|RELATIVES||[Back to Top]|
The day finally arrived in July 1926 when I boarded the Sacramento Northern Railroad for Oakland. It was dark when I reached the address in North Oakland where Mama and Kate were renting a room. I learned that Mama was staying overnight at the place where she worked as a domestic, and Kate had gone with some friends to a dance sponsored by a black fraternal organization. Mrs. Wall, the landlady, told me how to get there on the streetcar.
I had never seen such a huge crowd at a dance. After about half an hour I found my sister. She took me in hand and we began a search for my cousin Tom Jackson. When we ran into him, I stuck out my hand and said, "I am glad to meet you." He said, "What do you mean, glad to meet you? We should have known one another all our lives," and gave me a great big bear hug.
Tom, who was about nine months younger than me, very proudly introduced me to some of his friends as we walked around the huge ballroom. He seemed to know a lot of people. He asked, when did I get in town, and where was I staying? I told him I had no lodging and he said, "You are coming home with me. That is where you belong."
The dance ended about 1 o'clock in the morning, and one of Tom's friends took us in his car out to the Jackson home. I looked forward to meeting an uncle whom I had heard a great deal about but never seen. Thomas Jackson worked as a clerk in the post office and owned two houses -- one in San Francisco, which he rented, and another in Berkeley, where he lived with his wife Ida and Tom, their only child. He had never visited us in Chico or invited us to visit him; I think he regarded us as his poor relatives.
When we arrived, we both went into Tom's bedroom and went to bed. Early the next morning, both my uncle and his wife wanted to see me. They gave me a curious look when I walked into the kitchen. Since Ida was light-skinned, my first thought was that I was a little too dark for their tastes. Uncle Tom was a rich mahogany brown like Mama, but cousin Tom was as light as his mother.
They began to question me as to why I had left Chico. I said I had come in search of a job: I wanted to help support my mother and sister, and I thought I could make a lot more money than Mama did. Kate was only 16 or 17, and Mama wanted her to finish high school. But she never did go back. My uncle remarked that I should have remained in Chico. He predicted that I would end up marrying some girl in the Bay Area and never amount to very much.
Ida was a member of the Logan family of Montgomery, Alabama. She thought her family had a higher social standing than the Jacksons. Her father was a barber, who owned his own home and sent all of his children to the schools that were provided for black youngsters. In the later 19th century, Southern blacks had a monopoly of the barbershops, as most whites felt it was below their dignity to cut hair. Blacks operated some barbershops for white clientele and others for blacks.
Ida had gone to an all-black teachers training school, and on completion of the brief course, she was offered a job to teach in her hometown. Uncle Tom had been courting her before he enlisted in the Army. After he settled in San Francisco, he returned to Montgomery, married her, and brought her back to the West Coast.
Before leaving San Francisco, he bought two tickets on a Pullman sleeping car. In the South, they had to honor the tickets because the sleepers were owned by the Pullman Company, not the railroad companies. My uncle hated segregation in all forms. When the NAACP formed a branch in the Bay Area in 1915, he was one of the first to join.
He had his family tree traced by a reputable firm and received some papers that showed his ancestry dating back to a well-to-do family in England. He proudly showed off the family coat of arms, and I always wondered whether he had mentioned to the firm that he was black. I never asked him, as I thought such things rather ridiculous, and he was a man who seldom smiled. He looked like he was chewing on a sour pickle most of the time.
That first morning, I did not stay to eat breakfast, but went to look for a job right away. I stopped at Mrs. Wall's house to get my bag. She permitted me to take a bath, and I asked her for directions to the railroad yards in West Oakland.
I went to the Pullman porters' hiring hall first, and was told that I was too short. The company said you had to be a minimum of 5 feet 9, because the porters had to make up upper berths on the cars. I did not believe them, for I saw some men my height dressed in the traditional blue uniform. Next I went to the Southern Pacific Railroad commissary, which hired cooks and waiters for the dining cars, and was told that they were not hiring that day.
I came back to the Jacksons that night. Early the next morning, Aunt Ida called me out and said she was expecting a woman house guest, and would need the bed. I caught on very quick that I was not wanted, for Tom and I were both sleeping in his room, and I knew the guest was not going to sleep with my cousin.
After that, Tom used to come by our house sometimes, and I'd see my uncle once in a while. Aunt Ida always referred to my sister and me as her husband's niece and nephew, and we always called her my uncle's wife. There was no love lost between us. My mother thought Ida was older than her brother, and probably talked about her. I think that's where it started. My uncle wasn't going to go against his wife.
He paid for Tom to go to school, and Tom never had to work at all until he graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and got a job as an engineer with McDonnell Douglas down there. They put all of their hopes on him.
Tom died at the age of 36 of a heart attack in his backyard when he came home -- just toppled over. Uncle Tom stayed at that house in Berkeley and lived to be 100. Ida died at the age of 102.
|THE ADMIRAL LINE||[Back to Top]|
During the 1920s, the only way you could travel long distances was by water or rail. There were no commercial airlines, and very few airplanes even carrying mail. You didn't have freeways: most highways were two lanes, and there were no buses going from city to city. Travel for the general public was an ever-expanding business on the rail lines, the coastwise passenger ships, the river steamboats, and the ships on the Great Lakes, which docked at Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and other ports.
San Francisco was the principal port on the West Coast because ships could get out of stormy weather by coming through the Golden Gate. No bridges across the bay had been built, and San Francisco Bay was busy with ferries to carry cars and passengers -- paddle wheelers and side wheelers burning oil or coal, and others with diesel engines. The trip across the bay took about 20 minutes. Some ferries and ships went inland, plying the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
I had heard that blacks were hired on the Admiral Line, an intercoastal shipping line that docked in San Francisco. So I went to the hiring hall and asked for a job. The black man who operated the office said there was a vacancy for a bellhop on the S.S. Emma Alexander, which would be sailing that day. He asked, had I ever been to sea before? I told him no, and he didn't say anything. They needed hands: there were always changes in personnel. I signed on and went straight to the ship. The bell captain gave me a locker for my things and a uniform, and I was on duty right away, because the ship was already loading passengers.
The Admiral Line was the leading company for the intercoastal passenger trade on the West Coast. It hauled passengers and some freight between Victoria, Canada and Ensenada, Mexico, with stops at Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The company had four big passenger ships. H.F. Alexander, the founder, named the largest one after himself. It could go more than 25 knots, and was the fastest ship on the Pacific Coast -- the only one which approached the speed of the trains. He named his other ships after three women in his family -- the Emma Alexander, Ruth Alexander and Dorothy Alexander. He had acquired the Emma and the Dorothy when he bought the old Pacific Steamship Company in 1916. The Ruth was a former German passenger ship that had been interned by the government when World War I broke out, and used as a troop carrier.
The line's main rival was the Los Angeles Steamship Company, which operated two fast ships, the Yale and Harvard, between San Francisco and Los Angeles. These ships competed for passengers with the Padre, Lark, Owl and Shasta Limited on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The trains had an advantage because they arrived in downtown Los Angeles, about 20 miles inland.
Both the Padre and the Lark were all-Pullman and operated overnight. The Lark was one of the premier passenger trains in the nation, hauling a large, steady number of people between the two cities. Many Hollywood greats used the Lark whenever they came north, a fact which was duly noted by the local media. People who weren't in a hurry went by ship.
The passenger ship industry on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts hired hundreds of black and white college students during the summer tourist trade, as did those splendid ships on the Great Lakes. The white students principally worked as seamen and in the engine room.
The stewards department for the Admiral Line -- the kitchen crew, bellhops and porters -- were all black men except for the chief steward and assistant chief steward. Some porters doubled as waiters; others took care of the passengers' cabins, like chambermaids. I don't remember seeing a single black passenger.
The bellhops all wore a blue suit with a white shirt, black bow tie and little round blue cap, and their shoes were always shined. The passengers were pampered; the black crew members patrolled the deck, taking care of every wish of their guests, who lounged in big steamer chairs. People were usually patronizing, but they treated the black and white crew the same -- like any servants.
The bell captain conducted me to various sections of the ship to show me what parts were port, amidship and aft, then to the dining room, where I helped the waiters get ready for the evening meal and answered the telephone at the bell board, a switchboard for the ship. When people called, we went to their cabins and took their orders.
The ship sailed at 5 o'clock in the afternoon on its voyage north to Victoria, a trip which took about 27 hours. We had just cleared the harbor when the bell captain told me to go to the three decks on the ship, strike the chime -- which was sort of like a xylophone -- and yell, "Dinner is ready!" I made the circuit several times, and the dining room slowly begin filling up.
I found myself taking numerous things to the cabins, and the first night I was delighted when I counted out $6 in tips. That was a lot of money. You could ride the streetcar in San Francisco for a nickel, or rent a nice clean room for $2 a week.
We had to stay on watch until 11. Then the bell captain designated at least one of us for the midnight watch, to work until 8 the next morning. It was rotated among us, and we could sleep until the late afternoon. I spent my first night sleeping in the crew quarters for the stewards department, which was called the glory hole. It was equipped with tiered bunks, one upper and one lower. The white crew members ate and slept in separate quarters, and had little contact with the black crew.
Blacks were not hired in the engine room, where the chief engineer was boss, with powers just short of the captain. We talked about it among ourselves all the time -- "the jobs we can get" -- but didn't know what to do about it. There was no union for the black members of the crews on any ships, and no such thing as overtime. We worked from 10 to 12 hours a day and got about $45 a month in wages. The company furnished the uniforms, food and lodging. With your tips, if you were a hard hustler, you probably could run up your earnings to $75 or $100 a month. The chief cook and the headwaiter, who were black, earned about $150 a month. I didn't think the work was very hard, but many of the black crew members would get to a port and quit without warning. There might have been a woman they wanted to stay with.
