Curtis Hampton’s grandparents were sharecroppers in South Carolina, tenant farmers who gave a part of each crop as rent. That crop was mostly cotton.
His mother Jessie Hampton grew up on those fields, the oldest daughter of five siblings, and dropped out of school in second grade to help at home. When Curtis was growing up under Jim Crow law, Jessie cooked and cleaned in white peoples’ homes, same as her mother had.
Jessie, 84, doesn’t know if her grandparents were slaves, or which family members were the first freed from slavery. When she was younger she wondered, but she put it behind her, she said, because it’s nothing she can change.
Far from his roots in South Carolina, Curtis found himself in Spokane through service in the military. Now 65 and retired from a career as an operations manager at Boeing, he has dedicated himself to advocacy.
His view on advocacy, he said, is that change should start at the root.
He is co-chair for Smart Justice Spokane, he’s a member of Spokane Community Against Racism, he serves on the Racial Equity Committee, and he mentors Black elementary students. He’s pushed for “no new jail” and supports SCAR’s Platform for Change which calls to defund police.
Some have seen calls like his as destructive, but, he said, citizens need to relay the foundation of the community before investing more in a broken criminal justice system. In his view, addressing crime after it happens is too late.
“The people we’re talking about that are currently in our jails, in many cases, are the same Black, Brown and poor people that started their academic career not ready for preschool,” Curtis said. “They’re forever playing catch-up. You’re almost destined to a life of poverty, and the closer you are to poverty, the closer you are, in my opinion, to incarceration.”
Curtis talks to Jessie, who still lives in rural South Carolina, everyday – sometimes twice a day. She said she taught him to treat others as he would like to be treated. And indeed, looking at Spokane, he sees the same need for deconstruction and reconstruction he saw in himself.
Curtis grew up in poverty. He said, through laughter, his childhood was like “permanent camping” with no electricity. He remembers hauling water on a wagon to his dad’s house.
“I didn’t really know I was poor until I went to school and people let me know, ‘hey man, you’re poor!’ ” Curtis said, laughing. “I had love. I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t have running water for many years but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
He also grew up with the belief he was worth less than white people, which was enforced all around him with “white” and “colored” businesses and water fountains, Jessie said.
Curtis remembers his parents and all Black adults walking with their heads down, always saying “Sir,” and walking on eggshells to keep white people comfortable.
He remembers the first time Martin Luther King’s name resonated with him, his family wasn’t rejoicing.
“(My dad) and his friends were talking, ‘Yeah and you know Martin was on the TV again, it’s gonna be hell for us to go to work Monday morning,’ ” Curtis said. “He was a villain before he was a hero, and if he hadn’t died would we still talk about him today the same way?”
Jessie said she didn’t march and “wasn’t involved” in the civil rights movement. She believes protests might help but not as much as prayer.
“I think what we all need is to turn to the Lord. He’s our everything. He’s our doctor. He’s our lawyer. You can’t depend on man because man let you down,” Jessie said. “Mama always said, ‘If you can’t get along down here, we won’t make it to the kingdom.’ ”
But Curtis believes people of color need to speak up, and it needs to happen in the rooms that matter – board rooms, newsrooms, court rooms.
Rev. Rick Matters, a white member of SCAR, said Curtis’s ability to speak truth with compassion is unique. To the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, Matters said Curtis is consistent in pointing out disparities in people jailed pretrial, who are presumed innocent under law, but can’t afford to post bail.
“He’s in touch with his feelings, he brings in his own personal history and what he says is authentic,” Matters said. “He listens well but he doesn’t cower. He has courage to speak truth to power, even in a large group like the SRLJC.”
The SRLJC rejected Curtis’s bid to join the board earlier this year, Curtis said, because, they told him, he was “too anti-jail.”
Fifty years ago, it was the military that started to strip Curtis of a subservient attitude, he said.
He remembers his first day standing in the barracks with young men “of all nationalities.” A superior came in and called everyone out based on their race, saying slurs Curtis “didn’t even know.”
“I was so angry. But what he was doing, he was trying to take away all our biases,” Curtis said. “The next day when we woke up, everybody got the same haircut, everybody got the same clothes. You had no special privileges, you were all the property of the United States Air Force. His words were we were all pieces of (expletive).”
That was the first time Curtis said he remembers feeling equal.
When the Air Force brought him to Spokane in the 1970s, he set little goals for himself. If he was ahead of a white person walking into a store, he’d always go through the door first.
“Because I was no longer a second-class citizen, that was my little thing.” Curtis said. “Now I think about it and it makes me smile because I’ve come so far since then.”
It was through a ride-along with his friend, Black school resource officer Ed Richardson, that he decided to mentor kids to boost their confidence.
A Black mentor is different from a teacher, Richardson said, because they can focus on a few individuals.
The mentor is there to listen, but also to be a middle person between the parent and the school, Richardson said.
“And sometimes these kids don’t have that positive connection with a parent, honestly,” Richardson said.
All kids have skills they need to discover, Curtis said, but poor kids often don’t get the variety of opportunities to figure it out.
For Black and Brown kids, he said there also aren’t many examples of successful people of color outside narrow pigeon-holes of basketball and music, which discourages kids to engage in school.
“I say things like, ‘Where do you want to live when you grow up and have a family? What kind of car do you want to drive? In order to have that and that, you have to afford it. What do you want to do for a living?’ “
Then, together, they can set up a plan to achieve a career goal. And if that specific plan doesn’t work out, that’s OK, Curtis said. Even picturing oneself as a success can fuel a child to reach for more, he said.
But for people who are already in the criminal justice system, Curtis said Spokane needs judicial oversight and a commitment not to hold people pretrial because they’re too poor to post bail.
“I guess I took it somewhat personal because I got the opportunity to go on a tour of the jail,” Curtis said. “What was striking to me, I saw more people in jail that look like me than I see on an average day walking down the street. I know people commit crimes, but to that degree?”
People are calling for the police to be accountable and transparent, he said, but need to recognize the gap between jail and prison, which includes judges and attorneys.
“How do we go about creating a matrix for those individuals that are not being held accountable?” Curtis said.
He said part of the answer is releasing demographic data for convictions, and another piece is reducing the number of people held pretrial, who are presumed innocent, but can’t afford to post bail.
Curtis said the nation functions through white supremacy and spreads “the word of white supremacy.”
“I hope things change,” Curtis said.
That’s why each policy change must be part of a larger culture shift, Curtis said. Racism is not behind us, he said, and the history some consider irrelevant was not so long ago.
Jessie said she remembers, as a girl, her parents explaining racism simply.
“They would just tell us, you know, white people didn’t like Black people,” Jessie said. “But Mama worked in their kitchen and in their house. They ate what we cooked and we helped raise their children.”
“We didn’t get here overnight,” Curtis said. “And we can’t expect to get out from under it overnight.”