|JACKSONVILLE, 1907-16||[Back to Top]|
When I started remembering things, I was living in Jacksonville, Florida with my paternal grandmother, Phoebe Wright. I never did learn what her maiden name was. I'm pretty sure she was born a slave.
Her first husband, my grandfather James Fleming, was long dead before I came. He was born a slave in Charleston, South Carolina and perhaps took the name of his former master. He wandered to Jacksonville and met my grandmother there.
Phoebe came from a large family in Thomasville, Georgia. She was half Creek Indian and half black -- in fact, she spoke very bad English. The Creeks were the big tribe from Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and they constantly accepted runaway slaves in their townships. Phoebe was a formidable figure who ruled the lives of her children and her second husband, Wyatt Wright.
Wyatt was a stable keeper for one of the larger drayage firms in Jacksonville. The company provided him with a house, in which we all lived. There was a large corral on the property and a barn within its perimeter, where he kept more than 50 horses and mules.
Wyatt resisted my grandmother's domination by taking to the bottle and proceeding to raise hell when he had consumed enough of his liquids to answer back to her. Sometimes he took out his frustrations on the animals. He would go into the corral wearing only his shoes and nightshirt, armed with a long bullwhip, and start the animals running around by snapping the whip. They would squeal and snort as they were struck, and Phoebe would rush out of the house in her nightgown to berate Wyatt.
Wyatt was one of the teamsters who drove large drays about the city making deliveries. Blacks did all of the teamster work in Jacksonville. Those jobs were considered to be black jobs, and few white men sought them. Blacks also drove most of the hacks -- horse-drawn buggies that were the forerunners of gasoline-operated taxicabs.
The stables were located in Brooklyn, a district in Jacksonville that was joined to the city by a bridge. I don't know if the blacks were forced to live in that part of town, or if they chose to, for there was a white police officer who lived next door to us. He had a daughter about my age who was at our house all of the time. Blacks had their own separate grocery stores and meat markets; there were about two of each.
I was named after my father, Courtney Thomas Fleming, but perhaps he did not like the "junior" status which such males receive, so I was given the name Thomas Courtney Fleming when I was born in Jacksonville on November 29, 1907. Phoebe called me "son."
My grandmother lavished all of her affections on the males in her life -- first James Fleming, then my father, and then me, much to the detriment of my father's sister Katherine and her daughter Lillian, who was about my age. I took advantage of my special position as a male and the first grandchild in Phoebe's family. If Lillian ever hit me, I hit her back. And even if I had tormented Lillian, Phoebe would chastise her and embrace me right in front of her.
My mother, Mary Golee Jackson, was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Her father, my grandfather Jackson, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His wife, my grandmother Jackson, was the product of a white male and a black woman, and she was as white as any white person in the country. She took the name of her father's family, O'Connor.
My mother came to Jacksonville after the death of her parents. She married my father when she was 19 and he was 20. I came along one year after the marriage, and my sister Kate 18 months later. My parents had a stormy marriage, I guess because Phoebe opposed it. She did not want to lose her only son. I don't recall any of the many abuses my father heaped upon my mother, but she told me years later about his beatings and his womanizing.
They got divorced, and my father stayed with Phoebe, as did cousin Lillian and myself. Aunt Kate would take up with a boyfriend and come back for short spells when the romance broke up. Phoebe was a strict churchgoer who saw that Lillian and I went to Sunday school every week, and she constantly talked about the sins of the world.
I remember well a day in 1912 when Phoebe was boiling clothes in the backyard, in one of those big cast iron pots that black women used on open fires. She was stirring the clothes with that awfully smelly yellow soap she made out of tallow and lye when my mother came up. She told Phoebe that she had come to take me on the train to California.
They got in a big argument, and Phoebe physically attacked my young and very small mother, driving her out of the yard. Mother did not have the time, or was too naive, to seek legal help, so she and my sister left without me. But she wrote to me every week.
I slept in a cot in my father's bedroom. The old man had other uses for his big bed, as he used to sneak one of his lady friends in when Phoebe was asleep at night. My father traveled a lot, railroading as a Pullman porter and working at sea. None of the trans-Atlantic passenger ships hired blacks, but he'd been over to Europe as a cook on a freighter.
At the grammar school in Jacksonville, all the students and teachers were black. With help from the old man, I learned to read fairly well in the first grade. He was a voracious reader, although he only attended school up to the fifth year. I started to read some of the paperback books he bought, and found out, much to his and my own pleasure, that I did very well.