The ship had everything you'd get in the best hotels, and we could eat anything we wanted. There was a separate bakery where all of the bread, pastries and other desserts were made. The ship even made its own ice cream. I often passed through the kitchen, and discovered that I could get a lot of goodies directly from the cooks. There was a large container filled with pure cream, from which the waiters filled their little silver cream pots for coffee. I began to drink whole cups of cream, and before my time ended on the ship, I was quite chunky.
On my second day as a crew member, fog closed in on the ocean and the foghorns were heard with their mournful dirge, warning ships of danger near the shore. A waiter told me that the foghorns were baby whales crying because they had lost their mother, and that I should throw crackers into the ocean to feed the unhappy baby whale that was following us, because it thought the ship was its mother. Two other waiters began to laugh loudly when I walked to the ship's railing and peered into the ocean, searching for the lost baby. I caught on that it was a joke, and felt quite sheepish. I found out that they told that to everyone who first came to work on the ship.
The cooks and bakers had been up since 5 o'clock in the morning, and were busy preparing breakfast. The stewards crew was called about 6. Some passengers rang for coffee, and others paced the decks looking out at sky and water. The ships went far enough out to sea that the coastline was invisible.
That afternoon a fire drill was called by the captain -- a routine order on all passenger ships. The passengers all came out on the deck, and the crew members were told which lifeboat they must rush to when the signal was given.
There was a bellhop named Rene who could have passed for white. He was stuck on his color, and was a pain in the neck to everyone. His older brother was head of the hiring hall that procured black workers for the stewards departments on all Admiral Line ships. Rene walked up to me and sneered, "It is customary for one of you black boys to jump overboard when a fire drill is held."
I was very sensitive about anyone calling me black. I threw one punch, knocking him up against a lifeboat, and was swarming all over him when the second steward grabbed me and whispered that I would be placed in irons if the captain knew I was fighting. I struggled to get from his bear hold, shouting, "Let me at him! Let me at him!" He cooled me down, and I told Rene I would meet him off the ship when we reached Seattle.
First stop was at Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. We tied up at the pier, and the waiters, bellhops and porters went ashore, after pooling our money to buy whisky. I purchased three bottles for about two and a half dollars each, which I brought back to my locker. I later sold one of the bottles for $25. I could have gotten more, but was not smart enough in that type of business. It seemed like people's thirst increased when they went out to sea. They would ask, "Could you get me a drink?"
I learned at San Francisco that I could bring one bottle ashore past customs if I gave the guard one bottle. I just opened my suitcase and handed it to him; he put it away. My one remaining bottle I brought back to Oakland to give to friends.
My first trip as a bellhop cemented my friendship with a waiter, Bill Narcisse, who was in his junior year at the University of Southern California. He opened up a new world to me. It was the first time I had associated with a black college student and gotten close to him. Most of the other black crew members had not gone past the sixth grade. A lot of them came from the South, and judging by the way they talked, I knew I was better educated than they were, and I thought I knew more than they did.
The only time we got a day off was when the ship was in port. On my first visit to the state of Washington, I got a chance to explore Seattle, the home port of the Admiral Line, and I found the racial atmosphere much healthier than in California. I heard that blacks could stay in any hotel in the city and dine at any restaurant. I saw blacks with Asian blood, Chinese married to blacks, and other mixed couples.
We got rid of all the passengers, then went around the sound to Tacoma, where the ship laid overnight. We came back the next day, put passengers on and started the return trip back. When we neared San Francisco again, the Emma slowed down outside the Golden Gate to pick up a harbor pilot, who stood anchor in a pilot boat. He steered the ship through the many channels and currents of the bay. All ships did this, because the pilot knew the harbor better than the captain. Tugboats took over when we approached the dock, to ease the ship in. The Admiral Line needed one tugboat on each side because those big ships shut their motors off, and it wasn't easy for them to turn.
The harbor was filled with ships of all dimensions -- huge freighters that sailed to all corners of the world and passenger vessels that in some instances were even bigger. I noted the names of shipping companies painted on the piers facing the water. The Dollar Line, with its very big round-the-world ships, was headquartered in San Francisco, and carried both cargo and passengers. The Matson Line, another American company, had ships that sailed between San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu. The Union Line from Australia operated large passenger liners. There was a prominent Japanese shipping company with luxury liners, plus passenger ships of the Holland American Line and Scandinavian Line, and the Peninsula and Orient lines, both British.
Despite this huge traffic of cargo and freight, blacks were very conspicuous by their absence. The Dollar Line and Matson Line didn't hire blacks, although the companies received considerable subsidies from the government for carrying the U.S. mail. Most of the ships flying foreign flags were staffed by Asians in all departments outside of officers. The crewmen stayed until they could retire with enough money to make them very important people in their hometowns in Asia.
Black longshoremen were barred from all but two piers in San Francisco -- those of the Luckenbach Line and the Panama Pacific, both of which had their headquarters in New York City. The Luckenbach ships were primarily big cargo carriers with accommodations for about 50 passengers, which served ports in South America. The Panama Pacific had two large passenger ships, the Pennsylvania and the Virginia, with all-black stewards crews. They sailed from New York to the Panama Canal, were navigated through to the Pacific Ocean, then made the run to Los Angeles, where they discharged passengers and cargo before ending their voyage in San Francisco, the company's Pacific Coast terminal.
The U.S. Army hired blacks for the stewards' crews of its large troop transports, which called at New York and other East Coast ports, then went through the Panama Canal to San Francisco, carrying American service personnel and their families to Army posts in Hawaii, the Philippines and China. These jobs were sought for diligently, because the pay was good and the ships touched so many ports.
The Emma stayed in port for more than 24 hours, and I was given time off. Mama and Kate's good landlady had assured me that I could make their room my home -- without sleeping privileges -- whenever I came in town.
After returning to the ship, I joined the other bellhops at the gangplank, snatching the baggage that the porters didn't pick up and leading the passengers to their cabins. We cursed under our breath if they gave us a quarter or less tip. The loading went on until a half hour before sailing. Then the bell captain designated one of us to go around, clang a gong and shout, "All ashore that's going ashore!" Friends and relatives slowly began drifting off the ship. We repeated the call several times.
When the last visitor had left, the pilot house signalled the engine room and the great marine engines started up. A tugboat came alongside, the sailors threw ropes to it, and longshoremen removed the great ropes from the steel capstans on the pier. The huge propellors began to work, and the ship slowly backed into the channel, the hoarse blare of the ship's siren shattering the air. When we were far enough out to clear the pier, the tug turned the ship's prow towards the Golden Gate.
From San Francisco, we sailed south to Wilmington harbor, one of the ports for Los Angeles. We discharged and took on passengers and cargo, then set sail for San Diego. The ship didn't land in Ensenada because there wasn't a good docking facility. Smaller, lighter vessels came out to take passengers ashore, where they bought goods and did sightseeing.
Then the Emma turned north and docked in Wilmington, and I went into Los Angeles for the first time in my life, taking a commuter train operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The fast electric trains fanned out to a radius of about 60 miles, going into Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties. It was a big mistake when this type of train was discarded: people could get about much faster in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco than they can today.
Because of its mild winters, Southern California -- and particularly Los Angeles -- was the magnet for Americans from other states in search of a sort of paradise before they left the planet.
Harrison Otis, a brigadier general in the Civil War, was the founder of the Los Angeles Times. He started buying up a lot of land, then advertising about the glorious climate in Southern California. Sunset magazine did the same thing. I think that was the first thing that attracted people.
So many farmers sold their Iowa acres to purchase orange groves that the joke was to call Southern California the capital of Iowa. When it was discovered that cotton could be grown successfully in the Imperial Valley, down near the Mexican border, that brought a lot of people into the state too, both blacks and whites.
Los Angeles then had over a million population, and probably about 25,000 blacks -- more than any other city west of Kansas City. There were far more job opportunities for blacks in Los Angeles than in the San Francisco Bay Area. I went to see Central Avenue, as I had heard so much about the main street of black activity in the City of the Angels. It looked prosperous to me. There were several theaters, black-owned furniture stores and appliance stores, which sold mostly radios and phonographs, and all the small businesses that you'd find blacks occupied in, in any large city. Street vendors sold hot dogs, chili and other edibles from pushcarts, on which a fire was kept burning. Their prices were cheap and business was brisk.
Hollywood drew blacks, just as it did whites, who were anxious to get a job in the motion picture industry. Not many blacks got into the movies, but quite a few worked in Hollywood as servants or in the technical departments of filmmaking, and some were hired as extras.
One time the Emma loaded a film company of about 60 people headed by Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, two of the big Hollywood stars, for the purpose of filming a sea scene for a silent picture; this was before talkies. They did a lot of shooting that night. The company was a rousting bunch, with a tremendous thirst that only alcohol could satiate. Our Canadian purchases were still on hand, and some people kept ringing for a bellhop through the night. It was a wild party all the way to San Francisco.
I learned my duties quickly on the Emma, and got tipped well. I was very cocky, particularly since I had encountered no problems in finding a job. But after a couple of months I earned the dislike of the bell captain, a surly little black man -- practically a dwarf -- about 40 years of age. He did not like to see a rank youngster make more than he did, and he became very nasty. When the ship was on its northbound run, he dressed me down for no reason at all. Our verbal exchange became so hot that I told him I would kick his ass when the ship docked. He answered that I would no longer be part of the crew then, which took away a bit of my cockiness. It was probably my fault: I looked down on him because he had no education.
