|ONE FAMILY'S STORY||[Back to Top]|
The story of my family's migration to California from the Deep South was a typical one. My mother was the youngest daughter of 11 children in Montgomery, Alabama. Her eldest brother, Thomas M. Jackson, volunteered for the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War of 1898, probably as a way to escape the land of Jim Crow. He was shipped to the Philippines, where he fought in an all-black infantry unit.
After the Americans defeated the Spanish forces, the Army stayed a few more years for occupation purposes. My uncle was discharged in San Francisco around 1901. The city was a point of embarkation for the Pacific, and like a number of black soldiers, he decided to stay. This pattern would be repeated on a bigger scale following World War II.
The next to arrive in California was my step-grandmother, Annie Powers, who always regarded us as family even though she wasn't blood kin. She was my maternal grandfather's last wife, and she had married Grandpa Jackson while my mother was still a little girl. Annie brought up my mother, partially.
Annie had never been out of the South before. When Grandpa Jackson died, she became a maid for a wealthy white family in Montgomery, and when they went on a trip to New York, they took her along. Then she went with them by train to San Francisco, then to Honolulu. When they returned to San Francisco, Granny met with Uncle Tom, and he told her she'd be a fool to go back to Alabama. So she left the white family and stayed behind.
She went to Sacramento and worked as a cook in the governor's mansion. Then she met a much older black gentleman named Peter Powers, who was down in the city hunting for a wife. Annie found out that he owned a lot of property in the town of Chico, and she did not resist his proposals of marriage. My mother corresponded with Annie all of the time. When Annie learned about my mother's separation and divorce, she urged her to come to Chico, and sent her a train ticket, because my mother had no money.
My mother had gone to school as far as the sixth grade before she had to drop out. But she knew the value of an education because her brother had gone to Alabama State, which was an all-black school then. In Chico, my mother worked as a domestic for a white family. She had to keep the house clean, do the laundry and cook the meals. She worked 10 hours a day, easy, six days a week. She was a domestic all of her life: that's all she knew. I don't think she ever earned over $45 a month. She tried very hard to keep her family together, and I think she did a good job. The three of us were very close. She made clothes for herself and my sister, and once she even got a pattern and made a suit for me. My two aunts in Detroit, Mom's older sisters, were protective of her, and they sent about $10 a month for each of us. It helped out a lot.
Kate and I had dinner off quite a few leftovers that Mama brought from the white folks' kitchen. It was customary all over the country for black domestics to cook enough food so that they could bring some home for their families. People generally couldn't eat leftovers the next day anyway, because refrigerators were just coming into being. They could be found in restaurants and soda fountains, but weren't yet popular in homes. The ice man traversed the streets every day; you could hear his bell ringing. Some homes had a contract for him to deliver blocks of ice on given days. Most ice wagons were horse-drawn until about 1923, when they started to become motorized.
My world was much bigger than Mama's. She had little time for anything except working and taking care of us. She read until late at night, mostly the Bible or literature about her church. She belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the only black church in Chico, but she sometimes went to the Pentecostal Church -- the Holy Rollers -- in Oroville, about 20 miles south. The members would go to one another's homes practically every night of the week, and the only time I was forced to attend was when it was in our house. I always looked at the Pentecostals with cynical eyes. When they got to that stuff about speaking in tongues, I'd be laughing out loud.
Moses Mosley, my stepfather, came out of rural Alabama. He was a nephew of Granny Powers, and had followed her to California, probably under cajoling from her. He was a widower, and it's possible that Granny promoted a romance between Mama and Moses. By the time I came out, Kate was calling him Papa, because she didn't get to know her real father. Moses seemed to be genuinely fond of her, but he handled me very gingerly, because I guess he didn't really know what to do about me. Our relationship was always wary; we had a sort of truce between us. I called him Mr. Mosley, or we both would look directly at one another and just start talking. If he wanted me to do something, he would tell my mother to tell me, so I kept it that way. I never had a falling out with him. We just observed one another like two dogs, the way they sniff around one another. He never tried to bother me any, because I think he recognized that I was too big for him to try to order around.
|FIRST IMPRESSIONS||[Back to Top]|
The night I got off the train, I was not too impressed with Chico from what I could see in the dark. It had 65 or 70 blacks out of a population of about 10,000. The next morning I looked around at the acres and acres of empty land in the neighborhood and told my mother, "I want to go back to New York." But I began to like Chico better as the time rolled by, and soon forgot to think about any other place.
It seemed to me that every house in Chico had at least one citrus tree -- orange, grapefruit or tangerine. My mother, who remained home from work that first day, had a lot of roses and other flowering plants. She helped me identify peach, apricot, orange, almond and fig trees -- which dropped their messy fruit on the sidewalk -- plus gooseberry vines, raspberries and blackberries, all still green. I also became acquainted with persimmon, quince and loquat.
My mother enrolled me in Salem Street School, which was for students from first to fourth grade. My father didn't send any school records out with me, so I was put in the same class with my sister. My teacher's name was Virginia Wright, and we took to one another right off. I became sort of special, because in geography class I was the only student who could talk of Florida and New York from first-hand experience. She was amused when I told her that in Florida, pine wood was called "fat wood."
The school had an old-style bell in a dome, and Miss Wright gave me the job of ringing it every morning to call students to their classes. She also arranged for me to beat the drum, so that everyone would form a line in front of the door. I had to get downstairs quickly every day after ringing the assembly bell, and start drumming out the one-two cadence that drummers use for playing in a band.
I'd never heard about Granny Powers until I came to Chico, but she became very fond of me. I could get her to do anything for me. On my first day in Chico, she invited a number of people over to her house to meet the new arrival to the tiny black community. That's where I met Henry Herriford, another young black boy. Henry and I struck it off right away, because he had somebody his age to run around with. We were together every day from then on. He was my chief buddy and my mentor in country life. The only other black boy his age in Chico was Ted Johnson, and Ted's mother thought Henry was too much of a little rowdy. She kept Ted at home and dressed him in clean clothes all the time.
Henry was a natural outdoorsman. Swimming, hunting, fishing: he was good in all of it. He didn't care anything about school -- he dropped out after fourth or fifth grade -- but he was a superb student of nature. He knew plant and animal life better than anyone I had ever met, and we formed a tight friendship that lasted until we both left Chico. He took me to the creeks to watch tadpoles develop. He taught me about blue gills -- an excellent pan fish -- plus carp, suckers and catfish.
When it became warm, Henry and I would go swimming, along with some other youths, mostly white. I could not swim at all, but Henry furnished me some water wings, and I lost my fear of the water. When I saw him dive in, I dove in right behind him, using the dog paddle style at first, then the overhand stroke, as he did. Another place where you could swim was the Five Mile Dam outside of town. It was a tourist attraction, because near the dam was the Hooker Oak, named after Sir Joseph Hooker, an English botanist. He had come through there before I was born and taken the tree's measurements. It had a sign identifying it as the largest oak tree in the world. When it fell in 1977, they discovered it was two trees grown together.
In early spring, Henry and I and his two sisters would climb the foothills east of Chico in search of Indian arrowheads, which we usually found. Yellow poppies turned all open space in the California countryside into color, as far as the eye could see. We went to pick wildflowers with the intention of bringing them home, but sometimes got into arguments and attacked one another with our bouquets.
Henry had a terrier dog, and I had several dogs during my life in Chico. They followed us when we went out of town, scaring up rabbits and chasing squirrels, and running behind when we rode our bicycles. I got my first gun, a .25 caliber single-shot rifle, when I was about 13. Then I got a 16-gauge shotgun. Henry and I hunted mostly for gray squirrels, which made good stew, and jackrabbits. Every other day I'd go out and kill three or four jackrabbits and bring them home, and my mother would dress them and stew them and feed them to the dogs.
When duck season began, we had no success with our .22s. But when we got our shotguns, we always came home with ducks and geese. We wore wading boots, and dressed warmly in those short heavy coats called mackinaws, which lumberjacks wore. But sometimes we were almost stiff from the cold, standing in the water in the rice fields.
To trap quails, Henry knocked off the bottom of a wooden box and replaced it with chicken wire. We went to a place in the park where quail always hid in the shrubbery, tilted one end of the box, sprinkled grain under it, and rested it on a small branch, to which we tied a string. Soon the birds came out and began pecking the grain. If we thought there were enough of them under the box, we pulled the string, and several quail were trapped. The frantic birds tried to fly off, but met the chicken wire. We raised the trap, closely watching the prey, and when we got a hand slightly under, we seized each bird and quickly placed it in a gunny sack.