Phoebe's health began to decline, and she took to her bed. I came into her bedroom one morning and asked for a nickel. She could not get the words out, but pointed to her purse. I went to the nearby store and made a purchase of candy. An hour later, when I came back, one of the old man's lady friends, who had been living with him and taking care of Phoebe, was crying and told me that my grandmother was dead. I was the last person to see her alive. I was too stunned to cry, but felt a great loss for the one person who had idolized me ever since I could remember.
Shortly after the funeral, the lady friend, who had been looking forward to matrimony, began to argue with my father on the subject, and they fell out. It ended with a nasty fight one night, in which he took a table leg and gave his onetime love a beating right in front of me, and threw her out of the house. At that same time he was also courting a younger woman, Luvina, the daughter of a well-to-do butcher in town. He married her shortly after his breakup, then migrated to New York City, leaving his bride and me behind.
Blacks were pouring out of the South to escape the segregation, particularly from those states bordering the Atlantic Ocean. The ones who went ahead wrote to their relatives and friends, telling them how life was better in the North. Most went to New York, and others spilled over and went to Philadelphia or Boston. A lot of blacks also went to Detroit. My mother's older sisters, Aunt Sarah and Aunt Katie, moved there during World War I. Both married, and their husbands worked for the Ford Motor Company, which was then engaged in producing war materiel. My aunts lived the rest of their lives there.
You'd have to have seen it, to realize how rigid the segregation was in Jacksonville, and how humiliating. It was one of the most vicious things that a man could have ever thought of. When you got on the streetcar, you walked to the back to sit down. They had a sign posted behind a row of seats, and as more and more white people got on, they moved that sign further back, until there wasn't any place for blacks to sit at all. And you'd better not talk back to any white person. The old people always warned me about what I couldn't do, and I observed it. They didn't try to explain it to me, but I was always very curious about it.
That color thing was very powerful. You never knew when the blow was going to fall on you. And you instinctively tried to avoid any conflict, because it could cause something very unpleasant to happen. It was discussed among us all the time. You knew you couldn't go to the same schools as whites. You knew that you had to sit in the Jim Crow section at the theater. You knew you couldn't go in any restaurant unless it was all black. You were completely separated, even in the hospitals. So you just lived in a black world.
When my father went to live in New York, he left me with my mother's older brother, William "Bud" Jackson. Uncle Bud had a prestigious job as the collector for a white furniture company that sold to blacks on credit. He frequently took me with him on his daily collection rounds. Those were proud days for me, riding with my uncle in his horse and buggy, for he took very special care of me.
Uncle Bud and his wife, Aunt Jane, had a daughter named Celeste who was two years older than me. She and two of her cousins, Alfonso and Sylvester, jumped me one day to show their dominance. I whipped Celeste and Alfonso, who was a rank coward. Sylvester hung on as long as he could -- he was a tenacious little rascal -- but I soon had all three of them bawling and running away. Aunt Jane did not take time to ask what happened, but as soon as she saw that I was not crying, she took after me. I hid out in the neighborhood until Uncle Bud came home from work and I could explain my side of what happened. Jane went for me, but Uncle Bud halted that, saying that all I had done was defend myself.
The old man sent a few dollars for my care and wrote occasionally to me. He lived in Harlem, the largest black community in the nation, a city within New York City. In one letter, he wrote that he wanted me to join him.
My father knew the crew members from quite a few ships, since they all stopped at Jacksonville. So he contacted a friend on the Clyde Line, which had a fleet of steamers that went up and down the East Coast, and asked, would he bring me to New York? He said yes. The Clyde Line's stewards -- cooks, waiters and porters -- were all black. That was the only category of job they could get on any shipping line. Most lines didn't hire blacks at all.
Around about April 1916, my uncle took me to the dock in his horse and buggy with my bag. There he met my father's friend, who worked as a waiter on the Mohawk; the ships were all named after Indian tribes. I bid my uncle goodbye, and the waiter calmly took me on board, where he led me to the living quarters of the stewards' department and said, "You stay in here until this ship clears the harbor. I'll come and tell you when you can go up on the deck."
I heard the great engines throb to life and the deep tone of the ship's whistle. The trembling of the great ship grew in intensity as the ropes were cast off, the propeller came to life, and the ship began to back away from the pier. The pilot maneuvered away from the dock and turned the prow, and the ship began her journey to the mouth of the St. John's River to enter the Atlantic Ocean and began her northward journey.
About two hours after leaving, my Dad's friend told me I could go out on deck. I accepted the invitation and went to the lower outside deck, where the steerage passengers were confined. When the other crew members saw me, they knew I was a stowaway because this sort of thing went on, and there weren't many blacks on the ship as passengers. I quickly found my sea legs as the ship adjusted its movement to the gentle swells.