The next port was Seattle, and I did not fancy being put ashore. So I went to see Harvey Richards, a dishwasher who longed to get out of the galley and was waiting for a bellhop position. I asked if he would trade jobs with me, and he agreed. We sought the headwaiter, who offered no objections, so I changed from my bellhop suit to dishwashers' clothes, and went to work.
There were several electric dishwashers in huge wash sinks. When meals were in progress, the waiters brought in piles of plates, cups and dishes. Plus there were all types of cooking pots, pans and skillets. I never saw so many dishes in my life. Breakfast was the worst: egg yolk stuck to the plates, and the hot water cooked it more, making it cling harder. I learned why sea gulls follow ships far out to sea: all the leftovers were thrown out of the porthole -- huge portions of roast beef, prime rib, chicken, bread, vegetables, sometimes a half turkey. I thought about poor people on shore who would have been glad to get that food.
When the Emma returned to San Francisco, I packed my bag and went back to the hiring hall, and was able to get a spot as a room steward on a smaller ship, the Admiral Dewey. It had a capacity for about 200 passengers, and none of them seemed to be big spenders like on the bigger ships. I kept about 20 cabins clean, changing the linen every day while at sea, then assuming duties on the pier, carrying luggage on board. I made just one round trip. Since it was now September, the tourist trade slackened sharply, and the ships began laying off crew people. I was not surprised when the steward informed me that I was a victim of reduction in personnel.
I went back to Oakland, where I informed Mama and Kate that I was jobless. I had about $50. Mama was working six days a week as a domestic, and did not earn any more than she had in Chico. I thought that white families had a sort of national federation, in which they agreed that they would not pay their cooks and maids above $50 a month.
White women could get jobs as secretaries and clerks in department stores, but a lot of them were working as domestics too. Both white and black women were badly underpaid in those days, and worked as many hours as the bosses desired. Domestics have always been the lowest paid of all the workers. You'll probably find that true worldwide. What finally caused them to be paid a little bit more was the outbreak of World War II. Women started going to work in the shipyards, where they received hourly wages and overtime pay. That brought change.
|THE RAILROAD FERRY||[Back to Top]|
In the fall of 1926, I decided to return to Chico to stay with my Granny Powers, as I thought I could get enough odd jobs to carry me through the winter.
While attending high school in Chico, I used to be awake every night at 11:30 when the last Sacramento Northern train arrived and laid over for the night. I would often meet with a waiter on the train, Bill Shorey, a happy-go-lucky guy four or five years older than me. He was the son of Captain William Shorey, a native of the West Indies who had held a master's license and commanded a whaling vessel in San Francisco at the turn of the century. Following Captain Shorey's death, a street in West Oakland was named after him. It's only about two blocks long, but he was the first black resident in Oakland to be honored by the city fathers.
Late one night in January 1927, I heard a tapping on the window and Bill's voice calling my name. When I looked out, he said, "Hey Thomas, you want a job? They need a waiter on the train." I thought about it a little time, then answered yes. He told me to pack a bag with my clothes and be at the depot at 6:30 in the morning. I had a hard time sleeping the rest of the night, as I did not want to oversleep and miss my chance to start working on the railroad.
I got up at 6. Granny was already up, and when I told her about my good fortune she was full of warnings about my being a good boy and staying out of trouble. I told her that I would be coming in and out of Chico on the train and would see her in a few days. Then I walked out of the door, to not return for a number of years.
The train pulled out promptly at 7. I walked back to the diner and was met by Bill Shorey, who introduced me to the cook, then took me into the pantry and gave me a white jacket. After brief stops at many small places and at Sacramento, we began to travel through a marshy area where the track was built on trestles on top of dikes. I could see the water of the upper portion of San Francisco Bay. The train finally stopped on the east side of the bay, just west of Pittsburg, then slowly pulled onto a railroad ferry, where I got off.
The ferry, called the Ramon, had a kitchen crew of three black men -- a cook, a steward and a waiter. I was to work six days a week as a waiter at the lunch counter. On the off day, I could leave on a train heading north or south. My pay would be $60 a month, plus the few tips I could squeeze from passengers. But I had a bed and a place to eat, and could save my meager wages.
The ferry was at the Carquinez Strait, which all trains from the north had to cross on their way to Oakland. Each ferry could hold a train of many cars. There might be 10 passengers or 100. The Ramon carried about six trains daily between Chico and Oakland. The Southern Pacific had a ferry too, bigger than that; their freight trains were much heavier than the Sacramento Northern's. The lead locomotive pulled a few cars onto the ferry. Switch engineers were stationed on both sides of the bay to uncouple and reassemble the trains. Our living quarters was a one-room hut on stilts over the water, one of many built in that area for wealthy duck hunters. We went there every night about 8 o'clock after the last train passed through. Amenities were very few. There was no place to bathe except in a galvanized tub, for which we had to haul hot water from the ferry. The hut was home for swarms of marsh mice. Every night when we went to bed, we had to shake the blankets and sheets, and invariably a mouse or two would be thrown out. They scurried back after we turned out the light, and we had to keep knocking them off the bed, sometimes managing to kill them.
My second day on the ferry, a tall, distinguished-looking brown-skinned man got off the train and walked into the kitchen. He looked me over and asked, did I think I could stay out there? I realized he was George Dunlap, boss of the food department for the Sacramento Northern. I told him the hut would be all right. Dunlap was a native of Sacramento and perhaps the most important black man in the city. He had at one time been a cook on a private car for superintendents of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had berths, a little parlor, and a dining area.
He had sought, and was awarded, the contract from the Sacramento Northern to operate the two dining cars on each train and the lunch counter on the ferries. He furnished the crew and bought the supplies. He also bid for a concession to operate a cafeteria on the grounds of the California State Fair, where he fed thousands of visitors every year and employed black college students as waitresses and busboys. Dunlap was the father of two attractive daughters. In later years, when the rail line ceased hauling passengers, Dunlap converted the upper part of his two-story house in Sacramento into an intimate restaurant where he could seat about 60 people. Dunlap was chef, with a crew consisting of family members and a couple of others. Practically all of his clientele was white. It was an immediate financial success.
The white crew on the Ramon consisted of a captain and four deck hands whose sleeping quarters were on the ferry. They worked for several days, then another crew took their place. All of them had homes in nearby communities such as Pittsburg, which you could see from the ferry. It was the home port for a number of commercial fishing boats owned by Italians, and sometimes one of the friendly fishing boats would pull up to the ferry slip and give us a big bass or some other fish, which made a welcome change in our diets.
The steward on the ferry was a strict black nationalist who revered Marcus Garvey as though he were a saint, and argued with us frequently about the movement. He berated us because none of us showed any enthusiasm for Garvey. He hated James Weldon Johnson and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois because they did not bring the NAACP into the Garvey movement.
I was very lonesome most of the time. The monotony was relieved only when the passenger trains crossed over and the train crewmen gave us the daily papers from Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco. The biggest cause of conversation among us exiles was Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic in May 1927. It was an astounding feat, and we talked about it for days as the newspapers kept their pages filled with news of Lindy.
In June, when I got my day off, I stayed at home two days instead of one. When I came back, George Dunlap was there. He curtly asked, where did I wish to go, to Chico or Oakland? I knew I was fired. I told him Oakland, so he paid me off and I left on the next train.
|THE SOUTHERN PACIFIC||[Back to Top]|
It was the last days of June 1927 when I arrived back in Oakland to try to find work on the railroads. I was just 19, but in reality I was the head of the house. We were poor working-class blacks. My sister Kate had not gone out into the world yet, and I was the chief breadwinner in the family. I gave my mother most of what I earned because she had a house to run.
Mama had rented an apartment on 8th Street, which had one room and a kitchen. There was a community bathroom which we shared with two other tenants. Mama and Kate slept in the room. The kitchen was large enough for a folding cot, on which I slept.
In 1927, most passenger trains on the West Coast stopped in Oakland. The only train coming straight into San Francisco from out of state was the Sunset Limited, from New Orleans. Except for Los Angeles, Oakland had the biggest black population in the state, even though it was a much smaller city than San Francisco. Some people said it was because blacks moved to Oakland after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and didn't come back. I always thought Oakland had more blacks because it was a railroad terminal. Blacks went where they could get jobs. The Southern Pacific, the Western Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads had terminals in Oakland, and all of them hired blacks, not only for the dining cars, but as chair car porters and in the yards for the maintenance crews. The Southern Pacific hired the most because they operated more trains than both the other lines combined.
Besides its electric commuter trains and its passenger trains pulled by steam locomotives, the Southern Pacific had a fleet of ferries crossing San Francisco Bay. They had lunch counters where travelers could get sandwiches and short orders like ham and eggs, coffee, tea, milk and hot chocolate. They were staffed with black cooks and waiters.
The railroad companies owned the chair cars and baggage cars. The Pullman Company owned all the sleeping cars, club cars and observation cars on railroads in the United States, and hired the porters, attendants, maids -- black women -- and barbers for them. All the railways did was haul those cars from place to place. The Pullman Company had a maintenance yard in the nearby city of Richmond, where it repaired and serviced the cars.
