Episode 02 — Wendell Sayers
Note from Eric Marcus: As you may have noticed in my introduction to this episode, I explain that Wendell Sayers asked me not to use his real name in my book, Making Gay History. To honor his wish I used the name “Paul Phillips.” So why reveal his true identity now? The world has changed so dramatically since the late 1980s for LGBTQ people that I like to think Wendell’s feelings about remaining hidden would have evolved, too, and that he’d have taken pride in who he was, what he risked, and what he accomplished without feeling the need to hide behind a pseudonym. There’s also a part of me that feels the world should know who Wendell was, without the scrim of anonymity, because he was such an extraordinary person. I hope that revealing Wendell’s true identity is the decision he would have made for himself if he were still alive and that by doing so 18 years after his death I’m not causing any harm. At least that’s my hope.
Wendell Sayers was born in Western Kansas on April 29, 1904, and died on March 27, 1998. He was, as he notes in the podcast, the first black attorney to be hired to work in the Colorado state attorney general’s office. Wendell’s specialty was in real estate. In the late 1950s he attended several meetings of the Denver chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, and briefly attended the Mattachine Society’s sixth annual national convention, which was held in Denver in September 1959.
That’s about all we knew about Wendell, based on what he’d shared in his original 1989 interview for the Making Gay History book and the little we’d found in our research. However, in August 2019, genealogist Michael J. Leclerc was able to fill in a few more gaps for us—and provide a photo of Wendell as well:
Wendell Phillip Sayers was born April 29, 1904 in Nicodemus, Kansas—a town created after the Civil War specifically for ex-slaves. Wendell’s grandparents were all former slaves.
Wendell was the adopted son of William L. Sayers (1872–1956) and Sarah F. Bates (1872–1943). William and Sarah both came from large families; each had nine siblings. Wendell’s birth parents were William’s older brother George and Sarah’s older sister Mary, who had eight children. William and Sarah had been married for almost 10 years without having children of their own; George and Mary gave their youngest son to their childless siblings, who would go on to adopt two more children, both girls.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Wendell attended Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas, where he later also obtained his JD.
Wendell’s mother was an active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other organizations. When his father died in 1956, he left an estate of $115,000, the equivalent of more than a million dollars in 2019. Part of the estate was to be used to acquire suitable places and accommodations where people could find food and lodging without being rejected because of their race.
Wendell was too young to serve in WWI, too old for WWII (although in 1942, at age 37, he registered for the draft).
In 1945 Wendell started his private law practice in Denver. He worked on many civil rights and discrimination cases. In the 1960s he became the first black assistant attorney general for the state of Colorado.
After retiring, Wendell returned to school to get a bachelor’s degree in music performance and theory from the University of Denver—music was his first love. He appeared in multiple volumes of Who’s Who in Black America.
Wendell Sayers died in Denver on March 27, 1998.
Interesting fact: Wendell was the first cousin, once removed, of noted Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers. (Gale, born 1943, was adopted by Bernice Ross and Roger Sayers, a son of Wendell’s uncle Edward.) In 1967, Gale and his teammate Brian Piccolo became the first interracial roommates on a professional football team. They became close friends until Brian died of cancer in 1970—a story told in Gale’s autobiography I Am Third, which became the inspiration for the classic television film Brian’s Song, starring Billy Dee Williams as Gale and James Caan as Brian.
There’s one interesting—and horrifying—detail we learned just the other day that added to what we already knew about Wendell’s experience of traveling with his mother from Kansas to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in about 1920. Wendell mentions that he and his mother bought bologna and crackers from stores on the road during their drive—they couldn’t eat in restaurants because they were black. It was at an off-Broadway performance of “Marie and Rosetta” (about the celebrated gospel and R&B singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe) that Eric Marcus first heard bologna referred to as “gospel chicken.” When Sister Rosetta was on the road in the South during the 1940s, she and her crew were forced to settle for cold convenience food, including the ubiquitous bologna, because no white people would cook hot food for black people traveling from one place to another.
One other note about Wendell’s story. He mentions that once “diagnosed” at the Mayo Clinic as a homosexual, he was threatened with incarceration. It was “only” a threat, because while homosexual acts were illegal, you could not be arrested simply for being gay.
I’m Eric Marcus and this is the Making Gay History podcast.
This week I want you meet Wendell Sayers. You won’t read about Wendell in any of the history books. Try an online search. And all you’re going to find is the day he was born and the day he died.
You won’t even find his name in my book, because he asked me not to use it. He worried that word might get back to his family that he was gay. So I called him Paul Phillips and didn’t sat where he lived.
The world Wendell grew up in was stacked against him from the day he was born in 1904. He was black, adopted, gay, small-town western Kansas. But he found a way out and against odds built a life. He had a career. And he even found his way in the 1950s to a local chapter of the Mattachine Society. That was one of the first gay rights organizations, which was founded in 1950.