We came into Charleston, South Carolina the next morning. My first cousin, Sam Fleming, met the ship and came on board to see me. Sam was a bootmaker in Charleston and had a contract with the state of South Carolina to make boots used by inmates in the state prison. It was the only time I ever saw Sam. He stayed on the dock as the ship backed out into the stream, and waved at me until the ship got out of sight.
The second night at sea, the steady rolling of the ship brought me my first attack of seasickness. It seemed as if I would lose my very intestines following a violent period of vomiting. The next morning I felt good. Later in the day, the ship passed Sandy Hook and began its journey up the Hudson. A tugboat moved alongside, easing the ship to the pier. Ropes were dropped, and the ship was soon tied up. The old man came aboard, picked me up and hugged and kissed me, then guided me to a trolley car.
I have always held a strong resentment toward any state where Jim Crow was a way of life. I made one last trip to Jacksonville in 1919, and never set foot in Florida again until 1968, when I covered the Republican National Convention in Miami.
|HARLEM, 1916-19||[Back to Top]|
Our destination was a large, run-down building on West 133rd Street, where the old man had rented a room with a West Indian family. Together with the play yards around it, the building took up a whole block.
The center of black life was 135th Street. The Lafayette Theatre, with all black entertainers, was located there; also the YMCA, a cultural center for blacks; a branch of the New York Public Library; and P.S. 89, where I enrolled as a third grader the day after I arrived. All the grammar schools in New York were numbered, and did not have names.
It was a mixed school, the majority of the students being black. The white exodus from Harlem was in full swing. All teachers were white except for a few tokens, as blacks found it hard to get teaching jobs in the big cities in the North.
For the first time I saw elevated trains, subways and double-decker buses, which traversed 5th Avenue, passing through Harlem. And you could sit in the streetcar where you wanted to. Most restaurants would serve blacks, but some were so expensive that they immediately suspected that the blacks wouldn't be able to pay.
Blacks had a foot in the door of Tammany Hall, the political machine that controlled city government, because black votes were just as important to Tammany leaders as white votes. My father registered as a Republican after he moved to New York, and he always voted. He attended a lot of political meetings, including one in which Teddy Roosevelt came out to Harlem and spoke, after he had left the White House.
All the buildings in Harlem had running water and gas at least, and many had electric lights. For every apartment, the gas company installed a meter with a coin slot, and you had to put in a quarter for a certain number of hours.
Blacks lived primarily on the west side of Harlem, between Lenox Avenue and 7th Avenue. The Italians dominated the east side of 5th Avenue, in East Harlem. Above us, on Morningside Heights, was a large concentration of Irish. I think most blacks realized they were segregated -- not by any law, but because most property owners outside the neighborhood would not rent or sell to them. Harlem had a lot of poor Italian immigrants, who were still arriving in large numbers, along with Jews and others from Eastern Europe, and people from the Caribbean islands. As these groups came in, the middle-class whites started getting out.
For self-protection, you had to be a member of a boys' gang in the block where you lived. If you didn't join, the youths on your block would attack you. It might be just for the kids on your side of the street, and across the street there might be a different gang.
There were two places where you could swim in the summertime, the Harlem River on the east and the Hudson River on the west. The Harlem River was the better place, but between us and the swimming hole were the Italians, who didn't want us or the Irish coming through their territory. So we formed an alliance with the Irish gang. We armed ourselves with bottles, sticks and pieces of wood, which the more imaginative members carved in the form of swords, knives, billy clubs or blackjacks.
When we crossed 5th Avenue, here came all the Italian kids to contest our invasion, armed the same way we were. We'd throw rocks at each other in a running fight all the way to the river. They'd call us nigger, and we'd shout, "Oh you guinea, oh you wop, oh you two-cent lollipop!" The Italian mothers would come out, heaping curses on us in their language and sometimes getting into the fight themselves. At the river, we had to post guards on shore to keep the Italians back. The guards were changed from time to time so that everyone could enjoy a swim. After the temporary truce, the Irish juvenile gangs would pass through our turf, and the same old terms would prevail -- that neither of us was to cross over into one another's territory.
In the summer, we lolled on the rooftops of the tenement buildings, taking paper bags with us and keeping a bucket of water and some feces nearby. When a passerby came along, we might shout down below, fill a bag with ammunition and drop it. Sometimes it would hit the intended target, and sometimes it would burst, scattering the contents over the sidewalk.
Italian and Jewish vendors went all through New York City, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods, shouting out their wares. They all used either a pushcart or a horse-drawn wagon. Some pushcarts had vegetables, some fruit only, some clothing, and in the summer, ice cream or cold drinks. When a housewife called an order from her window and the peddler went in to deliver it, we would rush out and hit the unattended cart. When the poor man came back, most of his merchandise would be gone. If he started chasing us, we would enter any door in the block and race up to the roof. All of the buildings were a uniform height, so we could run a whole block across the rooftops, then come down.