In the summer you had to be very alert about rattlesnakes, because they blended in with the scenery and you could walk up on them suddenly. In the winter they would den up in the trunk of hollow trees, all wrapped up together trying to keep warm. They had an awful odor, and you could tell when you were close to a den. Some people would set the tree on fire and cook them all.
We used to fish in a backwater of the Sacramento River that was named after Sam Childers, a black man who had lived in the area years before. People called it Big Nigger Sam's Slough. Sometimes two of us would hold a net made out of gunny sacks in the creek, and two others would go downstream and start beating on the water with a stick. When the fish swam in, we would pull it out of the water and tie the opening shut. Then we'd place the bag with the fish in water to keep them alive until we left.
Henry taught me how to use a three-point hook, called a snag hook, which was a good way to catch slow-swimming fish like carp. You got on the bank near a deep hole of clear water, dropped the hook and line, and when a fish swam over the spot, you pulled up very fast and tried to hook it in the belly. He showed me how to use a spear to catch salmon when they came upstream to spawn. A few times we went to get them at Feather River in Oroville, where men, boys and some women stood in the middle of the rapids where the water was shallow, armed with pitchforks and baseball bats. Most of the salmon we smoked or salted.
When the shad ran in the spring, we'd use a big iron hoop with an inner basket made out of chicken wire attached to a pole about eight feet long. We'd go down at night when the shad were moving the most, and hold the basket facing downstream. When the fish swam in you'd feel a small bump. They wouldn't turn and come out. You'd wait and maybe get two or three more, then throw them up on the bank.
Henry had a way to guarantee that whenever he went out fishing, he would not come home empty-handed. The first time I witnessed his emergency fishing strategy was a day after three hours of trying, when none of our gang had attracted even a nibble. Henry took a metal can -- the kind used for Crisco vegetable oil or Karo syrup -- and wrapped bailing wire tightly around it, then attached a piece of heavy metal, like the lead sinker on a fishing line. Inside the can Henry placed some dry carbide, a white powder chemical used in the headlamps of automobiles. He sprinkled a small amount of water on the carbide; it started fizzing, and a mist began to rise. He quickly replaced the top, then dropped the can into the slough. In about five minutes, when the gas had built up, the can exploded under water. Large numbers of stunned fish floated to the surface, so we rowed out to the middle of the slough and sacked them up. We got more than our families could use, so we took the rest to Chinatown and sold them. They would always buy fish.
Many of the things we did were illegal, but fishing and hunting licenses were unknown to us, and we never saw a game warden. We looked at it as a means of supplying food for the table.
|THE AGRICULTURAL LIFE||[Back to Top]|
Chico is located in the middle of the Sacramento Valley, an agricultural region which starts in Sacramento, the state capital, and goes about 160 miles north, as far as Redding. The farms have rich soil and require a lot of irrigation, because it doesn't rain for about seven months out the year. The valley is fed by the Sacramento River and its tributaries. In 1848, gold was discovered in one of those tributaries, the American River, which set off the California Gold Rush. Many towns in the valley, including Chico, have had a black presence dating back to the 1850s.
Chico's large central park, Bidwell Park, was named after General John Bidwell, the founder of Chico. He was a brigadier general in the Civil War, on the Union side. Bidwell built a big house called the Bidwell Mansion, and gave land to the state of California to build a state normal school in Chico. His widow died the year before I arrived. My sister told me they closed the schools so all the kids could march in the funeral parade.
Chico State Normal School played a very low-key role in the affairs of the city. Like the six other state normal schools in California then, it was a two-year school that trained people to become teachers, and had a largely female student body. Its football team didn't have too many bodies so it used to play against Chico High School. The American Legion in Chico had a football team composed of World War I veterans. Every Armistice Day, November 11, they used to play the state normal school in a game which, it seemed, everyone in town attended. Many townspeople had an attitude of antagonism against the normal school, which became ever more hostile as more men enrolled. The dropouts from Chico High School hung around the poolrooms every day, and they were envious of people seeking to get a better education then they had.
Chico was a quiet town, where nobody locked their doors at night. Serious crimes were so few that you didn't give it much thought. It looked like the biggest activity the police had was arresting the town drunks.
When I first arrived, Chico's three fire engines were horse-drawn. They each had a furnace that created the steam necessary to pump the water through the hoses. Whenever there was an alarm, a siren sounded at City Hall, and the volunteer firemen responded. Half of the kids would jump on their bicycles and race to the fire. They did nothing more than stand around and gape, but it was very exciting. When forest fires occurred in the nearby foothills, the sheriff could owner all males between 18 and 45 to go to the lines and help fight the fires, or face jail.
Our house was real crowded, with just two bedrooms and no bath. Katie slept on a cot in the living room. But we always managed to have good food. Just about everybody in Chico grew vegetables in their backyard -- string beans, tomatoes, lettuce, collard greens and mustard greens. Every year my mother canned apricots and peaches. And we had eggs, because my stepfather raised chickens on the side; I gathered the manure and put it in the garden as fertilizer. For a while, we had a rabbit hutch and sold rabbits. Then we had a pigeon coop to grow squab and sell them. One time for about a year, we had a milk cow. I fed the animals, cleaned their places out, and watered and mowed the lawn.
The streets were lined with stately black walnut trees. In the fall we gathered them, cracked them and picked out the flesh, then poured a mixture of walnuts and figs in a hand meat grinder and made patties to eat in the winter. We sold some of the walnut meat to confectionary stores that used it in soda mixtures or ice cream.
Summertime brought harvesting, which was four or five months of very intensive work, going from crop to crop. There were always surplus people around to do it. Some people made enough money in the harvest season to live off the rest of the year, although they'd usually pick up whatever other odd jobs they could find.
I had to start working my first summer in Chico. We got 5 cents for picking a 40-pound lug of peaches. Henry and I would go out early and work until we knew we'd earned $2, then we'd knock off and go swimming at Sycamore Hole in Bidwell Park. Some of the white people didn't like our families to go down there. We heard that they called it Nigger Hole. But we had to swim too.
After the peach season, I went to pick prunes. I was one of the knockers, who went ahead of the pickers. They gave us a long pole and a big piece of canvas which we spread under the tree, then hit the branches with the pole to knock the fruit off. That way it wasn't bruised so much. The pickers came behind us and put the prunes in boxes. Then they put me into the dry shed, where they processed the prunes. They dumped them in boiling water, then put them on trays and brought them out in the sun to let them dry. I worked in an almond orchard too, and two winters I went over to Oroville and picked olives. Other times I harvested oranges, picked hops, or worked in the rice fields, loading 100-pound sacks of rice onto a wagon. I gave most of my earnings to my mother.
It was 90 degrees or more every day, from around June until September, and there was no air conditioning. But unlike the South, it cooled off at night, so you could sleep. The favorite soft drink was root beer, which was kept cold in a huge barrel with a spigot on the side. Some root beer stands served people standing on the sidewalk.
At least two circuses came to Chico every year by train, in the spring and summer. Boxcars were modified to carry elephants, horses, camels and other large animals, and there was a long line of flatcars to hold the wagons, tents, seats, and caged animals such as lions and tigers. They had Pullman sleeping cars for the big-name performers and chair cars for others. The coming of the circus was anticipated by all of the small fry. In early morning, when the train pulled into the railroad siding, a goodly number of boys would go down to the tracks to watch the unloading and follow the long procession to the lot where the tents were pitched. There would be a circus parade down the street -- led by the band -- which was designed to attract customers. The boys from age 10 to early adolescence hoped the roustabout boss would hire them to help erect the huge canvas tent, put up the benches and water the animals. For this, they would be given free tickets to the big show.
If school was in session, the hooky cop would go to the circus grounds to round up those who should have been in school. One time when the circus came, I was unlucky enough to be sick with a fever, and Mama remained at home with me. The doorbell rang and the hooky cop asked, was I at home? Mama said, "Yes, he is sick in bed." He wanted to make sure, as quite a number of boys played hooky on circus days. But I don't think I was ever absent without leave because school was so much fun, associating with people my age.
While at Salem School, I encountered my first experience of anti-Semitism. The Korn brothers, a pair of Jewish twins whose father operated a dry goods store, were super active and always thinking up pranks. I called them the Katzenjammer Kids, after a cartoon strip in the newspaper. Some of the students did not appreciate their humor and would attack them physically, calling them "dirty Jews" and "kikes" in a tone that upset me.