I heard that both the Southern Pacific and the Pullman Company put on a lot of extra cars in the summer to handle the traveling public, which meant bigger train crews. My father had been a cook, so I decided to try to be one too. A cook could get jobs in other places more quickly than a waiter could. So I went to the Southern Pacific commissary in West Oakland and asked if there were any openings. The man at the dispatcher's window said no, but told me to stick around, and wrote my name in a pad. There were quite a number of other black men, some of them students looking for summer jobs, waiting to see if they would be hired.
I stayed until 4 o'clock that day and for two more days. Then the dispatcher came out and asked if I wanted a job as fourth cook. I answered yes. He signed me up and told me the number of the dining car, which was in the railroad yard stocking up in preparation for a trip to Los Angeles the next morning. When I entered the dining car, the chef gave me a white jacket, checkered denim trousers and white cap, which all cooks wore, then sent me to the commissary with a waiter to get supplies.
As I walked through the railroad yard, I saw the sleeping cars, chair cars, diners, club cars, observation cars and baggage cars being prepared for departure. There were hundreds of men and women maintenance workers, primarily black, all over and inside the cars. The black women did the same cleaning work as the men. They were hosing the cars down, cleaning them with long-handle brushes, using vacuum cleaners for the felt-covered seats, and bringing linen to the Pullman sleeping cars. Some carried in coal for the ranges in the kitchens. Others iced up the compartments that were placed on top of the chair cars to regulate the temperatures in the cars. There was a big steam laundry where the cooks and waiters stocked up on their uniforms, table linen, tablecloths and napkins. It was all very new and exciting to me.
The commissary was a combination warehouse and kitchen, which supplied all the food and beverages and dairy products sold on all the trains leaving Oakland -- not just the dining cars, but the club cars, where the waiter in charge made sandwiches and served drinks. Butchers in the commissary cut up whole steers. The Southern Pacific had everything the public would get in a luxury hotel -- filet mignon, lamb chops, pork chops, chateaubriand, fresh green vegetables, milk in 10-gallon cans, cases of eggs, fresh fish, shrimp, oysters and lobsters. We loaded it all into a big two-wheel hand truck.
The railroad prepared many things in advance. The commissary had a bakery where they made their own pound cakes and raisin bread. They packaged special flour mixes for biscuits, shortcake, corn muffins and hotcakes: all you had to do was add milk. For bran muffins, they ground up black figs and added them to the mixture. They gave us dough for pies, but we had to know how to make it ourselves in case we ran out.
The chef took me over to a large grindstone in the railroad yard and began to teach me how to sharpen the knives. Most cooks had their own personal knives and large kitchen forks. Apart from that, all we had to furnish was our shoes. Everything would fall on the shoes. Once you started using them on the dining car, you couldn't wear them out on the streets.
The kitchen had a big charcoal broiler, a coal-burning range and a dishwashing machine with an electric motor. The jobs were sharply defined. The chef was the boss of the kitchen: he ordered all the supplies and handled the charcoal broiler, on which he broiled steak, poultry and fish. The second cook made the soups, cooked the roasts in the oven and handed out the orders to the waiters. The third cook was fry cook, and worked hard: everything that went on the range, he cooked.
The fourth cook was primarily the dishwasher, but you also had to peel spuds, shell peas, clean vegetables, and help with whatever the chef or second cook asked you to do. They'd put you on the frying pan sometimes because they were supposed to be teaching you to be a cook. Then you got promoted to third cook, second cook, and eventually chef.
The only white person in the dining car was the steward, who was nominally the foreman of the whole crew. He ordered whatever supplies the chef and the pantryman told him were needed, and saw that everything in service was religiously followed by the waiters. When a diner paid for his meal, the waiter turned over the receipt and money to the steward, with the exception of the tip. The steward counted it and checked it against the receipt.
Next in authority was the pantryman. He was a sort of headwaiter, whose duty was to keep the pantry clean, to take care of supplies like butter, salt and sugar, and to see that the silverware and plates were well stocked. He also took care of the assorted linen, including bedding for the crew in case we had to sleep on board. The diner had real silver, and the white linen tablecloths were changed for every passenger.
On the morning of my first trip, before the train got its load of human beings, I changed to the cook's pants, jacket, apron and cap, and the chef started me to shelling a 50-pound sack of green peas. A switch engine sneaked up to the front of the train and began to push us backwards to the Oakland Mole, a pier extending out into the bay, where ferries brought passengers from the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
Both the mole and the Ferry Building had large crews of black redcap porters. They got their name because of their distinctive headgear, which was usually a cap with a red top. Some came over from San Francisco, pulling big handcarts lined with baggage and assisting the passengers all the way to the railroad cars. Many others worked at the 16th Street depot in Oakland, an amazing-looking concrete building of the Grecian model, or the much smaller Southern Pacific depot at Third and Townsend streets in San Francisco, which was the terminus for the Sunset Limited, the Daylight, the Lark and the Padre.
Some redcaps were college students who worked at the terminals a few hours every day and made enough to maintain themselves in school. Some attended law school or dental school, and they continued these part-time jobs after graduation, working as redcaps at night and using the day hours to engage in their professions. This was also common in other cities where you had big railway terminals. The part-time men worked mostly for tips, which were good at some places and very niggardly at others.
I knew a black lawyer in Oakland, Frank Larch, who caught the Lark each night in Oakland and worked on the dining car until it reached Watsonville Junction, about 75 miles south. Then he worked the northbound Lark back to Oakland, preparing breakfast for the passengers and returning in time to practice law during daylight hours. I don't know when he slept. He shared an office with another black attorney, George Vaughan, who had built up a large enough clientele to work at the business full-time.
Our train departed promptly at 8 a.m. The conductor took out his watch, gave a final look and called, "Board!" The engineer released a blast of steam from the locomotive and eased the brakes. The engine shuddered into motion as the wheels of the great train rolled jerkily, then smoothed out. I felt a thrill as the train really began to roll, and a waiter came into the pantry and shouted his first order through the window.
Coffee was usually made first, in huge urns. The waiters, porters, conductors and brakemen were soon ordering the steaming beverage. We made hot chocolate and put it in a crock in the steam table for instant service. Other crocks were filled with hot milk, hot cereal, sliced ham, bacon, and pork sausages.
The crew was kept busy as more and more passengers came in to eat breakfast. We fried potatoes and eggs any style, and made all the toast orders on the charcoal grill. There were always a few french fried potato hounds. Mothers with infants gave their bottles to the waiters; we filled them with milk and heated them up.
As we served breakfast orders, some things were already in preparation for lunch. When I finished the peas, I was ordered to peel a lot of potatoes and put them in a large pot of water. I kept busy washing dishes and doing everything the cooks asked, looking out of the window whenever I got a chance. About 10:30 a.m., breakfast was over and the waiters asked for their meals. Most of them wanted an omelette of some kind, which made the chef mad. I found myself forming a dislike for them also, because they thought the fourth cook was just a dishwasher without any status at all.
At noon we were ready for the "snakes," as our chef called the passengers. We heard a waiter going through the cars calling out, "First call for lunch!" while beating on a chimelike instrument. We made hot dishes like Southern Pacific special lamb curry, with delicious chunks of lamb cut from the leg only. Sometimes there was corn beef served with cabbage, or a roast of prime rib or beef. We made pies of several varieties every day.
The train finally reached Fresno, an important icing place for the big refrigerator cars which hauled perishable agricultural products all over the United States by fast freight. They dropped 110-pound blocks of ice onto the iceboxes and kept them packed like that. The stopover was long -- about 20 minutes -- as all of the cars were tested by maintenance workers and the train was replenished with water for the locomotive, coal for the kitchen range, and chopped ice for the dining car and passenger cars.
For several hours, the train stopped at small towns all through the San Joaquin Valley, a great fertile region in central California. At the end of every stop, the conductor shouted, "All aboard!," which usually sounded like "Board!" He waved to the engineer, who sat in the cab watching for the signal. This commanded the rear brakeman to return to the train, and when he reached the last step on the end car, he signaled the engineer by hand. The engineer then gave an answering toot on the whistle, and the iron horse slowly started up, amidst much puffing and groaning, as the train began its next leg of the journey.
There were separate cars for passengers, baggage and mail. The mail clerks were constantly at work sorting and sacking. They dropped off and picked up mail at every town on the route, whether we stopped there or not. A special pole was erected next to the tracks, where mail sacks were attached. The mail clerk snatched the waiting outgoing sack with a hook and dropped the sack destined for that town, without the train reducing speed at all: we swept through amidst loud shrieks from the whistle.
The mail car carried one or two clerks, who were employees of the U.S. Postal Service and earned slightly higher pay than the ones on land. Some were black. A lot of people wanted the job because there was no supervisor; you were working alone, or with just one other person. Others liked it because they would be out for so many days, then get time off when they came back.
When the L.A.-bound and the Oakland-bound trains passed each other, the engineers on both trains would toot the whistle, and other crew members would wave their arms at one another as they thundered by. Our train was #52; the other was #51. All trains heading for the Bay Area had odd numbers, and those departing Oakland or San Francisco had even numbers. The dining cars, which were always placed in the middle of the train, had a number starting with 10,000.
Roughly midway between Fresno and Los Angeles, the bleak countryside seemed deserted of everything but jackrabbits hopping about and tumbleweed rolling across the hot dry land. The kitchen was like an oven. About 4 o'clock the cooks went back to the kitchen and began to work in earnest.
The train finally slowed down and crawled through a long marshalling yard of tracks and switches. We were in Bakersfield. It wasn't long before a hard shake let us know that a second locomotive had been added, to help pull the train over the ridge not far outside of the city. We began to climb. There were many tunnels as we went ever higher, and the smoke poured through the train, creating a most unpleasant odor. We looked out when the train went around a curve, and saw the two locomotives straining.