In the winter we stole potatoes. We'd head for a vacant lot, dig a pit, place the potatoes in there, light some wood or trash on top, then stand around in hungry anticipation until they were done. Most of the time they were scorched on one side and almost raw on the other, and we didn't have salt or any other seasoning, but never in life have I tasted potatoes that were so good.
That first winter, my old man claimed he was too poor to buy me an overcoat, so he took one of his suit jackets and cut it down to my size. I was the butt of many jokes at school, but I stood up well under the taunting. We had snowball fights with the Italian youngsters. Some boys would dip the snowball in water to harden it, which made it a lethal weapon if one was struck in the head. Occasionally we threw them at traffic cops who were assigned to an intersection. They would take it so long, then take off after us. If we were near a subway station, we would run down to the platform, run past the gateman, board a train, and ride a few blocks before taking another train home.
In the fall of 1917 I saw the aftermath of a race riot. It began in a white-owned confectionary store on a busy corner, across from my school. A young black boy bought a milk soda, then saw what looked like a fly in it. He called it to the attention of the owner, perhaps in a manner that led to the refusal of a replacement drink. The outraged boy began to use language so strong that the owner slapped him. Several other young blacks who were in the place ran out to the street, shouting that a white man had beaten a black child so badly that he might die.
A mob formed, led by adolescent blacks and adult males. The windows were quickly smashed in that place and in surrounding commercial businesses. Then someone started a fire in the first store. The young black males began looting. The word went around, and I joined those who were interested in taking something. But by the time I arrived, the police and the firemen had placed a protective ring around the vandalized buildings. I felt frustrated as some of my friends told me how much loot they had gathered.
My father was glad to have me living with him, but most of the time he was traveling, and I was too young to stay in his apartment alone. So he took me to a woman who kept children of working parents, and he boarded me out. About six black kids were living there, sleeping two in a bed. The woman put me in bed with a kid who had chicken pox, and I got it. She saw to it that all of us said our prayers at night, and she read to us from the Bible: "Thou shalt not steal" and things like that. I spent about half of my stay in New York in the boarding home.
My father worked all the time, but he didn't want the responsibility of a family life. I don't know why he got married. About the only time I'd see him was when he came to pay for my keep. Then the woman would tell him what clothing I needed, and he would give her money to buy it. At Christmas we had a tree with candles. We were told to go to bed because Santa Claus was coming during the night. The next day, there was a gift under the tree for each child.
My father sent for his second wife, Luvina, after a year or more had gone by. I left the boarding home and moved in with them. We lived in a flat in a five-story building at 138th Street and Lenox Avenue.
A lot of times I felt lonely, but I learned to enjoy myself. Maybe that's one reason I started reading so much. I went to the Harlem branch of the public library, and if they didn't have a book I wanted, I'd take the subway to the main library downtown.
By the age of 8, I was already reading newspapers. But except for crime stories, and some outstanding blacks who could hardly be ignored, the daily papers paid slight heed to the black community. If you wanted to find out about black entertainers, writers, athletes, business leaders, black social activities and black church events, you had to read the black press. Without it, black people wouldn't have had any kind of editorial voice at all. Harlem had a weekly black paper, the New York Age, which some kids sold on the streets. Black celebrities got their first publicity there, and if they were very good, the white press picked it up. The black press started as an anti-slavery tool, and ever since, it has led the fight for complete integration. It served as a watchdog: you read about lynchings, jobs you could get, instances of discrimination, hotels you could stay in. You didn't see these stories in the daily papers.
|THE WORLD WAR||[Back to Top]|
My favorite paper was a daily, the New York American, because it always had sensational headlines about criminal activities, and good cartoons. I recall reading about the U.S. declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, and the dirigible balloons -- zeppelins -- that were bombing London. It caused some concern that they might cross the Atlantic and bomb New York. And there were rumors about submarines prowling off the harbor. The mayor, John Hylan, ordered a blackout each night. The streets were left without lights at night, and citizens were ordered to pull down their window shades after dark, so that any type of aircraft would have difficulty seeing where to drop their bombs.
One night the old man rushed into the building, and as soon as he hit the first step, he began to shout, "The Germans are all over the city!" People rushed out of their flats in a state of panic, until he laughed very loudly and admitted that he was just kidding. Some of the tenants did not think it very funny, and they let him know it.
