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Conrad Alfred Rideout was an African-American man whose travels and controversial activities stretched from Florida and Arkansas to Seattle, Washington, to Africa and then back to the United States. His identity seemed to balance perilously on the border between activist and con man. With Rideout having left behind a trail of unverifiable claims and a legacy of unfulfilled hopes, the effort to chronicle his life becomes a lesson in separating fact from fiction.
Little is known about Rideout’s early years. According to one source, he was born in Ohio, and he apparently stayed in the Midwest through college, as he is alternately reported to be a graduate of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor or the non-existent University of Ann Arbor; there are no records to validate his claim of graduation.
He first came to public attention in 1876 when, while living in Monticello, Florida, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Tallahassee Sentinel in which he criticized the Democratic Party, not an unusual stance for freedmen of the era. Subsequent political events, including, it appears, the Compromise of 1877, only deepened Rideout’s malaise. He apparently investigated the possibility of immigrating to the African country of Liberia to be part of the Back-to-Africa Movement, noting that life for a black man in Florida at that time was very difficult.
Rideout instead decided to relocate within the United States, and he arrived in Arkansas from Florida in 1883. Little is known about his time in Arkansas, although he would later claim that he served two terms in the Arkansas General Assembly. In fact, when he left for Seattle in 1891, his effort to organize a black Democratic Party presence in that city was based in no small part on a political credibility that stemmed from that alleged previous legislative experience. However, like the claims about his education, there is no documentation of his service.
The questions concerning his past would not arise until later. Upon arriving in Seattle in 1891, he immediately sought to make a place for himself in the city’s business community. He billed himself as Conrad A. Rideout and professed to be an agent for “well-to-do” blacks who were seeking to move west. He also set up a law practice in Seattle, trying to make a name for himself in the city’s political circles by organizing the Colored Democratic Club of Seattle in 1891. He organized similar clubs in Spokane and Roslyn the following year. Apparently prospering, he reportedly tried to capitalize on his political activities and sought diplomatic appointments from the administration of President Grover Cleveland in Bolivia, Antigua, and South Africa, but to no avail.
In late 1898, Rideout married a wealthy widow, Mary B. Mason. Reportedly the first African-American woman to venture into the Yukon when she had set out the previous year, she returned to Seattle in the summer of 1898, having made a fortune in the Alaskan gold mines. Less than a year after their marriage, the couple and Mason’s teenage daughter, Pearl, left Seattle for South Africa, where they remained for two years. In South Africa, Rideout claimed that he had been a judge in Arkansas, but that claim also lacks documentation.
Rideout cut a stylish figure in Africa. Dressed in a Prince Albert coat and a high silk hat, he sprinkled conversations with impressive legal language that left most observers dazzled. While his wife had preceded him back to the United States and had, in fact, resumed her former surname upon returning to Seattle and secured a divorce, Rideout remained in Africa until 1903. His time in Africa seemed to mirror his previous time in the United States—he reportedly dabbled in politics, and his efforts to use the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) to help bridge the divide between the Africans and the ruling British government yielded little but controversy.
He returned to the United States after four years in Africa. He first landed in New York, but his subsequent activities remain a mystery. He died in a hospital outside of Tucson, Arizona, on July 1, 1906; the death certificate certifying that typhoid fever was the cause of death also listed his job as labor agent. His place of burial is unknown.
For additional information:“C. Alfred Rideout.” Arkansas Black Lawyers. http://arkansasblacklawyers.uark.edu/lawyers/rideout.html (accessed July 26, 2016).
Campbell, James T. Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Hill, Robert A., ed. Pan-African Biography. Los Angeles: Crossroads Press, 1987.
Mumford, Esther Hall. Seattle’s Black Victorians, 1852–1901. Seattle: Ananse Press, 1980.
William H. Pruden III Ravenscroft School
Last Updated 7/28/2016
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