The diner filled up, emptied, and filled up twice more before the work began to slow down. We finally stopped at the summit at Mojave, and the helper locomotive was uncoupled and switched to a side track. Belching out steam, it seemed very forlorn sitting there. The stark natural beauty of the California high desert was awe-inspiring. Occasionally I saw coyotes, badgers, or buzzards slowly circling the sky. Once I saw a wildcat.
The train sped through the night to Glendale and Burbank, the last stops before Los Angeles. The waiters were anxious to get rid of any loiterers who sat at the table talking to one another in the comfortable dining room. When the last passenger -- or "snake two," as Fred Turner described it -- had departed, the waiters removed the table covers, polished the silverware, and sacked up the linen, including the cooks' clothes.
The dining cars were spiffy. I never saw any vermin. The kitchen floor had a sheet of copper bolted in place, fitted with wooden slats that covered every inch. I had to wash and scrub the slats until they were almost white, then stand them on their sides while we mopped the copper flooring. We oiled the stove on top, cleaned the range and grill, polished the coffee urn, and cleaned and put away the crocks on the steam table, so that everything was shining bright.
The waiters who had some place to go -- either a woman to see, or some nightclub -- changed into their street clothes. All the cooks kept their uniforms on. I put on my own hat and jacket. When the train reached the immense multi-tracked yards, it had slowed down considerably. Finally the train pulled into the huge depot and the redcap porters were swarming alongside. The crew got off as fast as the passengers.
The Southern Pacific had a contract with a black man who operated a fleabag hotel on Alameda Avenue, across the street from the depot. It catered only to blacks -- mainly to rail workers. The railroad paid for the room, which I shared with another dining car cook. The sheets were clean, but the building had a woebegone appearance, and a musty smell of age pervaded the whole structure. The ground floor had a pool hall, a fast food place and a recreation center. The three upper floors were all bedrooms. The owner had some whores on the upstairs floors, and supplied bad booze for those who suffered from a great thirst. Some pool sharks made the hotel their headquarters, to take advantage of train crew members. I took a look at the hustlers and their preys working out with their cues.
At 6 a.m. the hotel clerk knocked loudly on our doors. We struggled out of bed, did our brief toilets, then walked down the stairs and crossed the street, where the train was already positioned on the track for our return trip. The scheduled departure time was 8 a.m.
The stewards always stayed at a hotel that catered to whites. I think that's the way they wanted it; they didn't mingle. Some of the stewards were liked and some weren't, but they seemed to look down on the blacks as being beneath them, even though most of them didn't have any more education than the black men they supervised.
If any of us had a friend among the passengers, we would tell the steward, and he would allow the person to get a meal free after all the paying guests had left. Once I had two friends who let me know the day before they were traveling, and I used my prerogative. They were provided with a waiter who attended them like paying guests.
I got a view of Los Angeles from the area near the railroad yards, and saw a big sign on a hill near Glendale which read "Forest Lawn." Fred Turner, the chef, explained to me that it was the fancy burial grounds where impressive funerals were staged for the well-to-do. He emphasized that no blacks were buried there.
Fred was a onetime professional boxer who said few words to anyone. He was one of three brothers from Salt Lake City who came to San Francisco and now worked for the railroad. They had all tried to be prize fighters when they were young. Joe, the eldest, became a local favorite in the featherweight class. He had a fearsome punch which caused most fighters in his weight class to avoid him. He often had to fight men as large as middleweights.
The story was told that when Joe was just a third cook, the superintendent of the Southern Pacific commissary became so excited during a fight that he shouted from ringside, "Knock the bum out, and I'll make you a chef tomorrow!" Joe knocked him cold. The superintendent kept his promise, for Joe was jumped over the second cook and promoted to chef. Fred followed Joe into the ring, but lost interest early and went to work for the Southern Pacific, where he rose from fourth cook to chef. He never did think his brother Joe was much of a cook, but Joe kept his job until he retired in the 1940s.
On my first trip back home to Oakland from Los Angeles, Fred and the second cook filched some eggs, butter and ham, which they put in their bags along with some of the prepared cornmeal, biscuit and hotcake packages. Then the third cook asked chef Turner, could he take a few things? Permission was granted. Since I was new, I did not say anything or take anything. I heard that another man in the crew had a son who waited alongside the track in East Oakland, and when the train passed through, the man threw off a ham or chicken to him.
The chefs were very professional and had a lot of imagination. Our menus were varied, and the food was always fresh -- nothing canned. The hamburger was made with a hand-operated meat grinder. If the main dish was roast pork, I had to peel the apples and make stewed applesauce as a condiment. When chickens were boiled for chicken salad or fricassee, the stock was placed in gallon cans and saved for making sauces and gravy. We made lamb casserole with carrots and baby white onions, and placed each order in the oven in a separate glazed clay casserole dish with a lid. Before serving, we spooned some peas on top with a bit of chopped parsley.
We generally had about three different vegetables for lunch and dinner, plus mashed potatoes, rice, and sometimes candied yams. We prepared all the desserts on the train except the pound cake, which came from the commissary bakery. The chefs made real cooks out of us: afterwards, we were capable of working in any fine restaurant. But most fine restaurants didn't hire black chefs.
The railroad had two black supervisors who made periodic inspections of the dining car crews -- Henderson Davis, the traveling chef, and Max Hall, the traveling headwaiter. They rode over the whole Southern Pacific system to see that the kitchen, dining room and pantry were always clean and in order. Davis, who in his long career had worked up the ranks to chef, remained in the kitchen during mealtime, despite the close quarters, to watch very closely how the food was cooked. Hall had performed equally well as a waiter, and both men could recommend whether someone who was not performing according to company rules could retain his job.
The inspectors did not want anyone to know when they were going to climb on board. But when we passed a train coming toward us, one of us would signal if the inspectors were waiting at the next stop. There would be a frenzied period of getting things in order, but we never had much to straighten up, because the chef and the pantryman saw that everything was clean all the time.
Allan Pollak, general manager of the Southern Pacific's dining car service, frequently left his San Francisco office and traveled on inspection. I recall one time when Pollak was on the car at the same time as Davis and Hall. The two black men did what we called a great Uncle Tom act, and were very caustic in their comments to the crew. We knew they were just trying to impress their boss.
I served as fourth cook for only two or three trips. Then I was moved up to third cook, and even made a couple of trips as second cook. I was lucky that first year, as I survived the layoffs that usually occurred at the end of the heavy tourist trade in late August. After returning from each trip, I had one night at home. Mama would wake me up at 6 a.m., and I would walk to the railroad yards, a distance of about 10 blocks.
Several months after I joined the railroad, my earnings made it possible for us to move to a house. Fred Turner's mother-in-law owned a lot of real estate in Berkeley, and he told me that she had a vacancy, a two-bedroom cottage on Russell Street which rented for $25 a month. Fred showed it to my Mom, and she concluded the deal for us to become Berkeley citizens.
After that, every time I came back from work, I took the same "Big Red" electric train home as Fred Turner, and I was at his house every time we were in town. He sort of adopted me, and gave me useful advice that an older man can provide.
There were many redcaps, waiters, porters and chef cooks buying homes in Berkeley and Oakland. Fred was building a lovely house with a wide sweeping lawn. It had stucco on all sides, large back and front yards, and a variety of flowering plants. Being a widower, he was pursued hard by a number of husband-seeking females. Fred took great pride in his house, and boasted that he lived as well as the few black professionals in the city. He did not understand that the black lawyers and doctors and dentists lived on a different scale.
Fred's stepdaughter Gertrude, whom he had helped to raise, always had the house full of young people. On one of my layovers, two of her guests from Los Angeles were Clyde Thompson and Al Johnson. Both were in and out of college. They'd go for a while and drop out, and were still trying to decide whether to return. They were hell of a good fellas. The three of us decided that we shared many common views, and became very close.
Clyde and Al were suffering with the shorts, and they revealed to me their shoplifting skills. I was surprised the first time they did it, when I was in a small neighborhood grocery buying something. They needed to eat, and I could not feed them. After that, the three of us would enter, I would distract the clerk by making a purchase, and they would be able to come out with something -- bread, packaged baloney, or even milk. I was nervous because I knew I was just as deeply involved as they were.
Two of the biggest football teams in the state were the University of California at Berkeley, or Cal, and the University of Southern California, USC. The week that Cal was playing USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Clyde told me he'd like to get back home, and I said, "I'll see what I can do." I got in touch with the pantryman, who said, "Tell him to come down here early, and we'll hide him up in the locker where they keep the bedding, and we'll give him some water and a couple of sandwiches, and a can to piss in." There was a mattress and room enough for him to stretch out, which made it a little comfortable. The waiters knew he was there, but nobody else. When we got to Los Angeles, the chef came walking around the kitchen and said to Clyde: "I saw you in Oakland yesterday boy. How did you get here?" Clyde didn't say anything.
Railroaders called the locomotives "hogs" and the engineer "hoghead." Firemen were "tallow pots." We worked for Aunt Mary: that was the nickname the black workers gave to the Southern Pacific. The company took care of us, provided our living and gave us jobs. It was like our aunt -- that's what we meant.
Many rail companies got their land in the 19th century in the form of grants. When a company raised enough money, it went to the government and was granted the right to build a rail line. The government wanted to develop the country, so it gave the land away, sometimes with money. Railroads were granted as much as 20 miles of land alongside their track in a checkerboard pattern -- on one side at a time -- so that they wouldn't have exclusive control over the adjacent land. The railroads were responsible for towns all over the West: they sold the land off, encouraging people to come out and settle.