The U.S. launched a giant campaign to finance the war. There were marches staged for Liberty Bonds in which many celebrities appeared. People were called on to make all manner of sacrifices. Luvina was very pregnant and wanted to have her baby under the protection of her parents, so she left for Florida. Pop escaped the draft because Luvina was a dependent and so was I. That summer, he got a job as a cook on small steamship, the S.S. York, which carried guns and ammunition from New Haven, Connecticut to New York City, where its cargo was unloaded and placed on one of the ships carrying men and munitions to France. He took me with him to the ship, and it became our home for a while.
German submarines were in search of vessels carrying troops, arms, and goods to the Allies. One night while we were on the York, a Navy patrol boat shot a flare across our bow and ordered the ship to halt. The boat drew alongside, and a seaman speaking through a megaphone told our captain to douse his bow light, as the Navy believed that a German submarine was lurking in the area. The very thought that our ship might be attacked was exciting to me, as it would be to any 10-year-old.
Pop pointed out a lot of warships to me in the harbor, from submarine chasers to huge battleships armed with 16-inch cannons. I knew the destroyers because they were long narrow vessels. All had four funnels or stacks, and were the fastest warships in any navy. There were two classes of cruisers -- those that were heavily armed, with eight-inch cannons, and others that were lightly armed with torpedoes and six-inch guns like the destroyers. He identified such ships as the Mauritania, a sister ship of the Lusitania, which had been sunk by a German submarine; both were owned by the Cunard Line. Then there was the Olympic, owned by White Star, Cunard's British rival. I learned to recognize all, including the French Line, the Holland-American Line and the Scandinavian Line ships, which were all engaged in the trans-Atlantic passenger and shipping business. Many of the passenger liners became troop carriers during the war.
Pop showed me a huge ship docked at Hoboken, New Jersey, which, he said, was the Leviathan. At the outbreak of the war she was the Vaterland, the biggest passenger ship in the world and the flagship of the North German Lloyd Line. She happened to be tied up in New York when the U.S. entered the war, so the government seized her and converted her into a troop ship, and she conveyed thousands of doughboys across the Atlantic. She was repainted a dark, dull gray, like most ships were after hostilities started. Others had splotches of contrasting paint on their side, which, I learned, was camouflage.
On the Lower West Side, I saw many a convoy form, then slip out of the harbor shepherded by destroyers and other naval escort vessels for the long dangerous journey across the Atlantic. The big fast ocean liners like the Mauritania crossed the Atlantic unescorted. Their speed and zigzagging protected them from the much slower subs, which had to be submerged most of the time, since the destroyers were always on the lookout for them.
There were two all-black national guard regiments in the United States before the war started, the 8th Illinois and the 15th New York National Guard regiment, which was stationed in Harlem. The commanding officer, Colonel William Haywood, was white, and there was a mixture of black and white officers. That regiment, like all national guard units in the union, was federalized at the outbreak of war. The 15th regiment received a new number, the 369th, of the U.S. Army. In the winter of 1917-18, when the war was at a stalemate, the regiment was ordered to France. Before they left, somebody thought it would be a good idea to have them march down 7th Avenue in Harlem so blacks could see them.
The great day came, and the avenue was crowded with spectators -- mostly women and children -- who lined up all along the route to wish the men a safe crossing. We waited expectantly on the sidewalks and along the curb. Suddenly we heard the sound of the band playing in the distance, and the boys became even more excited. The band came into view, led by Lieutenant James Reese Europe, a black bandleader who became famous as a jazz musician in New York after the war. Following the band was the whole regiment -- about 2000 men, marching smartly in cadence with the colonel at the head. A tremendous cheer went up, and some people rushed to the street, attempting to shake hands with soldiers who were friends, relatives, husbands or lovers. Kids on the sidewalk were jumping up and down to show off. Some of the black juveniles marched a short distance with the regiment.
The men wore what they called a campaign hat, with a wide brim. Every one of them had on everything they were issued -- a knapsack on their back, a topcoat, and a rifle on their shoulder. The march lasted about one hour, until the soldiers were out of sight, headed for the piers downtown, where they would board a ferry for Hoboken, then join one of the giant convoys to sail to France.
The 369th made a great record over there: the French were short-handed and needed them badly. They immediately put that regiment up with the French combat troops, and they distinguished themselves. Two soldiers of the 369th, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, were the first black Americans ever awarded the Croix de Guerre.
The hordes of new men that the U.S. supplied turned the war around. Germany had no replacements to stem the new offensive that General Pershing's troops brought to the Allied cause. Germany asked for terms, the kaiser abdicated, and the war came to an end.