I had seen how the Jews lived in East Harlem; they were just as poor as the blacks. I'd heard people calling them names there, and it had stayed with me. I realized that the name-caller probably felt the same negative way about me, because of my color. Neither of the twins was handy with his fists, nor was I, but I would wade into the fight, and whenever they started getting embroiled, they would run towards me. I finally announced that anyone who hit "Korny" -- that was what I called them -- would have to hit me.
When I was in sixth grade, I used most of my classroom time to lead the cutup brigade, and I did not get promoted to seventh grade, which brought a crisis at home. My classmates shouted, "Left back! Left back!" so loud that I wished only to get as far from my tormenters as possible. Mama made a trip to the school to meet the teacher, and they acquired a deep respect for one another. The teacher said that I did not seem to do any homework. Whenever Mama asked me if I had any, I said no. Following that meeting, I did homework every night. Some days the teacher kept me after school until I had a better understanding of a subject I had flubbed in class -- all part of the agreement with Mama. I was promoted on trial, and this time I kept up with my classmates. I began to get a dim glimmer that school was something one had to take seriously.
Samuel P. Robbins, a strict disciplinarian, was the principal at Oakdale School, where I attended sixth through eighth grade. He had one artificial leg, and all the boys called him "Peggy" behind his back. He kept a razor strap in his office, and any student who was sent to him for reprimanding received a strapping. Peggy was a big 6-footer and could swing that belt real hard. Most of the boys wore two pairs of overalls. Peggy caught on to that trick, and if he felt a second pair of overalls under the first pair, he made the culprit remove them before administering the strapping. Some of the bigger older male louts attacked him once in his office, and of course they were dismissed from school permanently.
The school used an electric bell to start the school day. One Saturday night, when we were playing near the school, one of the boys brought some pliers and cut the wire. About a dozen of us were in on it. On Monday morning, 8 o'clock came, and no bell. Kids were standing around looking at one another. So one of the teachers came out and said, "Children, children, come inside. Classes are starting." We told her, "We didn't hear no bell, we ain't going in," until Peggy Robbins stumped out and rounded us up, aided by some of the male teachers. We were suspected, but no one could prove that we were the culprits. They got the bell fixed afterwards and we didn't do it again. But we had a lot of fun times like that.
Norma Cohen, a red-haired Jewish girl in my class, annoyed all the other kids by answering every question the teacher asked. She had a condescending manner, and on top of that, she was the class informer of everything that escaped the teacher's eye, including shooting spitballs from rubber bands and holding girls' pigtails in the desk inkwell. When Norma told on me and I got a strapping, I held to thoughts of getting even. One day during noon recess, I saw a water snake swimming in the creek. I jumped in, caught it, and held it by the head under the bib of my overalls. When I came back to class, I walked by where Norma was sitting and dropped the snake on her desk.
Norma took one look at the wriggling snake and fainted. Some of the girls began to scream. The teacher ran down the aisle and almost fainted too. The poor snake was just trying to escape all of the humans. Finally one of the other boys caught it, and the teacher ordered him to take it to the schoolyard. I ended up getting a strapping, but even Peggy had a sardonic smile when he heard all of the details.
Ted Johnson and I were together more in high school, since Henry had dropped out. Most blacks got to about the fifth grade, then started working. Very few blacks had even gone to the first year of high school before my time. Quite a few white kids quit school too.
Chico High was physically a very beautiful school, with a huge campus including machine shops, a gymnasium, and a building for the music department, which was one class I always attended. At lunch, we'd race to get home first on our bicycles, and I used to be the first one out.
But the high school was very unruly. Every time the student body was called to assemblage, the hoodlum element would get to work. We organized boo birds who erupted in mass booing, interrupting every speaker including the principal and our own student body president. I had learned a cackling, which was louder than anything else. I would always stand at the back of the assembly with my fellow hoodlums, and whenever I heard something I didn't like, I would start my loud cackle. My compatriots would say, "There goes Fleming." Others would join in, and we would end whatever assemblage we chose to. Some of the more imaginative, who were good at chemistry, made stink bombs in the labs and discharged them in the assembly room. Others would start shouting "phew!," hold their noses, and rush out. My principal knew who was doing it, but we got away with it for a while.
There were a lot of ranches in the Chico area. In my early years I would see cowboys on horseback driving herds of cattle down Main Street, or shepherds and their dogs coming through the middle of Chico with whole flocks of sheep.
In Red Bluff, a smaller town about 40 miles north, I watched the performance of two magnificent black cowboys, Jesse Stahl and Ty Stokes. They competed at rodeos throughout the West, because there weren't separate rodeos for blacks and whites. Stahl was so good that none of the white competitors wanted him to enter any events, and he was paid just to give exhibitions of his skills. Stokes became the comedian of the rodeo. Like Stahl, he could probably do anything better than the other bronco busters, but he wanted to make sure that he made some money. He would try to antagonize the bulls; they would come charging at him, and he'd do all sorts of funny flip-flops to get out of the way. He was entertaining, and he knew what he was doing all the time.
One of Henry's close friends was a white boy named Tommy Stewart, whose father, Bob Stewart, owned a spread of land four or five miles outside of town, in which he had built a slaughterhouse. Henry and I frequently went out to their ranch, where we could ride a donkey, horse or goat, or attempt to bulldog calves, as we saw the cowboys do. We always had a meal at the home with the family and some of the young males who worked for them.
Sometimes Bob let us kill the animals. The slaughterhouse was just outside a corral large enough to be partitioned into separate pens for the livestock. One held cattle, another hogs, and the third sheep. Enclosed within the larger corral was an inclined walkway that ended on a platform about 12 feet above the ground. The livestock was forced onto the walkway. When a steer got up on the platform, we would shoot him in the center of the head with a .22 caliber rifle. The shot would stun him so he wouldn't recover. A chute would open, and the steer would fall down.
The men below would quickly place a meat hook in each front leg and hoist the animal up against the wall of the death chamber. One of them would take a very sharp knife and go down the middle of the steer's belly. Another man would quickly open up the dying animal and pull out the entrails. The heart, liver, and other edible internal organs were cleaned and placed in a large steel container filled with water. Then the steer was quickly skinned, washed down with a hose, transferred to another meat hook on a metal line, and pulled away.
The hogs were killed with a bullet or a hard blow to the head with a sledgehammer. They received the same dressing treatment as the cattle, except that they were scraped with a razor-sharp knife to remove the bristles. To me, the sheep were the dumbest. A goat with a bell on its collar was prodded up the incline, and the sheep followed. The goat passed by the man wielding the hammer, the sheep received the blow, and the goat returned to the corral.
After the livestock was killed, Henry and I hosed down the cement floor and swept all the offal to the hogs in the yard. This experience turned me against eating pork, for several times a sow was killed in full pregnancy, and I noted that the hogs ate everything, including the fetuses which tumbled out as the sow was gutted.
Bob Stewart always paid us a little money for helping out, and we got liver, tripe, kidneys, and sometimes a large piece of beef to take home. Tommy Stewart, Henry and I traveled all over the place armed with a .22 caliber rifle. One time we climbed over a fence while Henry was holding the rifle. He jammed it over the front of his shoe and accidentally pulled the trigger. The bullet struck him in the front of his foot, and I ran back to his home, four miles away, to tell his mother. When I informed her, she shouted, "You damn youngsters are always getting into trouble!" A man working for Stewart rode a horse into town with Henry sitting in front of him. Henry began to grin after he got into the house, telling me he would not have to go to school on Monday.
A word about blacks in the ranching business: Chico had none. But in Red Bluff, the Williams family had about 3,000 acres, most of it in grain and the rest in beef cattle. The founding father of the Williams clan came to California during the Gold Rush days in a covered wagon.
Hadwick Thompson, the first black to go into rice growing on a large scale in California, lived in Willows, about 20 miles west of Chico. He had attended the University of California's College of Agriculture at Davis, and was a veteran of World War I, who had served overseas in France. When he came back, everybody in that little town loved him. He was invited to join the Willows chapter of the American Legion, and they named an athletic field after him. Some white people never let him know that he was black. He owned a lot of acreage up there, and stayed in Willows until he died.
The Southern Pacific Railroad had a roundhouse at Chico -- a round garage with a bit of track and a huge electric-powered turntable that could hold one steam locomotive. A train went from Chico to Sterling City every day, which carried freight and one car for passengers, baggage and mail. The nights it was laid over in Chico, the hostler, Manuel, oiled the locomotive and kept it in working order. He liked for us kids to come there late and talk to him, and he showed us how to start it up. We'd take it out a little way, then back it into the roundhouse.