The Southern Pacific was the biggest property owner in the state. The corporate headquarters was in Louisville, Kentucky, even though its tracks never touched there. But Kentucky had the lowest corporate tax of any state, so the company held its board meetings there. A lot of corporations did that. It seemed that most blacks in California came from Texas or Louisiana because those states were on the main line of the Southern Pacific. New Orleans was the easternmost and southernmost point for the railroad. I heard that the company recruited in the South for black workers so they could pay them lower wages, and brought them to the West Coast.
The railroad had at least one black clerk, Walter G. Maddox, working in the ticket printing department at the company's headquarters at 65 Market Street in San Francisco. His wife and son Ray lived in Corning, in the Sacramento Valley, where they owned an almond orchard. They were fair-skinned and hated black people. Mother and son did their shopping in Chico. We called Ray "peckerwood," which was a derisive way in which blacks described poor whites.
The Southern Pacific had its own hospital in San Francisco for its employees from the president on down. Everybody had to take a test for syphilis if they wanted to keep their job. That's the only time I ever went. Anyone who had serious injuries from all over the system was shipped to the hospital.
The main shop for the Southern Pacific was in Sacramento. If a car broke down anywhere on the system and needed some major repair work that couldn't be done locally, they'd hook it onto a train coming West and bring it to Sacramento. They built locomotives there too.
The firemen were the engineers' apprentices, and in time, many of them moved up to become engineers themselves. On the early locomotives, the fireman had to shovel coal into the fire box and keep it up for the whole trip. By the time I was working, the bigger coal-burning locomotives had a mechanical stoker which the fireman operated. But all the Southern Pacific trains I worked on were oil burners. The old reliable steam hog, with its chimney up front, was still the pride of the rail lines. Every time you didn't see the chimney there, it meant that it was a diesel or electric train. During World War II, steam locomotives hauled all the troop trains. Diesels did not completely replace steam locomotives until the 1950s.
All the trains had toilets, but when you flushed them, everything simply dropped on the track. The train windows were kept closed, particularly if people were eating, because you didn't want to get dust in there. The cars had no air conditioning, but there was an opening underneath the roof where chopped ice was poured, and the train was quite cool most of the time, except for the kitchen.
I soon found that the well-heeled white passengers did not attempt to learn the names of the porters or waiters, but addressed them all simply as "George," after George Pullman, the manufacturer of the sleeping car. This senseless name-providing seemed to rile some black employees, especially the chefs. Most chefs mocked the waiters and porters by calling them "George" in the most disdainful manner.
There were always a few black travelers on the trains. They could stay in the same sleeping cars as the whites, but in California's four biggest cities -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Oakland -- black visitors were refused service in all of the major hotels, regardless of their income. Even big shots in the NAACP who went all over the nation recruiting members had to stay in somebody's home in most cities. One sure place you could stay was the YMCA, or the YWCA for women. They had good hotels, and never denied you service. There were YMCAs in black neighborhoods all over the country; the whites put them up and hired black directors for them.
In the fall of 1928, after working for the Southern Pacific for more than a year, I encountered the seniority system, in which those who have been on jobs for the shortest time are the first to be released in periods of decreased economic activity. It is one of the many benefits that the trade union movement has bestowed on American industry. When I went to the commissary to sign up on the time cards, I found I had been scratched by a third cook with more seniority. So I had to leave the crew that I had been with since the beginning. I soon got a place on another dining car.
For most of my first two years, I worked on the San Joaquin Flyer between Oakland and Los Angeles, a distance of almost 400 miles. It left at 8 a.m. and arrived at 11:30 at night. It was put into service because of the success of the Daylight, a Southern Pacific train which had more than 100 miles of track directly along the Pacific Ocean. The Daylight constantly hauled more passengers than the San Joaquin. It was a scenic delight -- one of the most picturesque rail lines in the nation. Our train did not have an observation car like the Daylight.
Most trains had two brakemen, who both worked hard to be promoted to conductor. One worked the front part of the train, and the other walked about a city block behind the train whenever we stopped, to hold off any approaching train on the same track. He signalled with a red flag for the engineer to slow down or halt; at night he carried a kerosene lamp with red glass.
The engineer and the conductor had the top jobs -- the engineer because he operated the locomotive, and the conductor because he was the boss of the train, with all the powers of a sea captain. If someone became unruly and threatened the health and safety of other travelers, the conductor could call on the brakemen or other workers to assist him in restoring the peace. When the train reached the next stop, he would call the sheriff to come and remove such individuals, and they could be incarcerated in that town.
I never learned the names of most of the engineers, firemen, and other white crew. Why should I? They didn't know my name. I was back in the dining car and didn't come into contact with them. There were only two occasions I remember spending time with the white crew. Once was on a special train which a movie company hired to shoot some outdoor scenes near Sonora, California, and we were up there all day long. The actors and technical people were away from the train, and I got to talk to some of the operational crew -- engineer, fireman, conductor, and brakemen -- because they wanted coffee and sandwiches. The other time was when Emperor Hirohito's younger brother, Prince Takamatsu, went to Yosemite by train while he was on a tour of the United States. The Southern Pacific gave him one dining car with a crew of two cooks and two waiters, an observation car and a baggage car, just for him and his entourage from Japan. I was one of the cooks, along with a white chef. We cooked steaks: that's all they wanted. We just served them one meal. I didn't get to meet the prince because I wasn't in the dining room.
|JOINING THE UNION||[Back to Top]|
The rail lines were at one time the biggest employers of blacks in the nation. It was hard, dirty work, and some white males thought the jobs fit only for blacks. Until the early 20th century, there were many black males working in the South as engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors. This ended when the unions became established on virtually all American railroads. They won a good boost in pay, which made white males anxious to work as railroad men. No blacks were admitted to membership in these unions. After that, blacks were confined to being porters, dining car crew, maintenance workers and redcaps. In the South, one could find an occasional black fireman and engineer up until the mid-1920s, still lingering on branch lines in rural areas.
Fred Turner was one of the founders of the all-black Dining Car Cooks and Waiters Union, which had just gained recognition from the Southern Pacific. He was a rabid union man, who took pride in the fact that he did not have to depend on tips to earn a living. But no union meant very much unless it had a charter from the American Federation of Labor, which had a lily-white policy.
The Bartenders Union solved the problem by declaring the black railway employees as an auxiliary of their organization. The blacks paid dues and engaged in limited bargaining with the railroad, but with none of the voting rights that all other trade unions enjoyed.
The cooks and waiters worked 12 to 14 hours a day. Before they unionized, there was no hourly wage scale. Under the union, they got a contract for an eight-hour day and overtime pay, plus a nice retirement pension. The pay was from $60 a month for the fourth cook to $150 a month for chefs. Waiters probably earned less than $80 a month, but with their tips, they might have made more than the chefs even. We were on our feet all day. If there were passengers in the dining room, the waiters could sit down at a table but we had to stay back in the kitchen because we were dressed in cooks' clothes.
The Cooks and Waiters Union was not a national organization like the Pullman porters union. It was largely employees of the Southern Pacific. I quickly saw that it was to my advantage to join. Fred took me by the union office on 7th Street in West Oakland, and I remained a paying member as long as I worked on the railway. William McFarlane was executive director of the union for the San Francisco Bay Area. He had a staff of one, Mattie Thomas, who did all of the clerical work in the tiny office.
Unions were not popular among black workers, many of whom viewed them as outright racist. Dining car workers did not need to be union members in order to get a job, and many of them did not join, despite the gains made. The union found more resistance among the waiters than the cooks.
Turner hated nonunion people, and did not hesitate to let them know. He contemptuously called the waiters "scab niggers," and blasted the Pullman porters who did not join their own union. This did not affect them any, for they received the bulk of their pay in the form of tips, and most of them felt that the union could do nothing for them. In Turner's opinion, such persons were servile, not independent like he was.
On the same block in Oakland as the Cooks and Waiters Union was the office for the Pullman porters union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, staffed by C.L. Dellums, whom I met in 1927. Two years later he became its vice president in charge of the West. Dellums was a former Pullman porter who came out of Texas. He made his living from a billiard parlor across the street; other people ran it for him.
Dellums was a very imposing man -- handsome and impeccably dressed. He wore homburg hats and his shoes were always polished. The way he spoke, you'd think he was a college professor. I'd go in the billiard parlor and stand around talking to him about workers and their problems. He was very good with a cue stick. He admired me for a young kid who took the positions I took. You didn't see many youngsters my age joining the union.
Philip Randolph, national president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, with headquarters in New York City, made a greater impression on me in my early days than any other individual engaged in the fight for equality. He was very active not only in the union movement, but in the whole civil rights movement. His view was that the crippling effects of racism must go, and his appeal was very broad to blacks all over the nation. He was always one of the leaders -- a great liberal and a champion of working men, regardless of color.
Randolph made yearly speaking tours of the nation, and I went to hear him several times when he came to Oakland. C.L. Dellums called him "chief." He was about 6 feet tall, with a tremendous bass voice and a very commanding presence. He was one of the most impressive speakers I had ever heard. He and his principal lieutenants encountered a multitude of obstacles from porters -- some from fear of losing their jobs if they joined the union, others out of ignorance. I met many such porters, and they fought Randolph as hard as the Pullman Company did.