Armistice Day arrived November 11, 1918. I saw some of the troops come back home, and they marched to the cheers of thousands of spectators. There were detachments of French soldiers called Blue Devils, very crisp in their marching formation, who wore berets and colorful greatcoats of blue. Behind them were the French foot soldiers with their helmets. Then came the contingents of auxiliary personnel -- detachments of lumbering trucks, a few early-day tanks, and airplanes flying overhead. There was a wild celebration on the streets of New York City, and, I learned later, all over the U.S. and around the world, for the war had become known as a world war.
|MARCUS GARVEY||[Back to Top]|
In my neighborhood, there were probably more West Indian than American-born blacks. There was some antagonism between them; the Americans called them "monkey chasers." The West Indians were very industrious, both husbands and wives -- always trying to start small businesses. One of them told me that the houses over there had only outhouses, and no gas, electricity or plumbing. These people used to boast, "I'm a subject of the king," and say that in Jamaica they could get jobs that blacks weren't getting here. But they were the lowest-paying jobs, such as petty officials. The first thing we asked them was: "If you could do all those things, why did you leave?"
There were many street orators who spoke on various corners of both Lenox and Seventh Avenue, standing on actual soap boxes. The best known was Marcus Garvey, the leader of the Back to Africa movement, a Jamaican who arrived in Harlem the same year I did. In a short time, he became one of the most famous black men in America. Garvey exhorted blacks to contribute money to the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which he headed. Its goal was to establish commercial ties between American blacks and Africa. The movement revealed that many blacks were waiting for some messiah type of leader. Garvey fit that role with his program of self-help and the raising of funds to start blacks in businesses.
I heard a lot about Garvey, and then I started seeing him. The movement held parades along 7th Avenue frequently. They always had a band, with marchers in front and behind him, carrying banners. The women wore long white dresses. Some of the men were in uniform, and the rest wore their Sunday best suits. They started about 125th Street and marched to 135th. Garvey would stand up in a big open-top car, surrounded by some of his closest aides. He dressed like an admiral, with a cockade hat and a long trailing feather at the back. I didn't understand what it meant then. But I think it was all part of trying to attract more members. A lot of black women joined that thing; the dues weren't very much.
Garvey collected the dimes and quarters of enough blacks so that he was able to form a steamship company, the Black Star Line. The first ship, an aged tub, was leaky and unseaworthy, and barely made it out of New York harbor. His idea was to start a shipping line to Africa, to ship goods and people between the U.S. and some African ports. He later added two more ships, but not one of them ever landed in Africa.
Liberia was intended to be the African terminus. In the 1820s, the U.S. had attempted to establish a black nation there with liberated slaves, and most of the leaders in Liberia had some black roots in the United States. Garvey's idea was to set up a colony of American blacks. The Liberians first went along with this, but then changed their minds and wouldn't let him in, because they were afraid he would take over political power.
Garvey never became an American citizen, although he lived in New York for nine years. The Universal Negro Improvement Association at one time might have had over a million members. But in New York, you didn't find many American-born blacks who bothered with Garvey.
The U.S. government wanted to break up the movement because it saw any movement of black people as a threat. The Department of Justice thought he was trying to start a rebellion, so they accused him of bilking poor working people, and arrested him on several fraud charges for collecting the money to buy the steamers and to start other commercial businesses. He was tried in federal court and jailed in Atlanta, then later deported to Jamaica. He died in London in 1940.
The National Association for the Improvement of Colored People failed to pay any attention to the uneducated blacks, which lost them the leadership of the black masses. Two of Garvey's biggest enemies were W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP's magazine The Crisis, and Philip Randolph, co-editor of The Messenger, a socialist monthly paper, and later co-founder of the Pullman porters union. They thought the Back to Africa movement was a harebrained idea -- just like I thought. Garvey had a dream, but I don't think it was ever possible. How was he going to get enough money? And nobody wanted to go over to Africa.
But Garvey has a lot of supporters even today. There are still chapters of the United Negro Improvement Association in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain and the Caribbean, and the biggest park in Harlem has been renamed Marcus Garvey Park.
|THE RISE OF BLACK PROFESSIONALS||[Back to Top]|
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s made Harlem the capital of black America. Blacks all over the country looked toward Harlem because there was such a concentration of highly educated and motivated people, and most of them tested racism.
In the white section of Harlem was an area on St. Nicholas Avenue near Morningside Heights called Strivers Row, where landowners started letting celebrated black entertainers and professionals move in. When blacks could afford that type of residence, it meant they had arrived. Blacks were just beginning to break out of the traditional jobs they had held since Emancipation. There was at least one black doctor on the staff at Harlem Hospital, and a few black nurses.
With the size of Harlem's black population, professionals in many fields could earn a living, once they got established. Some of them, particularly young lawyers and dentists who were just starting their practice, went down to Grand Central Station or Penn Station at night and hauled baggage to supplement their income. This wasn't so true for doctors, because blacks would respond more to a bellyache than they would a toothache.