The railroad operated a passenger train, the #14 northbound between Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, which passed through Chico at 5:10 every afternoon. One day Henry and I were eating some fruit near the depot when a passenger got off and offered us money for our peaches. We got an idea to become entrepreneurs, so we loaded up baskets with apricots, figs, peaches, and apples, and that very evening, when the #14 train arrived, we paraded up and down, exhibiting our wares.
We did this for a couple of weeks or so, and usually sold out. The vendors on the trains didn't have fresh fruits that had just been picked off the trees, and they were losing business from their captive buyers. They complained to the Southern Pacific about our being on their property. The railroad notified the local police, and a cop arrived at the depot and ordered us away. He remained there every day long enough to discourage us from selling any goods. We were just trying to pick up a few honest pennies.
The Sacramento Northern Railroad operated about five trains daily between Oakland and Chico, which was the northern end of the line. It was a direct fast service, and people made the 180-mile trip for all sorts of business. Everyone called San Francisco "The City," seldom mentioning the name of the place, because it was the only place in California that people from back East recognized as being a city, even though L.A. was bigger.
These trains were electric. Outside the cities, the track had a third rail for the electric power, covered by wood, and warning signs for persons who came to walk on them. There were many tales told about the awesome power of the power-conveying rails. Some told of males who urinated on them and received violent electric shocks. There were many variations of this tale, and they always brought loud guffaws of laughter from the audience.
|BLACK SOCIETY||[Back to Top]|
The house we rented in Chico was owned by Mrs. Johnson, a middle-age mulatto widow who lived with us. Although she had been blind for a number of years, she took great pride in the fact that she was very light-skinned, and never failed to ask about pigmentation when she met someone new. The morning after my arrival, she began to question me about other people: what was their color and hair texture? She didn't ask me about myself. I answered her questions, but I understood this sort of pathology even then. I felt sorry for her, because she depended upon other people to do just about everything for her.
My mother, like other blacks who left the South, lost her Southern accent after she came out here. Blacks tried to change their speech because people would make fun of them.
The blacks in Chico were a variety of shades. Some were the offspring of an interracial liaison, and you couldn't tell whether they were black or white. Most fair-skinned blacks of that day were very much like old lady Johnson -- frustrated individuals trying to find themselves in a racist society, while looking down on their darker-hued brethren. Many in Chico had that color complex, and tried not to get too close to people of my dark color. Ted Johnson's mother was what you called a high yellow. She was always talking about how black somebody was. I never let it irritate me too much, because light-skinned blacks were treated by the white world the same way I was. I think there was some resentment toward Kate and me from some of the blacks in Chico because we were much darker-skinned than they were, but we did better in school, and we seemed to be able to think faster than they did.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chico had a steady membership of 25 or 30. Church was held every other week because the congregation shared a minister with Red Bluff, and he preached there on alternate Sundays. I never heard of a white person attending the services. But I let church alone early. I was compelled to go to Sunday school when I was younger, and sometimes Sunday morning services, and I always resented it. When I was 16, we were going in one Sunday evening, and we'd been there in the daytime. I told my sister, "I'm not going in." So I turned and walked away, and I haven't been to a religious service since.
I always felt that most of the ministers in the black churches, and particularly the Baptist church, were unsophisticated men. They might finish high school, and then suddenly come out and say they got the message. I thought most of them were scoundrels. In many instances, where there was a sizable black population, they'd set themselves up as the spokesmen for the entire black community. And on Election Day, the powers that be would probably slip them a few dollars for delivering the vote.
Besides the black churches, Chico and other towns had branches of black fraternal organizations, which were national. Blacks throughout the country were not admitted to any of the white-run fraternal orders, such as the Masons, the Elks and the Knights of Pythias. So they formed their own chapters patterned after the white ones. These fraternal orders were an important social force in areas with a small, widely dispersed black population, such as the Sacramento Valley. Less than 1 percent of the valley was black, but there were two black-run chapters of the Knights of Pythias -- one in Chico and the other in the much larger city of Sacramento.
These organizations planned a lot of social events. Chico had a big dance every year on January 1, Emancipation Day -- the day the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. You used to see things about it in the national black press, but it's no longer celebrated. They'd get a band of about eight black musicians from Sacramento -- piano, two trumpets, a trombone, two saxophones, a drum, and a tuba for the bass line. Everybody came -- all black people.
If you wanted to see a few hundred blacks living in one place, you'd have to go to Sacramento, about 90 miles south. As in many other towns, blacks had their own barbershops, one or two poolrooms and at least one restaurant.
Blacks in the Sacramento Valley constantly saw one another, because some of them had cars, and they thought nothing of driving from one end of the valley to the other. Marysville, 45 miles south of Chico, fielded a black semi-pro baseball team, the Marysville Giants, who played ball every Sunday, and blacks within a radius of about 100 miles would come to the games. They were great social gatherings. Sacramento had a black baseball team also, and there were Japanese teams in Marysville and Sacramento that played against the black teams.
Generally, whatever blacks were doing in high school in any of those towns, you'd hear about it. In Chico, Oroville, Marysville, Sacramento, Red Bluff and Redding, black youths played against one another at track, baseball and basketball. And there were the band competitions, which were held annually in the small town of Princeton, and included blacks from throughout the valley.
Mears' pool hall and billiard parlor in Chico was a gathering place for local males. Mears did not discriminate against blacks, and I was invited to go in with several white youths who were among my close friends. We could not engage in pool games because we were too young, but we could stand around and watch the players.
By the age of 15, I was well aware of the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has waged the battle for first-class citizenship longer than any other civil rights organization in the country. The NAACP was still a fledgling organization at that time. The Sacramento Valley had three branches -- in Sacramento, Marysville and Redding -- and people from the surrounding area would come, maybe two or three members from each little town. Marysville was a little smaller than Chico but had triple its black population. I attended some meetings just to listen. Now and then I would run across a stray edition of The Crisis, the editorial voice of the NAACP. Robert Bagnall, a field organizer from the headquarters in New York City, came to Marysville each year to give a pep talk to try to get more members. Sometimes my mother, my sister and I went down to hear him.
Just outside of Marysville was the Smith ranch, owned by a prominent black family of that name who had about 40 acres along the Feather River. Every Fourth of July, they held a barbecue and picnic on the beach, and blacks from all over Northern California would gather to swim, play games, eat and have a good time. Women still wore the old-style swimming suits that covered the whole body, and men wore trunks and a shirt with the arms open.
Afterwards, there would be a dance in a rented hall in Marysville. If blacks did not have someone to stay with, they were out of luck. The one good white-owned hotel in town would not cater to them. The Japanese operated one inn, which was always clean and served blacks, and both the Japanese and the Chinese operated eating houses where blacks could get good meals.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow practices still existed in many public accommodations throughout California. Most restaurants that catered to middle- and upper-class whites would not serve blacks. The best hotel in Chico was the Hotel Oaks, but blacks couldn't rent a room there, and it didn't hire blacks in any capacity. In most cities, you'd have to stay in the fleabag hotels for sheepherders and other people with very low income. I saw one when a friend of mine was in Marysville, and the bedbugs were marching down the walls and across the ceiling. I got out of there quick because I thought they might drop on me.
Unlike in the South, where the police power of the state was used to enforce discrimination, there was no law in California that upheld it. In some parts of the country it was being tested in the courts, but not in California, because the black community was so small. Many places in San Francisco and Oakland refused to serve blacks as late as the 1960s. I learned when I was just a little kid: you don't go in places where they don't serve you. I saw no need of going through all that argument, and you might run into some violence. But I was against it all the time.
When I talked to the white kids in Chico, I found out about all the things they could enjoy that I couldn't. Chico had a fancy soda fountain called Price's, where all the students went after school. But they didn't let blacks in. Some of the whites that I went around with resented it. If I was with them, they would tell people off and say they weren't going in there if I couldn't go in too. There was another soda fountain in Chico that looked just as good as Price's, owned by two guys from Greece. Everybody called it Greek's. We could go in there and get the same things. The owners were always nice to us. They must have been first generation, because they spoke with a very heavy accent.
It didn't make too much difference to me if I couldn't stay at the Hotel Oaks or eat at Price's, because I didn't have the money to go into those places anyway. But I just didn't like the idea of being stigmatized in that manner. It was a hell of a lousy way to live, to have that staying with you all the time. I knew Price well -- used to talk to him out on the street. Other than his policy, I always found him to be a very pleasant fellow. But I think he was suffering from the same disease as a lot of people who practice discrimination: he thought it was good business, that's all.