So here’s the scene. I’m in Denver on a bleak winter’s day in a solidly middle class neighborhood of identical houses next door to the old Stapleton Airport, which was still open back then.
So I park my car in front of a well-maintained ranch. Wendell greets me at the door. He’s dressed in pressed gray slacks, crisp white shirt, gray patterned tie, spit-shined black shoes. He’s a solid, handsome man. He could be seventy. He’s really eight-four.
After a quick tour of his tidy living room, Wendell pours us each a glass of water and we sit down at his dining room table. I clip the mic to his tie and set my tape recorder to record.
Eric Marcus: Interview with Wendell Sayers, Saturday, January 14, 1989. Location is the home of Wendell Sayers in Denver, Colorado. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
Wendell Sayers: I grew up in a very segregated society, which kept me always aware that I was different.
If anything went wrong in the town, it was always I who did it.
Eric: That’s a lot of pressure.
Wendell: It’s a lot of pressure. And, uh, gradually I discovered that I was different, and I thought I was the only one in the world.
I remember one time when I first discovered that things were not right, I mean sexually, that I wanted to kill myself.
Eric: Do you remember how old you were?
Wendell: I’d say about fifteen then.
Eric: Do you remember what you thought, how you realized you were different?
Wendell: Well, I knew I didn’t care anything about girls. Everybody else was chasing after girls and I couldn’t figure out why. Just didn’t make sense to me and still doesn’t. So…
Eric: So you thought about killing yourself.
Wendell: I thought one time I just didn’t want to go through life this way. And I didn’t know any other way to keep from it. And I was just completely down and out, so to speak. I gave up, practically.
Finally, my dad come to me one day and told me what he had heard. Whether he heard it or how he found it out, somebody must have told him.
Eric: What did your dad hear?
Wendell: He didn’t tell me. He told me things, he told me that he had heard that I was not natural sexually.
He said, “We’ll go up to Mayo Clinic, get your examinations and see if we can find out what causes it, what to do about it.”
So he puts mother and I in the car and we go up to Minnesota. That was back in the days when you couldn’t get a place to stay, couldn’t get a place to eat.
Eric: Because you’re black.
Wendell: Because you’re blacks.
Eric: What did you do?
Wendell: Buy crackers and bologna in the store and take ‘em out and eat ‘em. Stuff like that.
Eric: Where did you sleep?
Wendell: Got a tent. We got one of these ten by twelve tents and we stayed in the tent at night. Take all of that and put it together it’s awfully hard on anybody. I don’t care if he’s white or black or green or yellow.
Wendell: That kind of pressure is terrific.
Eric: How old were you then?
Wendell: I was still quite young.
Eric: Were you still in high school?
Wendell: Yes, I think I was still in high school.
Eric: You must have been terrified.
Wendell: I was terrified. They had me in the hospital for… in and out for several days.
Eric: Did they ask you questions?
Wendell: Oh, yes. All kinds of questions. They determined that I was homosexual and that there was nothing they could do about it. And final report from Mayo’s was that according to their state laws that they should report me and have me incarcerated.
Eric: For what?
Wendell: Because I was different.
Eric: Put in jail?
Wendell: In jail. They said that since I was a client of theirs they would not do that. So we went back home and reported to dad. I might say this, that I was an adopted child. And I often used to wonder as a kid, What will he do when he finds it out? See. Will he put me out or kick me out? Or will he accept me?
My dad was very understanding. I say understanding, I don’t think he actually understood, but he was willing to accept, I should say. So he finally told me, he says, “Well, since they don’t know what to do about it, find you a friend that you can trust. And bring him home. I don’t want you playing around on the streets or out on the country roads ‘cause you never know who’s going to step up behind you, step up on you. Bring him home. What you do in your room is your business.” Because he didn’t want me out on the street.
That helped me a lot. At least I was loved by my father. And, of course, mother, she just idolized me, regardless. They were remarkable people, as I look back. I didn’t think so at the time.
Eric: No one thinks his parents are remarkable at the time.
Wendell: But as I look back I can certainly appreciate them.
Wendell: Ask me something.
Eric: Okay. There were no organized gay groups when you were first here in Denver.
Wendell: Mattachine was the first organized group I think as far as I know of. And I had a friend that worked down at the depot.
Eric: The depot? What kind of…?
Wendell: The train depot. It’s where the train used to come in. And he was gay. He was going to the meeting one night and asked me if I’d like to go along. I said, “Yes, I’ll go.” So we went into somebody’s home I didn’t know. I went in. There was a group of guys sitting there. I imagine ten or twelve maybe?
I went first place, I’d say, to know or to meet somebody who was like me. I mean gay by that. Okay, that was my primary purpose in going. It developed later, or as time went on, that once I found there were others besides me I was much better able to accept myself.
Eric: Can you elaborate on that at all, what you mean by that?
Wendell: Well, you see, to me I was always a thorn in the flesh to me because I was gay.