In New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities outside the South with a large black population, you began to see the rise of a black middle class. Black doctors and dentists made their living in Harlem, off blacks who weren't well-to-do. I thought it was a hell of a contribution they were making, because they had to work just as hard as the white doctors, but didn't get the same fees.
In New York and all over the United States, most black women worked as domestics. They were usually more educated than the men, I think because the girls stayed at home longer and listened to their mothers better. Boys often dropped out of school by the fourth or fifth grade, and some didn't go at all. Young boys admired the pimps and gamblers because they dressed up sharp and always had money to spend, even though they were living on the fringes of the law and were frequently arrested.
The best-known black woman in Harlem was Madam C.J. Walker. She developed a new method of straightening hair, using heated metal combs and some kind of oily substance, and became a millionaire. The combs were manufactured at Walker's plant. She also sold a facial cream that lightened the skin. I never saw her, but she had a townhouse and beauty school on 136th Street and a $200,000 mansion on the Hudson. She gave a lot of big parties for her daughter, who knew nothing except how to spend money.
Every black woman in the United States knew who Madam Walker was, unless they lived down in the swamps of Mississippi or someplace like that. And they probably heard about her there too, because her process went out all over the country. Women started opening up beauty parlors, using her products. Most blacks felt that so-called nappy hair was too primitive, like something that came from Africa. Blacks were trying to make themselves look more like whites, because they felt being black was a certain form of degradation.
Most black men in Harlem worked in service jobs -- cooks, waiters, janitors, bootblacks. I don't remember seeing a single black bus driver, subway worker, street sweeper or garbage collector. All the teachers in my school were white. You did see a few black policemen and firemen, but they were so uncommon that everybody knew who they were.
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The winter of 1918-19 was below-zero temperatures. The scarcity of fuel and other commodities brought on by the war created a gloomy time. Everyone you met spoke about the cold. I was dressed properly to keep warm -- always with galoshes or rubbers over my shoes, a topcoat, woolen mittens, and a knitted blue Navy-style cap which I could roll down over my ears.
That was the winter when I first heard the term "Spanish influenza" to describe the heavy flu attack that swept over the nation. People were going about the street with handkerchiefs over their faces to ward off the deadly bug. So many were stricken that the city began sending people to Ward's Island in the middle of the East River, where they were treated and held in quarantine. Some came back in a coffin.
I came to school one day with all of the symptoms, and coughed incessantly in class. The teacher felt my forehead and sent me home. She had to make a report to the principal, who informed the hooky cop. He came to my home the next morning, and told Luvina that if I was not in school the following day, I would be taken to the island. I got out of bed the next morning, and despite a temperature, dizziness and a headache, I went back to school. Fortunately for me, my coughing had subsided somewhat, which calmed the teacher. I was lucky, for I felt much better in the next few days. I never went to a doctor.
Whenever my father was gone, I was left alone with my stepmother. That's when the problems began. Maybe I was more independent than she thought I should be. I had learned how to do a lot of things for myself, even how to fix food, from the time I was about 7 years of age. She tried to correct me, and maybe she went about it wrong. Whenever she attempted to strap me, we'd have a fight, with me acting like a regular little monster. I told her, "You're not my mother." She complained to my father, and of course he did not make things better.
Luvina was a very good-hearted woman, just 19 years of age, lonely in the big city, married to a philanderer with a brat of a son, to whom she tried to give the affection that a child needs from his mother. Later, I realized that she was right and I was very wrong, but that was after I came to California and reflected some on my life.
My real mother lived in Chico, California, an agricultural town in the north central part of the state. I had not seen her for seven years, but she continued to write to me almost every week, and I answered her letters. I always felt my mama was somewheres.
I was playing hooky more than I was going to school, and learning a lot of bad things. Aunt Katie came from Detroit one day to visit me and the old man. Then she wrote to Mama that she had better get me out of New York, or I would surely end up in Sing Sing.
Mama wrote the old man and asked: would he send me back to Jacksonville to Uncle Bud? I think my father was a bit tired of having me around, for he got back in touch with his pals at the Clyde Line. Around February of 1919, I was again taken down to the pier and handed over, a stowaway for the second time in my life. I stayed in Jacksonville for about two months, until my mother could buy me a train ticket out of her earnings as a domestic. She wanted me and my sister Katie to be raised together.