At that period, I hadn't made my mind up that I was going to leave Chico, so I accepted things the way they were. It was not until after graduation and I moved to Oakland that my dislike of Jim Crow became an obsession.
|RACE RELATIONS||[Back to Top]|
In Florida and New York, I had never had any solid contact with whites outside the classroom. But in Chico, I mingled with all the boys. There were about six I ran around with -- two whites, two blacks and two Chinese. I did all the things they did -- hunting, fishing, and getting into mischief. There were many hot nights when our regular crowd would go to the swimming hole in Bidwell Park and swim in the buff.
Their parents sometimes invited me to dinner at their house, and my mother invited some of the boys to ours. But the black girls didn't mix with the white girls. The white parents might have forbidden it -- I don't know. Not until years later did I realize how deeply that wounded my sister.
Because I was black, the other students -- including the white kids -- seemed to look upon me for leadership, which was a new experience for me. Blacks were collectively aware that many whites held to an outdated opinion that all blacks had an intense desire to consume large quantities of watermelon, fried chicken, pork chops and chitterlings, and that we carried an old-style razor or knife on our person.
Chico had no black section, and I think most whites in the town were quite open-minded about race because you became acquainted with everybody. But sometimes I'd be walking with Henry, my constant companion, and kids would start yelling, "Nigger, nigger, nigger!" Once we chased a boy up to his front porch and his mother came running out and said, "What are you doing to my child?" We said, "He called me nigger." She looked embarrassed, and told her son, "You shouldn't do that to people."
On the outskirts of Chico was a little Indian village, which had perhaps slightly more Indians than blacks. Henry showed me a lot of tricks he had learned there. When he wanted to cook a fish, he covered it with mud, dug a little pit, made a good fire, and put the fish on the live coals. The steam from the mud poached the fish. We always brought a loaf of bread to eat with it. The people with Indian mothers and white fathers were not accepted as whites. A few Indians lived in town and associated with non-Indians. I knew a couple of them in school. But most of them stayed in their village by choice.
I had read many stories about cowboys and Indians, and my sympathy had always been on the side of the white settlers because they were attacked by the Indians. I hadn't realized that the stories were all written by whites. But I started to question that literature when I saw the frightful conditions in which Indians were living in their settlement.
Nearly every town in California had a Chinatown. At one time, Chinese could not buy houses outside there. The Chinese in Chico segregated themselves because they seemed to have a desire to live together for cultural reasons. Chico had two Chinatowns, both of them just one block long. The old Chinatown was smaller; it had wooden buildings, and mostly old men. The newer one was red brick buildings. Both Marysville and Oroville had much larger Chinatowns than Chico because one thing, they were both gold-mining towns. Chinese had once worked in the gold fields, and had furnished supplies to mining camps.
The Chinese were kept out of most professions, just like the blacks were. They were targets of more violent forms of racism. After they got through laying rails for the Central Pacific, they were surplus people. Some of them were lynched.
There were some opium users among the Chinese. Blacks and whites also came to Chinatown to buy the drug. Sometimes we would see them walk by and drop some money on the sidewalk in front of a particular door. Then a hand would come out, pick up the money, and drop some gummy-looking dark brown balls on the sidewalk. The addict would walk by again to retrieve the purchase. Sometimes we'd start yelling, "Hop head, hop head!" and the addict would start running.
The bigger Chinatown, a block from city hall, was where the Hai family lived. The family had six boys. Three of the brothers -- Hong, Wing and Wong -- were part of our gang. Some people asked me, why did I run around with them? I said because they were fun, and they were friends. One of the boys had a lot of guns. I was with him when he killed a 300-pound black bear. He let me take one shot, but he brought it down.
Their father, Chong Hai, was called the mayor of Chinatown. When he died, the family had a big Chinese funeral. An enlarged picture of the dead man was placed on the hearse, and all the Chinese in Chinatown joined in the procession, beating gongs and burning incense. Most of them were crying. When they reached the cemetery, many pieces of paper with holes punched in them were scattered around the grave. The family prepared huge quantities of food to put on the grave for him to eat on the way to heaven -- chickens, ducks, two whole roasted pigs, noodles and sweetmeats. Then Hong put a $10 bill on there, to pay for his father's passage to the other world. Henry and I hung around, and as soon as Hong got out of sight, we grabbed the money.
Alongside the railroad tracks, as in other towns, there was a place called the jungle, where the professional hobos lived. They were attracted by the sound of the gongs and observed what was happening. After the family and mourners had left, the hobos came over and ate the food.
On Memorial Day, one of the Hai brothers put money on the grave again. We were waiting. But he put it right back in his pocket to make sure we didn't get it.
Chico had some Mexicans -- we didn't use the word "Latino" then -- who worked principally as section hands for the Southern Pacific Railroad, taking care of the tracks. They would go out on a small hand car with handles they pumped up and down to move forward. There was a foreman and probably seven or eight men, with the tools they needed to replace old worn wooden ties or sections of track. There was also one man with a gasoline-powered small car who worked alone, traveling quite a distance every day to look for spots where work was needed.
The Southern Pacific gave the section hands a place to live, by laying old boxcars alongside the tracks, taking the wheels off, and converting them into cabins, with compartments and windows. They had large families, and four or five families would live together in several boxcars. They were part of the landscape outside of many towns in California. The men might have been the only ones who wanted to do the job, because they got the lowest pay of any railroad workers. The Mexicans at my school were kind of meek, and took a lot of abuse from other kids that the black kids wouldn't take.
If two people from different racial groups wanted to get married on the West Coast, they had to go up to Washington, where it was legal. California did not repeal its law against interracial marriages until 1948. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all such laws were unconstitutional.
In the 1920s, you saw whites and blacks married to one another in California, even in some small towns. I didn't hear of anybody bothering them. In Los Molinos, a small town midway between Chico and Red Bluff, there was a black businessman named Ross, who operated one of the early convenience stores that was a combination gas station and grocery store. Ross was well liked, and the people of the community did not seem to resent that he was married to a white woman.
I didn't date anyone during my four years at Chico High School, because there was no one for me to date. There were five black girls in Chico in my age group -- all sisters of my friends -- but I wasn't looking at them, because I saw them too often. I don't know whether there was any taboo against interracial dating at the high school, but it just never happened.
Most professions in California were closed to black people. That was one reason so many of them didn't even bother to finish grammar school. I never saw a black person in the Sacramento Valley working as a sales clerk, apart from the few who owned their own businesses. The only job that a black woman could get in Chico was as a domestic. The one exception was a woman named Tina Owens, who opened a beauty parlor in her home. She had operated the same type of business in Philadelphia. Most of her clients were white. Her husband had a bootblack stand in the leading men's barbershop in Chico, the White Palace, which was white-owned. He made good money.
The biggest industrial plant in Chico was the Diamond Match Company, which processed lumber that came in by train and employed several hundred persons. Bud Harris was the only black working there, which made him a man of distinction among Chico blacks.
There was a girl in Chico named Stella Edwards, who was fair-skinned and very pretty. Her mother was a maid in the home of Dr. Daniel Moulton, one of the best-known surgeons in the Sacramento Valley, and the rumor whispered was that he was Stella's father. After Stella was born, Dr. Moulton persuaded a black man in the town, Ed Edwards, to marry Stella's mother and give the daughter a name. Then Edwards left right away. Most people thought he had been paid off.
Both Stella and her mother lived with Stella's grandfather, Cornelius Daily, one of the most respected black men in Chico. He had the only black-owned barbershop in town, and most of his customers were whites -- principally farm or ranch hands. Stella was his oldest granddaughter, and she had brains. Cornelius had high hopes for her, and after she graduated from Chico High School, he enrolled her at Heald Business College in Chico, where she took shorthand, typing, and all the other courses for preparation to be a clerk.
Cornelius heard there was an opening for a clerk typist at the Diamond Match Company. Stella went by herself and applied for the job. Because she had all the qualifications, and looked like she could be a Latin type, she was accepted. Cornelius was so proud of his granddaughter that he accompanied her to work on her first day. He thanked the company officials for hiring her, and they were shocked to find that Stella was a black. They promptly informed her that they had made a mistake and could not hire her.
Dr. Moulton probably could have helped Stella keep the job, because he was on the board of directors of the Sacramento Northern Railroad, and he had a lot of influence in the town. But he left it alone. Stella remained a domestic until she married a young black who held a civil service job with the state of California. She left Chico and moved to Sacramento.
|NEWSPAPER DAYS||[Back to Top]|
In the 1920s, Chico had two daily papers, the Record in the morning and the Enterprise in the evening. I had been reading newspapers ever since I'd learned to read, and felt at a loss without them. Even today, I'm very uncomfortable until I get a newspaper in my hand every day.