The Pullman Company manufactured their cars at their plant in Chicago. Every train with Pullman cars had a white Pullman conductor and black Pullman porters. Some of the cars didn't have roomettes, but upper and lower berths through the whole length of the car. Every night, the porters had to take down the seats, convert them into beds, and put up a curtain. The porters arrived in the dining car before the first call for breakfast, and had to pay for their meals, although they got a deduction. Most of them ate only two meals a day. Pullman observation cars were located on the rear of all fast luxury trains.
Before Randolph emerged as the leader of the sleeping car porters in 1925, conditions were deplorable. The hours were very long, with no overtime and very low wages. The porters had to depend on the generosity of the traveling public. Randolph and Dellums worked very hard within the NAACP and used the same weapons as it did: protest and agitate, go through the courts, file suits, then work on members of Congress and state legislators to get them to pass legislation. They're using the same methods today.
In the early days of the union, some workers became stool pigeons: they attended meetings, then went back to the company and reported what had happened. Randolph was widely heralded for being sent a blank check, signed by the Pullman Company, and being told to write in his own figure and forget about that union nonsense. He made a photographic copy of the check, framed it to put on display, and sent back the original.
The American Federation of Labor did not want blacks in any capacity as members of an international union, and the white union leaders were very antagonistic toward Randolph. He endured all manner of insults from them before he was able to get an international charter in 1934. William Green, the AFL's president, disdained giving aid or comfort to Randolph, and had to persuade the Federation to grant him a charter, much against his own wishes.
Because Randolph was a union president, he was on the board of directors of the AFL. But he was treated as a pariah: the heads of all the AFL's other internationals would not even speak to him. When he went to executive board meetings, people turned their backs when he came around. It seemed that the thought of a black becoming a part of the labor movement was too much.
It wasn't until 1937 that the Pullman Company agreed to sit down with Randolph and accept his union as the official representative for the porters. It was the first all-black union to be recognized by a major U.S. corporation. In 1978, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters merged with a larger union, the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, and ceased to exist as an independent organization. Philip Randolph died in 1979 at the age of 90.
|TRAVELS||[Back to Top]|
The train crew got their orders from headquarters by telegraph, sent to dispatchers sitting at their keyboards at stations along the route. If the train didn't stop, the conductor and engineer would retrieve identical copies of the message with a hoop. One night in 1928, while the San Joaquin Flyer was halted briefly in Tracy on the way from Los Angeles to Oakland, the conductor handed some orders to the engineer and the steward. Instead of going home that night, we were to sleep on the train, stock up the next day, and leave in the afternoon. That meant double out, or overtime. Not expecting to go out again right away, I had not brought a razor, a change of underwear or an extra shirt.
In the morning, busy little switch engines chuffed about the yard, assembling cars into a single train with six club cars, six observation cars and 12 dining cars, each fully stocked. Finally all of the cars were hooked onto a line locomotive and the train slowly pulled us out of the assembly yard. We had 96 dining car crew members and eight porters for the observation cars, plus the regular conductors and brakemen. I managed to get off long enough to call Mom and inform her that I could not come home because of the orders.
Heading north, we stopped at Port Costa, where the trains were broken up into sections before crossing the bay on train ferries. We heard that the train would deadhead to Portland with just the crews and no passengers. "Deadhead" means to go directly from one point to another, with no stops except to change the operational crew. When we went through a town at full speed we were "highballing."
Train routes were laid out in divisions, and at each division point, the train stopped and the operational crew members were replaced. They had a contract with the railroads to be on board for only a certain mileage or number of hours. Then they took a break before catching the next train going in the opposite direction.
At the bigger division points, maintenance workers examined all the wheels and oiled them if necessary to prevent hotboxes, which would result if the bearings were not lubricated properly. When there was a worn spot -- what was called a flat wheel -- the workers would take notice of it, and grind it when the train came to where there was a repair shop. This was only in places like Oakland, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
We had a full day and a half of travel. There was a lot of visiting, as we had no one to serve, and the meals usually required just one cook. We walked through the cars exchanging gossip, and as the train rolled through Northern California, I spent most of the afternoon sitting on the platform of the last observation car, reading newspapers and watching the scenery. In one dining car, one of the biggest crap games I had ever seen was taking place among the crew members, including several stewards.
The altitude gradually became higher. At Gerber, about 200 miles north of Oakland, the train halted long enough for a helper hog to be added. After the usual inspection of all of the cars, the new conductor signalled the engineer to leave, and the train began to move for Mt. Shasta City at the base of Mt. Shasta. This was a regular stop of the Southern Pacific, where passengers could get off and drink the clear, ice cold, naturally carbonated water from the springs. The kitchen crew always scooped up a gallon or so in storage cans and added sugar to it, making a delicious cream soda. When we reached Portland the next afternoon, new trains were made up, with sleeping cars, dining cars, an observation car and a club car in each of the new formations.
Portland was the only place I ever encountered on the West Coast where blacks had to sit separately from whites at movie theaters. A dining car waiter who knew his way around asked me to go with him to one of the Fox West Coast theaters. We paid our fares and started in. I headed for a seat downstairs and the female usher told me, "There's lots of seats upstairs." I said, "It looks to me there's a lot of vacant seats downstairs too." She said, "Your kind can't sit downstairs." I asked her, "Do I have a choice?" She said, "I guess you do." So I said, "I'm going to sit downstairs or I want my money back."
She got the manager and he said that's the way it was up in Oregon. So I got a refund and went back to the car. My friend stayed, because he'd been there before and he didn't mind. But I voiced my opposition to it constantly.
At Portland, there were more white redcaps than black, perhaps because the city had such a small black population. The trains filled up with Shriners, who were holding their national convention in Los Angeles that year. It was a four-day event, and some people remained on the trains because of a hotel shortage, requiring the Pullman porters to work every day.
The 1920s were the glory days of travel, an age of opulence when fast luxury trains guaranteed the same amenities as any fine hotel -- barbershop, library and on-board secretary. The club cars had leather-stuffed chairs and a gentleman's lounge where men could smoke their fat cigars and order drinks, and a little section where maids took care of the beauty needs of women passengers. The observation cars had lounging chairs on each side of the aisle and an attendant who sold cigarettes, candy and soft drinks. They had a platform with chairs for anyone who wished to have an outside-the-car look at the country as the train sped on.
Steam locomotives hauled passenger trains such as the Broadway Limited, operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the rival Twentieth Century Limited of the New York Central Railroad. There were no finer trains anywhere than those two. Both were overnights between Chicago and New York City, a route which hauled more passengers than any other part of the United States. Neither had chair cars: they were made for the wealthy.
There was a steady contest between carriers as to the speed with which they could travel between cities. A lot of businessmen traveled at night; you could leave New York and get to Chicago in about 16 hours. In the late 1930s, when the new streamliners were introduced, the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe all shouted that their fast trains took 39 hours to get from California to Chicago. For every hour past the slated time, passengers would be reimbursed one dollar.
Several competing lines operated trains from New York City to Florida which were as luxurious as any in the nation. They did their big volume of business in the wintertime. I knew guys who went back East every winter to work on those trains. Some ultra-rich folks bought exquisite private cars and hired their own crew. They had a small kitchen and dining room, an observation platform, and compartments for the travelers to sleep.
I always worked on long runs and didn't have much contact with the passengers, but the waiters and porters did. There was the Del Monte, the famed daily train from the Monterey Peninsula into San Francisco. It was equipped with a club car, which had one black porter for serving drinks and performing other services. Such attendants became well acquainted with the passengers who commuted every day to their jobs more than 100 miles north. Many passengers showed how well pleased they were by handing out cash gifts to the porters at Christmas. They made handsome donations if they learned about a birthday or wedding in the attendant's family.
I worked both limited and local trains. Locals stopped everywhere. Limiteds stopped at only a few places, and always had sleeping cars and club cars. The trains rolled and leaned slightly, particularly when going around a curve, and because they ran on steel tracks, you felt the movement more than you would in an automobile. They jerked all through the night; not everybody could sleep, but I never had trouble. The white crew members got off and slept on land, except for the steward.
I picked up newspapers at the cities where we stopped and read them whenever possible during the trip. Sometimes I'd try to discuss the news with other members of the dining car crew, but most of them didn't know much about what was happening. It was a different world to them.
One of the chefs I worked for was Ollie McClelland, a striking 6-foot 4-inch black man, very fair of complexion and the father of four sons. He was a first-class chef, but like the majority of blacks working on the railroads, he had little education beyond grammar school. I discovered his illiteracy when I saw him holding a newspaper upside down and acting as though he were reading it. He'd say, "I don't see too well, Tom. Could you read something to me?" And I would. Ollie recognized his own limitations, so he pushed his kids to attend school. One son, Ollie Jr., graduated from the University of California and became a principal in a high school in Los Angeles, then superintendent of a school district. Another son, Alden, earned a law degree and practiced law in the Bay Area.
I never saw a white waiter, but I did work with one white chef. He was a hell of a nice old man, and a very good cook. I don't think color made any difference to the Southern Pacific for the kitchen crew. If they needed you for a job and you were qualified, they'd hire you. That chef belonged to the Cooks and Waiters Union, the only member I ever met who wasn't black.
Many of the rail workers made heavy use of the bottle. One chef I worked for, Jerry Wright, consumed large quantities of that awful homemade stuff. Everyone called him "Uncle Jerry." He was a troubled man -- extremely angry, it seemed, at all of the world -- who argued constantly with the steward. He was the only cook I ever saw who could lift french fries right out of the frying pan with his bare hands.