The journey was five days out. On the day of my departure to California, my uncle Bud and Aunt Jane took me to the station and gave me a big wicker basket full of sandwiches, which were very hard by the next day. My dad came down from New York to see me off, and he started blubbering, "You're going a long way off. I may not see you again." I didn't know what he was talking about. Uncle Bud pinned my ticket to the lapel of my jacket and asked the conductor to watch me, which he promised to do. The train pulled out and I waved at my father, aunt and uncle until I could no longer see them.
For all railway lines in the South, it was company policy to keep the races separate. My ticket was for a chair car in the front of the train, directly behind the baggage cars. I had to sleep the best way I could. My feet got very tired, keeping my shoes on all the time. Blacks could ride only in those cars. We could not go into the diner until most of the whites had been served. Then the steward would set aside perhaps four tables for blacks. In the more racist states, like Mississippi, blacks could not go into the dining room at any time. Even though the federal Interstate Commerce Commission regulated the railways, it did not bother to administer traveling privileges for blacks. All of the porters were black, and some crack trains had black maids, but no black passenger could buy a ticket in the South for a sleeping car. You'd have to buy it outside the South, and mail it to whoever was going to use it.
My old man had given me $5 for the trip, which I promptly spent. Vendors called train butchers went through the cars all day, selling candy, peanuts, soft drinks and magazines, and renting pillows for the night. I slept in snatches, excited to see the land as the train rolled along. When we got into New Orleans the next morning, the conductor took me into the depot and turned me over to a woman from the Travelers' Aid Society. She conducted me into the huge waiting room and admonished me not to leave, except to go to the toilet which had the word "Colored" on the door. The woman took me into the lunch counter and fed me, and gave me another dollar to spend. I waited all day, and that evening she put me on the Sunset Limited for California.
It took a whole day and half a night just to get through Texas. Once the train crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the black passengers could eat in the dining car and sit where they wanted. We came into New Mexico, then Arizona, and reached Los Angeles two mornings later. I had to lay over in L.A. all day, and left that night on a train called the West Coast and got into Sacramento the next morning, 90 miles from Chico. The Travelers' Aid lady asked me my mother's name and address. She looked in the phone book and found her name, which was now Mosley. So she called my mother and told her that I would arrive in Chico at 11:30 p.m.
When the train reached the depot, the conductor turned to me and said, "Young man, you've come a long way. This is the end of the line." He got my bag for me, and when I reached the door, I saw a woman standing there, and a man with her. She said, "Tommy?" I said "yeah." She said, "Don't you know me?" I had to say no, because I'd forgotten what she looked like. She grabbed me and started hugging me. She was crying, too. I tried to pull away because I wasn't used to that, but she said, "What's the matter with you? I'm your mother."
I began to feel the warmth and love as she smothered me with kisses. She introduced me to my stepfather, a genial giant named Moses Mosley, who stood about 6 foot 3 and weighed in around 225 pounds. We walked from the depot to the first house where I would sleep on the West Coast.
Before Mama left for the depot, she put a lot of water to heat on the stove and placed a galvanized washing tub -- very fashionable then -- in the middle of the kitchen floor. When we came in, she fed me. Then she poured the hot water in the tub, added some cold water and tested it with her index finger. When she thought it had reached the proper temperature, she began to undress me.
After five days and nights of travel without changing any of my clothing or even taking off my shoes, I smelled very gamy. I tried to resist out of bashfulness, and she gave me a gentle slap on the head and told me that she was my mother and that I did not have to be ashamed in front of her. I wore long black stockings and knee pants, which were the vogue for boys then. A boil on one of my feet had burst, and the stocking was stuck to my foot. As my mother was placing me in the tub, she examined the sore, then put both stocking and foot in the water, and finally worked the stocking off. That was perhaps the most exhilarating bath I had taken in my short life. The warm water made me drowsy, and I suddenly felt very tired.
Katie had lain awake waiting to see her older brother, of whom she had heard a lot but had no memories. I guess I had become a sort of myth to her. In Chico, Kate felt left out, because she had no other siblings to stand up for her. The black kids there had been together all of their lives, and at times would form a solid wall against her. Mama took me into the living room and placed me in the bed alongside my sister. I did not think too well of sleeping with her, and she thought likewise. She informed me that it was her bed, and to keep on one side, which I did. After that my sister and I shared a room with twin beds.
Mama made me feel at ease very quickly, and it seemed like I had been with her all my life. I never felt any anxiety from that moment on. Her children came first with her: that's what she lived for. She was a very gentle and decent person. She never took anything that didn't belong to her, and she always gave you a straight answer. She would keep her mouth shut and not say anything, rather than tell a lie. She had the greatest influence on me, to be honest in my relationships with other people in the world.
She died from kidney failure when she was 57. I always felt it was because she worked hard all her life. She was very short but determined, standing at 4 feet 11 inches with high heels.
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