On August 1, 1923, I read that President Warren G. Harding was visiting the West Coast. His train was coming down from Portland to San Francisco, and would pass through Chico about 1 o'clock in the morning. So all of us went down to the depot that night. There must have been a hundred people standing there, hoping the president would show up so they could say they saw him. The train arrived; it slowed down, but it didn't stop. Harding got into San Francisco early the next morning, and he died that evening.
I was home that night, and the next thing I knew, the circulation manager for the Chico Record, Charlie Deuel, was pounding on my door. "Thomas! Do you want to sell some papers? We're putting out an extra! The president died!" I was in my clothes in no time, and ran over to the Record office. They had assembled about 20 kids, and as the papers came off, they gave us the bundles. We fanned out all over the town, yelling, "Extra! Extra! President dies! Extra! Extra!" Lights turned on; people ran out to buy a paper. Everybody wanted to see it, because there weren't any radios in the homes then. I went back twice to get more papers, and made about $6 that night.
Harding was just a political hack who liked to play poker and drink bourbon whisky. He never said anything. He was a figurehead for the Republicans, and nobody knew whether he was intelligent or not. He went along with everything the party's leaders told him, and didn't make any ripples. It was Republican country up in Chico, but I didn't see any grief over his death.
Another news event I remember was the World Series of 1921, when the New York Giants played the New York Yankees. I favored the Giants because my father had taken me to see them play at their home park, the Polo Ground in Harlem. I was going by the office of the Chico Enterprise when I noticed a crowd standing outside. I stopped to see, and a person was putting the score up in the window as soon it came over the wire from Associated Press. The sportswriter described the game very graphically, just like you'd read it in the paper. He made it so realistic, it was almost like you were there. They posted the report twice per inning -- every time a team came up to bat. The people who were closest to the window read the story and passed the word back. Many people stayed there for the whole nine innings.
When I moved to Chico, I was already aware of black newspapers, which were sold in black neighborhoods all over the country at newsstands, barbershops, restaurants and other black-owned enterprises. I never saw a black newspaper for sale in Chico, but people subscribed by mail. The biggest of the national black papers was the Chicago Defender, a crusading weekly founded by Robert Abbott. In its pages we used to read about A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen and the other young rebels who were attempting to bring reforms in race relations. The news section was filled with fiery editorials denouncing discrimination, segregation, lynchings and other forms of brutality.
Many blacks bought the Defender for its advertisements. There were pages of ads for herb doctors and fortune tellers who appealed to the very poorest members of the population, telling hapless blacks how they would someday come into huge sums of money. A substantial number of advertisements came from the company of Madam C.J. Walker.
The Sacramento Valley had no black newspapers, but there were three in the San Francisco Bay Area, about 180 miles to the southwest. The only black paper to carry news of Chico was the Western Appeal, published in San Francisco by George Watkins. Watkins used to come north, soliciting subscriptions all the way up to Redding. He had a correspondent in each of the small towns. I don't think any of the writers were paid. The columns were just chitchat; most of the items were about churches, fraternal organizations and parties held by blacks who wished to see their names in print. Apart from that, he got all canned stuff. Watkins, a conservative black, had no editorial page in the strict sense. I don't think George could write anything. He got ads from sympathetic white-owned businesses, gained respect as a black spokesman and acquired some property. I believe his paper went out of business during World War II.
Mama bought the Negro Yearbook, which was edited by Dr. Monroe Work and published at the Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama school founded by Booker T. Washington. It came out yearly and furnished a wealth of information about American blacks. I perused every issue.
I always found it easy to write. While attending Chico High School, I wrote a few humorous columns in the Red and Gold, the school newspaper. A lot of my fellow students made comments about it, and it gave me a feeling of importance, but I didn't yet have any serious thoughts about going into journalism.
|CALIFORNIA'S FIRST BLACK POLITICIANS||[Back to Top]|
California politics has always been controlled by big money. At one time the Southern Pacific Railway held immense political power, and it was said that members of the state Legislature could be bought like sacks of potatoes. When I arrived in 1919, William Stephens was governor. He was a Republican, as were most members of the Legislature. Until the 1930s, we had a succession of very dreary conservative Republican governors.
The California Legislature has two branches -- the state Assembly, with 80 members, and the state Senate, with 40 members. The first black politician to hold statewide office in California was Fred Roberts, who represented a district in Los Angeles. He was elected to the Assembly in 1918 and served until 1934.
Like nearly all black politicians of his time, Roberts was a Republican -- the party of Lincoln. He was a businessman who had a very successful mortuary business, and had been involved in civic affairs in Los Angeles, which was probably the reason he ran for office. Roberts was very careful to never differ with the Republicans, who controlled the state and permitted some blacks to share in the spoils -- just enough to keep a few black Republicans happy, who in turn would come to the black communities and extol the virtues of being a Republican. Black men voted all the time in California. Women got the vote in 1920, and my mother started voting as soon as it was legal.
Roberts was a symbol of pride to blacks in California, and when the Legislature was not in session, he traveled all over the state, visiting every town of any size where black people lived. He wasn't campaigning, because people couldn't vote for him outside his district: he was going as the sole black in the state Legislature. He came to the upper Sacramento Valley quite often, including Chico, and spoke at churches or the homes of those who wore the mantle of being the number one black in the community.
I met Roberts on one of his visits to Chico when I was about 13. Another time, when he spoke at a black church in Marysville, I went by way of the Sacramento Northern Railway to hear the good man. He made quite an impression on the simple people who lived in the small towns, because they could not figure how he had won an election in a world that seemed dominated by white power.
In 1934, during the Roosevelt reform time, Fred Roberts was unseated by a liberal young black Democrat, Augustus Hawkins. There was a big difference in their style. Roberts played a very low-key role, but Hawkins, the first black Democrat in the state Legislature, fought hard on the floor of the Assembly for blacks and others who suffered from discrimination.
Hawkins, a pharmacist who owned his own pharmacy on Central Avenue in Los Angeles, was born in 1907, the same year as me. He was an undiluted New Dealer who remained in the state Assembly until 1962, when he was elected to Congress. He remained a congressman until his retirement in 1991. He was succeeded in his seat by Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
In 1949, Hawkins was joined in the California Assembly by William Byron Rumford of Berkeley, the third black elected to the state Legislature, and the first from Northern California. He stayed in the Assembly until 1966. In 1963, Rumford and Hawkins pushed a bill that was the state's first law prohibiting racial discrimination in housing. It became known as the Rumford Act.
At the time of this writing, Hawkins is still living in Washington, D.C.
|A BOXING MATCH||[Back to Top]|
Henry Herriford could take care of himself very well with his hands, and was respected by the students in our peer group. Some light-skinned black kids held themselves to be the upper class, but Henry and I always attempted to prove that physically, we were the equals of everybody. Our fights always developed out of someone striking us first, or calling us nigger or some other derogatory name. If they were around our age, we'd knock that nonsense out of their heads. The racial insults were plentiful until Henry and I established ourselves as warriors who fought cleanly and with a sense of purpose. We referred to ourselves as colored or Negroes.
Some older guys would catch us separately and say, "You little nigger," and shake us up, like the chief of police's nephew, Harold Meecham. Everyone at school called him "Blocky" because he had a big head. One day, Henry and I saw our tormenter and shouted, "Let's get him!" Blocky saw that he was outnumbered and began to run, but we ran faster and overtook him. I jumped on his back and Henry tackled him around the legs. We gave him a solid pummeling. He let us alone after that.
Boxing was a popular sport in Chico. The matches were held in a round auditorium called the Hippodrome, which was built as a skating rink. We always tried to find some way to crash the gate, because we did not have the tariff charged to the boxing devotees. One night when I was 17, I was standing around the entrance when the boxing promoter, Eddie Mead, came up to me. One of the fighters for the opening bout had gotten sick, and Mead was desperate. He said, "Hey, Thomas, do you want to make some money?" He had probably seen me fight in the street and thought that I handled my hands pretty well -- a view which I shared with him.
He offered me $10 to fight the four-round curtain raiser against Harold Lightfoot, a white boy who attended high school with me. I'd seen Harold a lot, and thought I could whip him. I didn't know that he had been training to be a professional fighter. Henry, who was standing with me and yearning to get in to see the fights, said, "Take it, Thomas. You can lick that guy." I agreed, with the stipulation that Henry would be admitted as my second. Mead hustled us into the dressing room, where he found some dirty trunks and a jockstrap slightly cleaner. I changed my clothes, and Henry and I marched down the aisle to the ring.
