- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

Assisted by his rolling walker with the flip-down seat concealing books, papers or perhaps some miniature candy treats, historian,

collector and writer William W. Layton walks more slowly these days. Nonetheless, the 88-year-old D.C. resident still keeps pace with the present while stepping enthusiastically and frequently into America’s past.

“I’ve just been fascinated by historical events and letters and documents relating to those events,” Mr. Layton says.

He began collecting when he was about 11 — magazines, World War I papers, cartoons. Young Mr. Layton would see something and ask for it.

“Reading is the key,” he emphasizes. “Reading was the key to my breaking the shackles of any feelings of racial inferiority. My true identity was as good as anybody’s. Everything seemed to be designed to instill a feeling of inferiority. By reading, I identified with Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson. My favorite word is ‘concatenation’: linking, connection. And I feel a connection with Tubman and Robeson.”

Editing himself, Mr. Layton, who has a great interest in the abolitionist period, adds a powerful voice from that era: “And Frederick Douglass. Add Frederick Douglass.”

One essay in his second book, “More of … Layton Looks at Life,” published two years ago, tells the story of Ballard Trent Edwards, Mr. Layton’s freeborn maternal great-grandfather. After the Civil War, Edwards opened a school for the formerly enslaved and served eight years in the Virginia House of Delegates, a building he was instrumental in saving from destruction.

Mr. Layton’s voice rises when recalling the irony that he had to pass that legislative structure to get to segregated Armstrong High School. “My great-grandfather saved that building,” he says.

Preserving the past

Mr. Layton himself helped save an important Civil War battlefield: Virginia’s Fort Collier, where on Sept. 19, 1864, during the Third Battle of Winchester, the largest single cavalry charge in U.S. history — 6,000 mounted federals — delivered a crippling blow to the Confederate cause in the Shenandoah Valley.

On June 15, 2002, Mr. Layton and grandson Willie Roaf, a seven-time NFL Pro Bowl offensive lineman now with the Kansas City Chiefs, attended a Fort Collier reception. (That day also was the opening day for a Fort Collier Civil War history camp for children, coinciding with the date of the Second Battle of Winchester, a Confederate victory not fought at Fort Collier. A second camp took place this summer.)

At the reception, Katherine Whitesell, president of the Fort Collier Civil War Center, granted to board member William Layton the honorary title of general. “Without Bill, this site would not be saved,” she said.

Generous benefactor< />

Mr. Roaf previously donated $15,000 to the Fort Collier Civil War Center, which will house the William W. Layton Collection and Museum. Artifacts from the U.S. Colored Troops, abolitionists and Confederates appear among the Layton items to be transferred from Shenandoah University to Fort Collier, where a commissioned portrait of the collector will hang.

“Bill bought some very nice material early in his career,” John R. Sellers, a Library of Congress Civil War specialist, commented last year. Referring to an auctioned Layton possession the library acquired through the gift of a benefactor, Mr. Sellers continued: “This is a nice document. It is very rare. It is by an officer under whom Johnny Clem served. The significance is that it provides absolute proof of the identity of the drummer boy of Shiloh. There were many false claimants to that title.”

Little Johnny Clem, who was at Chickamauga and Shiloh, led a made-for-the-movies life, which is why Hollywood had been in the bidding for Mr. Layton’s valuable document.

Over the years, the generous Mr. Layton has donated documents and memorabilia to more than 14 institutions, among them the Virginia Historical Society and Museum in Richmond; the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis; Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, Mr. Layton’s alma mater; the National Afro-American Museum & Culture Center in Wilberforce, Ohio; the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pa.; and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington. The National Archives has duplicated about 1,500 of Mr. Layton’s items.

Mr. Layton also has some unique documents from the 1930s.

With their families, Mr. Layton (from Hanover County, Va.) and the future Mrs. Layton (then Phoebe Anderson of Norfolk) attended the 1933 presidential inauguration. Mr. Layton remembers in “Layton Looks at Life” that “[defeated President Herbert] Hoover looked rather glum” but President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, waving to the crowd, “was all smiles” as a “top-down touring car” drove the two men down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.

Until recently, Mr. Layton still had the official 64-page souvenir inauguration program, now at the Museum of American Presidents in Strasburg, Va., southwest of Winchester. Mr. Layton still has his affable, active, supportive wife, Phoebe.

Young Mr. Layton, who for 17 years served in executive positions with the Urban League in Ohio and Michigan, was in author and educator James Weldon Johnson’s last creative-writing class at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. On June 26, 1938, in Wiscasset, Maine, a car driven by Johnson’s wife blocked the path of a rain-cloaked train, and the famed poet and educator was killed. Mailed correspondence written by Johnson — best known for writing the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “Negro national anthem”— reached an addressee the next day. Collector Layton bought it.

Family matters

“I had what might be described as a bad start in life,” the author writes in his first book. “I was born in a reform school for delinquent boys.”

Mr. Layton adds that his father, who later became superintendent, was then a teacher at the Negro Reformatory of Virginia, located in Hanover County. Dr. John H. Smythe, founder of the reformatory, “was appalled at the number of Negro boys, some as young as 7, being housed in city and county jails with adult male prisoners.

Most of the boys were incarcerated for what were described as ‘infractions of the law’ but that today would hardly receive a ‘slap on the wrist.’ Examples: ‘stealing a baseball,’ ‘habitual truancy,’ ‘suspicious behavior’ and ‘passing through a white neighborhood after dark.’”

Judge Andree Layton Roaf (former Arkansas Supreme Court justice, now with the Arkansas Court of Appeals) describes her father in Mr. Layton’s second book: “In healthier times, he could work with his hands and make beautiful cabinets, use the most complicated Leica camera, beat almost anyone at tennis, compose poetry, deliver spellbinding 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.

“I knew he could move mountains, and nothing could harm us.”

Ending her introduction, Judge Roaf writes: “You never know what he will bring you next — a poem, a Civil War document, a slave bill, a tiny trinket, the song of a bird.”

In March 1985, daughter Mary Jeannette Layton, then assistant postmaster general, delivered the presentation address when the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp to honor educator Mary McLeod Bethune. Before her death in 1988, Serena Davis, another daughter, was an independent communications specialist.

These days, Mr. and Mrs. Layton, a retired school counselor, still keep busy. It could be dinner out or a speech by the Federal Reserve’s Alan Greenspan. Mr. Layton also was director of equal opportunity for the Federal Reserve, the first black appointed to the Board of Governor’s official staff.

Constance Brooks is the author of “Names on Record: A Journal Featuring Virginians of African Descent,” a Civil War resource published with the assistance of the Alexandria Black History Resource Center and retired Norfolk State University librarian Lelia E. Williams, soon to be 100 years old.

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