Clarksville resident Seymour Washington was born to former slaves. Known as “the Walking Blacksmith,” Washington worked as a farrier, shoeing horses from Marble Falls to Buda.
My father, Pete Lowry, had a 15 year friendship with Seymour Washington.
Recently, I asked my father to tell me about the man whom the neighborhood of Clarksville knew as “Uncle Seymour.” The following are excerpts from that conversation with my father.
Retired Travis County District Judge Pete Lowry on Seymour Washington, “The Walking Blacksmith”:
“We had horses up at the land my parents owned outside of Georgetown, about thirty miles north of Austin. They needed to be shod. It was probably 1963. Dad asked around and my parents got Seymour’s name. I went to Seymour’s house in Clarksville and took him up to Georgetown. I realized right away what a character he was. What an interesting and good man. I was in law school and in my mid-20s. Seymour was 67 years old. He was strong, but I remember him seeming like a very old man. Now that I’m 68 myself it doesn’t seem so old.
“I was so impressed by the fact that this guy, his parents were slaves. Back then you didn’t run into very many people whose parents were slaves. Maybe their grandparents… He was kind of a philosopher. He had a great laugh, a great, deep laugh.
“I would go downtown to Davis Hardware to buy horseshoes. Davis Hardware was a famous store on Congress Ave, maybe around 3rd or 4th Street, on the east side. They sold everything—nuts and bolts, hammers and crowbars. They even had a big gun section.
“I’d take the shoes to Seymour and he would heat them up in that hot fire he made in that iron blacksmith’s tool behind his house. I can’t remember now what it was called. It had a crank bellows that blew air in and made the charcoal really hot. He could remember the size of the horses’ feet and he would pound the shoes on his anvil there in his backyard.
“Then I would take him to Georgetown and he would shoe the horses, which was hard, backbreaking work. He’d trim their hooves and pound the nails in. It took lots of skill and was very labor intensive. See Seymour was holding up the whole leg of the horse while he shod them.
“He was very good with horses. He could calm them down. He talked a lot about how he could correct a horse’s gait by the way he fitted their shoes.
“On the way up to Georgetown we’d talk about his life. His parents were both slaves until they were 12 or 13 years old. Not in Austin, but in the vicinity. When freedom came, as he would put it, the owner of his parents told his parents they could stay or they could leave. And Seymour’s parents said ‘they’d try this freedom business.’ The owner told them, ‘If you need to leave, I’ll give you a team of horses and a wagon, but I’d rather that you stay.’ I think the owner was kind of unusual in that way.
“Seymour’s parents went out Northwest of Austin near Merrilltown and became charcoal burners. Charcoal burners were the lowest of the low, below cedar choppers. They’d cut wood and burn it to make charcoal and then they’d sell the charcoal. When they did that they lived in a tent. Seymour told me they’d put a rope on the ground around the tent and they believed rattlesnakes wouldn’t cross the rope. Then Seymour’s father became a teamster in the old sense of the word; he would drive a team of horses and haul lumber to Galveston or down near Galveston and back. That was in the 1870’s.
“Seymour would tell me about all of that while he shod the horses. Then once I’d driven him home, we’d sit on his porch and talk some more.
“When Seymour Washington was a little boy of twelve or so, he would drive a carriage for Governor Pease’s granddaughter. Seymour could walk to the Pease Mansion from his house.
“His family owned two houses in Clarksville, Seymour’s house and his parent’s house next door. His mother lived there next door to him until she died in 1948.
“That street where he lived, I think it was 11th, it wasn’t paved in the 60’s. One afternoon when I was sitting on the porch with Seymour, someone brought a horse over to have it shod. There were a bunch of little kids around, playing. All of a sudden, Seymour climbed on the horse and rode it down the street and back. The sight of Old Seymour galloping down the street caused quite a stir in the neighborhood.
“Sometimes his niece who lived down the street would cook up some cornbread and beans and bring them to us.
“When the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town, Seymour would shoe all their houses, including the huge draft horses—Percheron and Clydesdales. I thought it was pretty neat that he shod horses for the circus.
“He had an old truck that never ran when I knew him, but he said he’d had it running, he would get it running, but what I would do was I’d pick him up and drive him to where he was going.
“Towards the later part of his life, in the late 60’s, the hippies started hanging around, sitting on his porch. It started becoming more frequent. And of course they liked him, just like I did, because he was such a wonderful character.
“Then for years I would take him a bottle of bourbon every Christmas afternoon. Every Christmas Eve he would stay up all night baking in that little house of his. Pies and cakes. Everyone in the neighborhood called him Uncle Seymour. The neighbor kids would come up and say, ‘Hey, Unc,’ and he’d say, ‘Come here,’ and he’d give them fifty cents and tell them to go buy him a pack of cigarretes. I’d always take him cigarretes, too.
“He never called me ‘Pete.’ Back in those days, he wouldn’t have. He always called me ‘Lawyer.’ Even when I was in law school. ‘Hey, Lawyer,’ he’d say, ‘Come sit down here and talk to me.’ I wasn’t his only friend by a longshot.
“He told me he’d been on a jury once. And it was a rape case. I even looked up the case. I bet I could find that case again. I can’t remember when that was. Must’ve been the early days when blacks could be on juries in Travis County. It must’ve been the 50s or 60s. Seymour told me he was the only black man on that jury. And when the jurors got back in the jury room he said, ‘We need to get down on our knees and pray to God that we make the right decision.’ And he said they all did that. He would be the kind of guy who would inspire them to, I tell you that.
“Seymour never had any kids, but I knew he’d been married. He never talked much about his wife.
“I started knowing him in ‘64; he died in ‘79. I knew him that long. I remember my dad said, ‘I think I got some bad news about Seymour.’ Seymour had called my dad and said, ‘Doctor, I’m worried. I’m peeing blood.’ My dad got him an appointment with a urologist. And sure enough, Seymour didn’t live six months after that.
“Seymour talked a lot about race. About the race problem. His take on it was that we all oughta pretty much get along. There were a lot of white people Seymour liked. He wasn’t bitter at all. I don’t think he was concealing any bitterness either. But I don’t know.
“Seymour was proud of the fact that he was very, very talented at what he did. And he was recognized for being good. There were a lot of people all over Travis County who for many years hired Seymour because he was a true craftsman.
“Nick Von Chrysler went to Seymour’s funeral with me at that little church in Clarksville. Sweet Home, I think it’s called. And there was old Seymour laid out as big as he could be. And people started passing out in the back of the church, women screaming. Seymour was not a church-goer. He belonged to that church I think, but he didn’t go to church. I can’t say for sure, but I think there was some comment by the preacher to that effect.
“Seymour was so well known in the neighborhood. Uncle Seymour. I’m sure there wasn’t one person in Clarksville who didn’t know Uncle Seymour.”
In order to understand the macrocosm of the history and culture of Texas, it’s important to understand the state on a microcosmic level as well.
That’s why examining the past and present of my favorite Texas neighborhood, Central Austin’s Clarksville. I’ve lived in Clarksville, on-and-off, for the past 29 years.
Clarksville sits a short 25-minute walk from the Texas state capitol.
A freedman’s colony after the Civil War; a shabby, eclectic middle class neighborhood during the years of my childhood; Clarksville is now gentrified, mostly white, and full of quirky, thriving local businesses.