Nelson, the referee, was an educator from Oroville who judged fights on the side. He was the brother of a former world lightweight champion, "Battling" Nelson, who had knocked out the great black lightweight champion Joe Gans in 1908. Gans was sick with tuberculosis at the time, and had no business fighting, except for the pride of being champion and the need for money.
Nelson explained the rules to Harold and me, and then the bell rang. I charged him, and was greeted with a number of sharp left jabs as he danced away from me. I tried to land a roundhouse right, but Harold continued to dance, jab and retreat. Soon I found that lack of training was causing me to run out of gas.
In the second round, Harold stopped dancing and went to work. He landed a right in my belly and I went down. Being both arm-weary and heavy of foot, I decided to stay down. Nelson began to count. Leaning over me, he snarled, "Get up from there! You're not hurt." The crowd was booing and shouting, "Kick that nigger in the shins! Niggers can't take it in the shins! Kill the coon!"
I felt mortified as the crowd continued to shout all of the racist remarks that came into their minds. But it didn't surprise me, because I had heard it a lot of times. I struggled to my feet, only to meet my tormenter, so I grabbed him and clinched as much as I could. I did manage to throw one roundhouse punch that drew blood from his nose, and I finished the four rounds. It was the first and last time I ever fought for money.
|RACIAL TENSION||[Back to Top]|
The biggest black-sponsored event I saw in Chico was in 1925, when a janitor named Al French and several other black men lobbied successfully for the Black Knights of Pythias to hold their annual state convention in there. I was 17 that summer, and working at a bootblack stand.
The Chicoans realized they would have to find housing for the delegates and other people liked to attend conventions. The Park Hotel, which did not ordinarily cater to blacks, was persuaded to admit the out-of-towners and set aside a number of rooms for the three-day convention. The black organizers also secured the use of a hall owned by whites.
One event on the program was a dance that would be held outdoors, in front of the post office. They couldn't find a black band to perform, so they hired a white pickup band -- mostly students from the normal school. On the night of the dance, there might have been 200 blacks who poured into Chico. Hundreds of whites stood around on the street to watch the dancing and hear the music. The Charleston was the dance craze then, and I was pretty good, but Ted Johnson was even better, as people said that all of Ted's brains were in his feet. Some of the bolder whites started doing their versions of the Charleston also.
When the dance ended at 1 a.m., I made my way to Max's Cafe, which was open 24 hours a day, and was generally conceded to be the best eating place in town. On one side of the restaurant was a dining room with white linen table covers, very good silverware and dishes, and waitresses. On the other side was a long counter with stools, which served farmhands and others who were not dressed to go in the dining room, and blacks. Instead of waitresses, the cooks served the food directly to the customers. A wall separated the two sides.
When I walked into Max's, I saw several other blacks on the counter side. Sitting down there, I put in an order for a hamburger steak. While I was waiting for it to arrive, three male students from Chico State Normal School came in. Apparently they had been drinking and were very noisy. When they passed by, one of them snarled, "There's another one of them black boys." I recognized him as the banjo player in the band that night.
I gave him a hot retort. He said, "What did you say?" and I swore at him again. He rushed at me. I jumped off the stool and faced him with the steak knife. He stopped his movement then, and told me about all he was going to do to me. I said, "If you do, you're going to get hurt too." I was five feet 7 and weighed about 135 pounds. My opponent was about six feet tall, maybe 180 pounds, and several years older than me. All eyes were focused on the tableau, and I could feel the tension in the room as the black out-of-towners sat eating a late supper.
Al French, one of the spokesmen for Chico blacks, happened to be making his nightly rounds of turning out lights and making sure doors of businesses were locked. Passing by the cafe, he overheard the argument. He quickly walked inside, grabbed me by the arm and said, "Thomas, Thomas, we don't want no race riot starting while this convention is here. You come along and go home." I was very riled by now, and somewhat surprised by his actions, so I said, "I ordered a steak and I'm going to stay here and eat it." French walked away, shaking his head.
At that moment, a bootblack called "Buffalo," a husky 200-pound black man, walked in to eat. Seeing what was happening, he stepped in front of me and confronted the young male adult, challenging him to fight. The bully seemed to sober up quite fast. He told my rescuer that he had no beef with him. Buffalo sat with me at the table, and the bully walked out with his companions. As he was leaving, he growled, "I'll be waiting outside." I snarled back that I would be ready for him, although my knees felt so weak that I almost fell down. Buffalo and I stayed in there and ate, and when we came out together, the bully and his friends were gone. But I was surprised at his actions, because I used to see him in town all the time.
When I was about 14, I got a chance to visit another area of California for the first time. The minister of the black church in Chico persuaded me to drive with him to a church convention in Santa Barbara, 500 miles south, in his sputtering old Model T Ford coupe. Santa Barbara, a winter colony for wealthy white Easterners, had quite a sizable black community in comparison to anything I had seen in California. Most of the blacks worked as cooks, chauffeurs, maids and other servants in the huge mansions. They received good pay, and most were homeowners themselves -- some having homes as good as those owned by the upper-class whites in Chico. One enterprising black in Santa Barbara owned a thriving grocery store.
I had heard vaguely about the Ku Klux Klan from the old folks, and suffered from the delusion that they were active only in the Southern states. I was wrong, for while passing through the city of Stockton en route back home, we saw a Klan parade of about a dozen sheet-wearing, 100 percent Americans, marching in formation down the middle of the town. It was a raggedy gathering. Some people stared at them as though they were some sort of curiosity, and some ignored them.
About three years later they marched down the main street of Chico. I had no occasion to go downtown that day, and didn't feel I wanted to watch the bastards anyway. My stepfather was so mad that he sat out on the porch with a loaded .30 caliber rifle, and I sat beside him with a loaded .25-20, plus we both had loaded shotguns. I don't know whether either of us would have fired if the Klansmen had decided to march on the street where our house was located.
|JOB OPPORTUNITIES||[Back to Top]|
I think most black people in the Sacramento Valley were quite contented with their lot in life, even if they had to work at jobs that whites did not want. Many of them owned their own homes, and some had successful careers. One source of pride for blacks was the department store owned and operated by George Martin, a black man in Red Bluff. The whites patronized his store, and his family was listed among the leading families in town.
Hydie Davies, who had the city contract to collect all of the household trash and debris, was probably the richest black man in Chico. With the money he made, he bought a lot of land and some houses, which he rented. He had two horse-drawn wagons, and a lot of the stuff that he picked up was still usable. He had the most wonderful collection. He kept a whole shed of it, and sold it too.
A popular gathering place for white men was Charlie McClellan's tobacco shop on Broadway, the biggest in Chico. In the back was a card room where poker and blackjack games ran all day and most of the evening. It seemed like all of the leading business and professional men came by, some to play a fast game before going back to their place of business, others to shake the leather cup of five dice or play poker all day. It was illegal, but the cops never bothered the operation.
Everybody in town knew who I was, because I used to shine shoes on Saturdays at George Daily's bootblack stand inside McLellan's shop. Daily was a very pompous man, who thought he was black society. The white hangers-on at the smoke shop humorously called "Lord George," and he took it all in a manner which disgusted one as young as I, for he was looking for the small tip plus the 25 cents he received for shining the shoes. He bought a home which he let everyone know had hardwood floors. It was a much better place than any other black owned, but Hydie Davies could perhaps have bought George out many times.
Arthur Williams, another bootblack I worked for, was a sort of celebrity, as he was the only Chico-born black who had been drafted into the Army in World War I. Arthur had gone to France with the American Expeditionary Army under General Pershing. The white folks had welcomed Arthur back, and he had attended high school, but the best he could do in employment was a bootblack stand, and it was not on a street where a lot of people walked. Arthur was very bitter, and used to talk to me about his Army stint and the way he was ignored when he came back. He said that a black man was appreciated far more in France.
Moses Mosley, my stepfather, could do a lot of things, but he never kept a steady job. Mama told me years later that she married him because she had a child to raise and needed help. But he didn't turn out to be very much help. Moses worked on the Phelan Ranch right outside of Chico, a 12,000-acre spread that was a business venture of James Phelan, a U.S. senator and a onetime mayor of San Francisco. Chickens wandered all over the extensive holdings, and hired hands walked about in search of eggs. The ranch had cows, steers, horses, mules, goats, a turkeys, geese, domestic ducks, and a good-sized herd of sheep. There were peacocks in residence, and plenty of wild ducks, mudhens, quail, dove, some deer, plus dogs and cats, a bunkhouse for the field hands, and a big house where a man named Murphy presided as foreman, along with his family.
