Club. Still, racial intolerance remained high, and when a mine explosion killed forty-five men, including several African Americans, whites would not allow the black victims to be buried in the town graveyard. Eventually, twenty-four different cemeteries were designated in the town, each devoted to a single ethnicity or fraternal order.
After a decade in Roslyn, Preston left to work mines in Newcastle, Washington. By 1915, he was in Seattle, working as a landscaper. By then in his forties, he entertained hopes of finding a wife. Reading the Seattle Republican, he sported an ad for a young woman looking for a husband.
* * *
THE WOMAN IN the ad was Clarice Lawson, Jimi Hendrix's maternal grandmother. Clarice had been born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1894. Like many Arkansas African Americans, her ancestors included both slaves and Cherokees. Clarice would tell her children the U.S. government had hunted down her Cherokee forebears, until slaves hid them and, eventually, intermarried with them.
Clarice had four older sisters, and the quintet of Lawson daughters regularly traveled from their Arkansas home to the Louisiana Delta to pick cotton. On one of these trips, Clarice, who was twenty at the time, was raped. When Clarice later discovered she was pregnant, her sisters decided to take her west and quickly find her a husband. They picked Washington after hearing from railroad workers that the region offered greater opportunity for blacks.
In Seattle, they advertised for a husband, not mentioning Clarice's pregnancy. Preston Jeter responded, and though he was nineteen years older than Clarke, they began to date. When Clarice's sisters pressed him for marriage and gave him a sum of money as a dowry, he grew suspicious and broke off their relationship. Clarice had the child and it was put up for adoption. The sisters offered Preston more money if he would marry the now-grieving Clarice. He agreed, and they were wed in 1915. Though the marriage would last until Preston's death thirty years later, the unusual circumstances of their meeting would strain the relationship.
Both Preston and Clarice had come to the Northwest to start a life in a place where race was less an issue than it was elsewhere. To a degree, this was true in Seattle, which lacked the segregation of the white-only drinking fountains of the Jim Crow South. In the Northwest, however, African Americans encountered a less overt form of discrimination, but one that still limited opportunity. In Seattle, blacks lived almost exclusively in an area called the Central District, four square miles that contained some of the city's oldest, and most decrepit, homes. Outside of this neighborhood, landlords would rarely rent to African Americans, and many townships had laws banning real estate sales to nonwhites.
Although their housing options were limited, African Americans found some benefit in Seattle's de facto segregation. In the Central District, they developed a tight-knit community where ethnic pride was strong and neighborhood ties blossomed. "It was a small enough community that if you didn't know someone, you knew their family," recalled Betty Jean Morgan, a lifelong resident. The neighborhood was also home to Native Americans, as well as Chinese, Italian, German, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants; the local schools were filled with a patchwork of ethnicities. There were enough ethnic and religious minorities in the neighborhood-it was also the center of Jewish life in the city-that a multiculturalism developed that was unique at the time not only in Seattle but also in the entire United States. Historian Esther Hall Mumford titled her history of black Seattle Calabash in a nod to the African tradition of cooking in a pot big enough to feed the village, and that metaphor-a neighborhood inclusive and self-sufficient-was apt for Seattle's Central District in the first half of the twentieth century. Those strong social ties and a warm sense of inclusiveness would have a lasting impact on all who grew up within it.
Seattle's black community had its own newspapers, restaurants, shops, and most gloriously, its own entertainment district, centered on Jackson Street. There, nightclubs and gambling dens featured nationally known jazz and blues acts. So vibrant was the scene that one newspaper editor compared it to Chicago's State Street or Memphis's Beale Street. Though the Jackson Street clubs were not common stops for Preston and Clarice Jeter, this colorful and vibrant netherworld would be an important backdrop for their children's young adulthood and, eventually, for grandchild Jimi Hendrix.
* * *
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE to blacks in Seattle-and the one that threatened to supersede all others-was finding fair employment. African Americans were tolerated by white Seattle society in most situations, but the only professions open to blacks were service jobs as cooks, waiters, or railroad porters. In a pattern that was familiar, Preston Jeter found work as a longshoreman during a strike; it was a job normally held only by whites. Clarice found work as a domestic, a job that 84 percent of Seattle's African American women held in the 1910 census. Clarice, like most black mothers of the day, cared for white babies at the same time as she began to have children of her own.
Over the next ten years, Clarice would have eight children, two of whom would die in infancy and two who would be adopted out. Lucille, the youngest of the Jeter children, was born in 1925, eight weeks premature. Because of complications from a tumor, as well as postpartum depression, Clarice remained in the hospital for six months after Lucille's birth. Preston, then fifty years old and suffering from health problems of his own, couldn't care for the family, so Lucille's three sisters-Nancy, Gertrude, and Delores-initially raised the baby. The nurses brought her home on a day in December that featured a rare Seattle snowstorm. "They had to walk up the hill in front of our house very carefully with her," recalled Delores Hall, who was four at the time. "They put her in my arms and said, 'Be careful because this is your new sister.'"
The Jeters faced enormous challenges over the next few years. Clarice was in and out of the hospital, suffering from physical and mental health problems, and the children were sent to foster care with a big German family that lived on a small farm north of Greenlake. In this predominantly white area, they were frequently mistaken for Gypsies, another ethnic minority that was shunned by white Seattle.
When Lucille turned ten, the family was living together again in the Central District. As an adolescent, Lucille had remarkably beautiful eyes and a lithe frame. "She had long, thick, dark hair, which was straight, and a beautiful wide smile," said her best friend in junior high, Loreen Lockett. Preston and Clarice were particularly protective of Lucille, who was fifteen before they allowed her to go to dances. Pretty and vivacious, Lucille drew attention even then. "She was a nice-looking girl and a very good dancer," recalled James Pryor. "She was very lightskinned with pretty hair. She could have passed." To "pass" was the African American vernacular for someone with a complexion light enough that they could pass in the world as white. To do so meant a con of sorts, but it opened up a world of employment options denied to most blacks. Even within the African American community at the time, lighter skin and straight hair were equated with beauty, and Lucille had both.
According to all accounts, fifteen-year-old Lucille was proper and a bit immature. She was also gifted with musical talent and could sing. Occasionally, she would enter amateur contests, and at one she won a five-dollar prize. Still, her greatest joy in life was to be on the dance floor with a good partner. One night in November 1941, Lucille stopped by a classmate's home on the way to a dance at Washington Hall. She had just turned sixteen and was in junior high. Like any schoolgirl, she was excited to be going to a concert, and the featured act that night was the legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller. A young man from Canada was visiting her friend. "Lucille," her classmate said, "meet Al Hendrix."