Eric: You were your own thorn.
Wendell: I was my own thorn. And this, uh, talking about it and going over experiences together helped me to realize, well, maybe I’m not the only one.
Eric: Were you scared?
Wendell: No, I had nothing to be scared about. No, I think I scared them worse than they scared me.
Eric: Why did you scare them?
Wendell: Well, I was the only black one.
Eric: Oh, and probably they weren’t accustomed to having any contact with blacks.
Wendell: They weren’t accustomed to having any contacts with blacks. So I come in and for once I found somebody else besides me that would say they were gay, see.
Eric: Up until that time no one had said…?
Wendell: I knew a few.
Wendell: But I mean, but to have a group. I had never been in that sort of situation before, see. I was completely happy to find somebody because I thought I would be accepted and a part of the crowd. And I was really happy the first meeting I went to. The guys were not friendly.
Eric: They weren’t friendly.
Wendell: But that was alright. They didn’t know me. All they knew was I was a lawyer and they were afraid of me, I think, because I was a lawyer. They were terrified of the law. “What’s this guy doing here?” “Who’s he going to turn in?”
Eric: Were you concerned about your practice when you went to this first meeting?
Wendell: I was concerned about my practice at every meeting I ever went to because I was working for the Attorney General’s office at the time.
Eric: Oh, you must have been really concerned.
Wendell: First black ever up there.
Eric: First black to work for the Attorney General.
Eric: In Denver.
Wendell: Had my office right there in the capitol building. So, every time I went to Mattachine I was as scared as the rest of them only I wasn’t scared of the same thing as they was.
Just imagine the Denver Post would come out front page, first black in the Attorney General’s office turns out to be…
Eric: Could throw yourself off the capitol for that one.
Wendell: I sure would. I’d been raised so much as an underdog, I just would have done anything if I could have taken a step higher, see. Regardless of my gayness, I was still somebody.
Eric: Did they ever ask you legal questions?
Wendell: They would ask me… Sometimes I’d volunteer. They’d talk about something. Once in awhile I’d volunteer a little legal information. I was not a hired or paid consultant, just a volunteer. Everything was volunteer back in those days.
I remember one time one boy had got himself caught with a whole lot of nude pictures. And of course they took him down to trial. And before hand, why, I don’t know whether he asked me or the Society asked me or what, but anyhow, I knew the judge. The judge happened to be gay and I happened to know him. So I went down and thought I had made arrangements with the judge to when this case comes up
Eric: You were gutsy. You were nuts!
Wendell: Plumb nuts. As I look back now I was plumb nuts, I can’t deny it. I went down and asked the judge, talked to him personally. I told him this guy was coming in and I wished he’d be as lenient on him as he could.
And damn it, excuse me, when it come time for the trial the judge took that day off.
Eric: He didn’t want anything to do with it.
Wendell: He didn’t want anything to do with it. But I was kind of glad afterwards that I had warned him ahead of time. Because he and I had been good friends. Nothing between us, but just good friends. And I think he knew me and I think I knew him. So he just took that day off when that guy was coming.
Eric: So you advised on a number of cases like that then?
Wendell: That’s the only one.
Eric: The only one.
Wendell: I think that was the only one.
Eric: But you stuck your neck out. That was way out.
Wendell: That was way out. It’s a wonder somebody didn’t chop it off. It’s a wonder somebody didn’t chop it off.
Eric: You must feel like God’s been watching over you pretty carefully.
Wendell: God’s watched over me, I’m telling you, ever since the day I was born. Yes, sir. Definitely.
I’ll never forget saying goodbye to Wendell on the front steps of his house. There was something he wanted to ask me and the question came as a surprise. He said, “Do you think it’s too late for me to meet someone?”
I knew from spending a few hours with Wendell how lonely he was, so I didn’t tell him what I really thought. So I said that I thought it was never too late. There was always the hope of meeting someone.
But of course I didn’t believe it. Wendell was so isolated and fearful of people knowing he was gay that the odds of him meeting anyone were slim to none.
We never spoke again. But I think of Wendell often and the life he might have had if he had been born in 1958, the year I was born, instead of 1904.
Wendell was 93 when he died. I hope he wasn’t alone.
I’d like to thank our executive producer, Sara Burningham, our audio engineer Casey Holford, our composer, Fritz Meyers. Thank you also to Hannah Moch, our social media guru and our webmaster, Jonathan Dozier-Ezell. We had production assistance from Jenna Weiss-Berman, whose enthusiasm for this project made it possible.
The Making Gay History podcast is a co-production of Pineapple Street Media, with funding from the Arcus Foundation, which is dedicated to the idea that people can live in harmony with one another and the natural world. Learn more about Arcus and its founders at ArcusFoundation.org.
And if you like what you’ve heard, please subscribe to the Making Gay History podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find all our episodes on our website at makinggayhistory.com.
I hope you enjoyed meeting Wendell as much as I did.
Until next week.