He was a master in mixing and laying cement. He had a crew of about four Mexicans who worked under him building cement irrigation ditches on the ranch, which snaked through the acres. The climate was ideal for growing rice and a multitude of other crops, but they needed water, pumped from the Sacramento River during the six-month dry season. Other times, Moses went to the timber sections of the ranch and cut firewood. When he wasn't working at the ranch, he cleaned houses, washed windows, and did other janitorial work. He could do carpentry, and was a good mechanic who knew how to work on motors. But he was totally unsophisticated. He didn't know how to handle money, and could barely read and write.
Moses and Mama had started to purchase a home after their marriage. They probably could have bought one for $600, but Moses always forgot that he had to make the payments, and would default, so he and Mama and Katie had to find new lodgings. Mama may as well not have been married, as far as the contributions he was making. Most of the time she had to pay for the rent and food.
When I got to be 14 or 15, Moses turned some of his window-washing jobs over to me. He began to growl to my mother that I should be working, and said lamely that he had only gone to the first three grades in school. My father in New York felt the same way; it didn't make any difference to him if I went to school or not. But Mama said, "Thomas is going to finish high school."
By this time, most of the white guys in our little gang had drifted away to go with the white crowd. Some stayed with us, but it was different, and we began to realize even more that we lived in a white-dominated world. When I was a child, the discrimination didn't bother me very much because I kept occupied, and didn't have to go out and earn a living. But Chico had its limitations, and I didn't intend to stay there after high school. I knew the prospects of a black person getting any kind of work there were very dim, unless you wanted to shine shoes or work as a janitor the rest of your life. Nothing disgraceful about that, but my aspirations went to a higher level.
I had heard a lot of talk about working on the railroads, and thought that would be a way out for me. Henry's father was a waiter on a railroad out of Los Angeles. His parents were divorced, but his father sent him a saxophone and a brand new bicycle. I got my own secondhand bicycle for $5 with the little money I made, as my father did not bother to correspond with his son and daughter.
I didn't care if the bike was new or not, so long as I could go around with the guys who had bicycles. But I felt my father's absence when I was about 12, because all the other guys whose mothers had married again had fathers who kept in touch with them, and sent them gifts and things. The first month I got to California, my father wrote me a letter and sent $10. My mother said, "Half of this is your sister's." I didn't argue. I wrote back to him, but he didn't answer. We never heard from him any more until 20 years later. We didn't know if he was living or dead.
Henry and I both began longing to leave Chico, particularly after we started to meet the northbound train that came through every evening. We would position ourselves near the dining cars and wave at the cooks and waiters, who were all black men. They would shout out to us while the train was stopped, which was never more than 10 minutes.
|GOODBYE TO CHICO||[Back to Top]|
Prohibition, which H.L. Mencken described as the "great experiment," became the law of the land in January 1920, when Congress declared the sale of alcoholic beverages to be illegal. I soon found out the many ways people could avoid the law.
The only place where you could legally buy hard liquor was at the pharmacies, for medicinal purposes. People would go to see their doctor and get him to write a prescription. That way, they could get all the booze they wanted. I don't know what ailments it was supposed to cure. Enloe Hospital, founded by Dr. Newton Enloe Sr., was the only hospital in Chico. Dr. Enloe liked to drink, and his son Newt Jr., who was not a doctor, worked on his old man and enjoyed the privilege also.
Bootleggers were everywhere. Some people in Chico had stills in the hills outside of town, where they distilled whisky from grain. Some sellers hired a commercial front, and others sold liquor from their homes. People gave it all sorts of names; in the valley they called it hooch, or jackass, because it was supposed to have a kick like a mule. You could get a whole pint for 50 cents. We used to talk more about it than we actually consumed, but I tried it a few times. Each time I got very woozy in my legs and couldn't stand up straight. You were taking a chance on your life with some of that stuff. Some people were buying five-gallon cans of wood alcohol, cutting it with something and drinking it.
Under Prohibition, even teenage girls were openly drinking alcohol. A place that sold bad booze was called a blind pig. A lot of people were put in jail, but every time, somebody else would spring up in a new place. Bootlegging was one of the few professions in the 1920s that were open to all races. The biggest bootlegger in Chico was Mrs. Chong Hai, who didn't speak much English. She was raided occasionally by the police, but it must have been a misdemeanor, because she would pay her fine, get out quickly, and be back in business. She made so much money she was able to buy her eldest son a brand new Hudson automobile. All the kids hung around him.
By the time I got to high school, one seldom saw horse-drawn vehicles in town, although they were still widely used on the ranches. Automobiles of the early 1920s had isinglass windows and canvas curtains which could be folded up, and most had tops which could be rolled back during good weather. They were nice in summer, but few if any had heating systems. In wintertime, the driver and the front seat passenger were warmed from the heat of the motor, while back seat riders had to suffer.
Many of the cars had large headlights that received their energy not from the electric system, but from carbide lamps. To light the lamp, you turned a handle which released water onto the carbide, forming a gas. You lit the gas with a match, and the front lights began to glow. You could adjust the intensity of the light by turning the wick up or down.
My stepfather had an obsession for automobiles. He bought a secondhand open-top Model T Ford, becoming the first black in Chico to own a car. It was a damn good car for those times, because it was simple to operate and would take you anywhere. And you could use it for so many things besides conveying people. In those small towns, they'd jack up the wheel on one side, put on a belt, and attach it to a power saw.
The first new car Moses bought was a Cleveland sports model with a canvas top and a spare tire on the back -- a very nice-looking car. He only kept it for about 10 months, then traded it in and bought a new Chandler sedan. The Chandler was up in the league of a Cadillac. The payments were big. That's when Moses got in trouble. He had the aspirations to do things that he was incapable of doing. The car cost $2200, which was a lot of money in 1924, particularly for a black man whose income was largely derived from janitor jobs.
When he bought that car, it irritated the white folks he worked for, because it was a better car than they had, and they thought he was trying to be bigger than they were. They decided to punish him, and he started losing his jobs. They never told him the reason why, but a lot of people were talking about this big expensive car he bought.
In 1926, the year I graduated from high school, I was awakened early one morning by the sound of Moses shouting, "Kate! Kate! Wake up! This place is on fire!" My sister's bedroom was next to mine. I opened my eyes and saw a red glow in the ceiling. I got out of bed, slipped into my shoes, put my feet into both legs of my trousers and came out through the kitchen. I heard my mother saying, "Where is Tom?" I ran to the front of the house and shouted, "I'm here!" Henry Herriford, who lived across the street, ran up to me and asked, did I get my saxophone? I gruffly told him that I did not have time, as I was more interested in saving my hide.
The fire burned our house to the ground: we lost everything. Our neighbors took us in that night. The clothing store where I traded let me have some shirts and underwear, a hat, socks and a suit, which cost $20. Mama found an old house in town and moved us into the place. We did not have much more than the beds we slept in, a stove, and a table with a few chairs.
Our furniture in the house was insured. My mother and I always suspected that Moses started that fire for the insurance money, because he was the first one to wake up. I guess he got the money; my mother didn't get any of it. Moses kept his beloved car for several months longer, but inevitably lost it. I didn't understand his weakness for cars; I never owned one and I never wanted one.
It was about this time that we started to talk about moving to Oakland, on the east side of San Francisco Bay. There were things down in Oakland that I knew I would never be able to do in Chico. I could possibly get a job for the postal service, or on the railroad as a Pullman porter or cook.
Mama decided she'd had enough of up there. She wasn't concerned about Moses; the marriage had soured by then. She was still in her twenties when she went to Chico, and she never had any reason to become fond of it. I had fun, but she was isolated. My sister was even more anxious to get out than we were. She had always been ostracized by the other black girls in her age group, and didn't have any playmates. I had not paid much attention to this, as I was always busy with the males of my age group, and was very surprised when she informed me of her loneliness.
Mama and Kate left for Oakland in June. I continued working at the shoeshine stand so that I wouldn't have to go down with no money at all. I didn't realize how much I would miss them. I saved about $50 after they left, and bought one of those white linen suits which were very popular in the hot summers, and a cheap suitcase for my clothes. I made a promise that I'd follow them in about a month, and I did.
At the time, it was a wise move for all of us to get out of there. But Chico was a very nice little town. I never had any regrets about growing up there. It was one of the best things that happened to me after leaving New York. Many times I look back on those happy free years, and think of how it was then.
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