A waiter named George Watson, who addressed all the younger workers as his nephews and told everyone to call him "Papa George," was boozed every time he came to work, and always brought a pint with him. How he managed to walk down the aisle of a swaying dining car with a trayload of food always puzzled me, since it appeared that he was always staggering.
I didn't generally get off the trains between terminals, but one place I did was Reno, Nevada. Las Vegas was still unheard of: it had a tank for the locomotives to take on water, and that was all. Reno was the biggest town in the state, probably because it was near Lake Tahoe, a primary resort area. It already had the famous arcade on its main street that announced: "The biggest little city in the world." Residents of other states who wished to slice their marriage vows could establish a short residence in Reno, then file for divorce. Most were persons of wealth, including famous actors. There were chapels all over town where the newly separated parties could quickly apply for a license and marry a new partner.
Gambling clubs existed then, but not on the scale that one finds now. Gamblers of Chinese descent operated a few clubs across the railroad tracks. Their clients were largely blacks and other nonwhites. The big attraction was the Chinese lottery, found in Chinese places of business in just about every town of any size in California. You could play from a nickel up. The tickets had Chinese figures on them, and you marked one of those with a pencil. Runners came by and picked up the money and the tickets. They had drawings periodically, all through the day. I never played, but you'd see the tickets on the sidewalks everyplace. It was similar to the numbers in New York. In some cities they called it policy, I guess because it was like an insurance policy.
At Sparks, a suburb of Reno, the dining car on our eastbound train was detached, and we had to wait there until early the next morning, when the westbound train would pick us up so we could prepare breakfast en route to Oakland. We had about five hours of layover, so I caught a bus into town with Ken Levy, one of the waiters. Ken and I knew about the Jim Crow reputation of Reno, but we wanted to look the town over. We got off near the depot and began to walk around the neon-lit street, gawking like any other tourists. We traveled about three blocks and came to a solid block of the two-room shacks known as cribs, which prostitutes occupied. Nevada was, and still is, the only state where prostitution operates legally.
A police cruiser rolled up and stopped. One of the cops got out, walked over to us and asked, why were we in that part of town? I still had on my cook's pants and jacket, and my other jacket over that. We explained that we worked on the train, and were simply sightseeing. He said, "Your kind of people stay down there around the depot. You don't come to this part of town." He ordered us back to the slum area, where the blacks, Chinese, Mexicans and Indians lived.
I was surprised -- just walking the street, not bothering anyone. I had heard about that kind of stuff in Nevada, but when I experienced it, I made my mind up that I wasn't going to ever go to Nevada for a damn thing from then on. After that, I just went through the state. I've kept that vow to myself: I have yet to visit it since Las Vegas became one of the major tourist attractions in the nation, where, I hope, blacks are accepted like others.
In January 1930 I made the first of about four trips as a cook on the Overland Limited, a luxury passenger train which ran between Oakland and Chicago. It was three nights out. The train left Oakland on Southern Pacific tracks as far as Ogden, Utah. Then the Union Pacific took over the train until Omaha, Nebraska. There the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad picked it up and took it to Chicago. I told Mom that I would see her in about eight days.
All three lines had their own operational crew. From what I saw, those guys didn't really seem to work hard. The dining car crew stayed on board, working through to Chicago, and we couldn't take a bath or shower until we got to the end of the run. Our layover was two days and one night. One-third of the club car was a dormitory with bunks, where the dining car crew slept. On trains with no sleeping quarters, we took the tables down in the dining car, laid them across four chairs, and put mattresses on them, sometimes air mattresses. We were provided with sheets, blankets and pillows.
The train stopped briefly at Roseville, east of Sacramento, where it added another locomotive for the haul into the Sierras. It was too dark to see the pull up the mountains, but I was aware when we were in a tunnel because of the odor of the smoke from the engines. The helper locomotive switched off at Truckee, and by 10 o'clock that night we pulled into Reno for a brief halt.
Since I had not worked on such a train before, the cook suggested that I stay with him for a while to watch the procedure of making Parker House rolls, which were a steady feature for breakfast on all long-distance trains that were out more than two nights. He showed me how to mix the flour, yeast, milk and oil, to knead the wet dough and constantly sprinkle the flour to make the dough dry enough so it could be handled, and finally fashioned as rolls. At about 11:30 p.m. the two of us wended our way through the train to our bunks and dropped off to sleep. The watch cook always had to get up by six and return to the diner. Then he called the rest of the dining car out of bed. At seven, the crew came into the diner for breakfast, and while we were feeding them, the other cooks were busy making preparations for the passengers.
As we rolled across Nevada the next day, I scanned the landscape and saw endless miles of empty land. I wondered who would want to live in such a desolate area, outside of the ranchers and their helpers. Every now and then, one could see a few horses and large numbers of cattle, with an occasional cowboy. Other ranches were populated by herds of sheep. There were some spreads with herds of wild horses that ranged the land free.
Late in the afternoon the train crossed into Utah, which appeared more desolate than Nevada. The train pulled onto the Southern Pacific trestle that went all the way across the Great Salt Lake. The chef told me nothing would sink in there because the salt was so dense, and I didn't believe him. I tossed out a good-sized lump of coal, and sure enough, it did not simply disappear. There were plenty of sea gulls, pelicans and other water birds whirling about. The trip across the lake seemed forever before the train rolled off and travelled the short distance to Ogden. There the diner received a huge cargo of fresh mountain trout from a fishery.
During the night, after I had gone to bed, the train passed through Green River, Wyoming, which bore quite a reputation because of a black man who operated a rooming house and bar to serve the train crews. The only name I ever heard him called was "Cat Eyes." One could eat a meal, gamble, or, if in the mood, purchase romance in the person of a number of females.
The train finally reached Cheyenne, the capital and largest city in Wyoming. That is not saying much, but Cheyenne was an important division for the Union Pacific. Near the freight yard it had more pens for livestock than I had ever seen up to that time. It had a large Indian population, and was truly a city that clung to the memory of cowboys.
After the usual crew change, the Overland rolled through a small portion of Colorado, then back into Wyoming before crossing into Nebraska. All the small towns there seemed to be larger than any in Wyoming. At some, farmers came to the depot to sell chickens, eggs and other produce. Train crew members bought, since all produce was fresh. Some waiters and cooks gave it to their lady friends in Chicago with whom they spent their layovers.
On the third day out, when the last passengers were in the final phase of their dinner, the train pulled into Omaha, the largest city we had reached since leaving Oakland. The stockyards there were even more extensive than in Cheyenne. Omaha's meat-packing industry was as big as any in the Midwest outside of Chicago -- which had the biggest in the world, with a lot of work for blacks in the stockyards and slaughterhouses.
In Omaha, the Union Pacific -- whose headquarters are in that city even to this day -- gave up operation of the train. The Overland Limited and the Golden State Limited from Los Angeles were consolidated into one train, which was taken over by the Chicago & Northwestern, a line which had huge passenger locomotives with deep hoarse horns that sounded like large seagoing ocean liners, and were fondly called "400's" in their advertising. I was told they got the name because the locomotives took 400 minutes to haul their crack trains from Chicago to Minneapolis.
All through the night, the train rolled through Iowa "hollering," with few stops in the state. When I woke up the next morning we were in Illinois. The time of arrival at the Chicago & Northwestern Station was about 9 a.m. Chicago was the hub of the rail system in the United States. Nearly all passengers going between California and the Atlantic coast had to change trains there, and all those lines offered jobs to blacks. It was also the headquarters of the Pullman Company.
Some blacks in Chicago were hired as policemen and firemen; this happened about the same time in most other big cities on the East Coast and Midwest. Blacks had more observable political muscle in Chicago than anywhere else in the nation. It was a beacon for the blacks of Tennessee and Kentucky. It seemed that the farther away from the Atlantic blacks lived, the more likely they were to go to Chicago instead of New York.
The Southern Pacific had a lease with a black woman who operated a large two-story rooming house on the South Side, where black crew members stayed. We had to get our own meals. One waiter who knew the Windy City asked if I would like to do some sightseeing. I quickly accepted. He showed me around the South Side, where the bulk of the black population lived. It seemed like a black city. I was amazed when I saw the number of businesses that blacks had going. Along State Street, one found the usual number of small, black-operated commercial enterprises, and white-owned shops for dry goods and furniture, but all of them had black staffers. One large department store was owned by the Jones brothers, who were black.
We went by the multistoried Supreme Life Insurance, one of the largest black-owned insurance companies in the country. My guide had been by several times, so he introduced me to the manager and some staff members. I noted the attractive young ladies working as secretaries and clerks. Most of the customers were old-style people who were looking for burial insurance. The company could have charged them 50 cents a month for a life policy of $250 to $500 and still made money off them. I imagine it assured them of some status to know that their funeral expenses would be taken care of. But I always thought it unnecessary, and I didn't want any of that nonsense around me. My feeling has always been: have me cremated. Save enough money to have that done, and forget about it.
Some guys had two homes -- a wife in California and a girlfriend they kept in Chicago. It was mostly the waiters who did that because they made more money than the cooks. They might arrive with 30 or 40 dollars in tips. They'd always be bragging about their sexual powers. Some of their wives were doing that with somebody else while they were out of town too.
One of the chefs -- whose name I shall refrain from using -- was caught by the railway police when he was getting off the train in Chicago with a whole ham and a couple of chickens in his bag. He was going over to his girlfriend's house. The Southern Pacific ordered him to work his way back to California, and fired him. Of course, his wife found out the reason, and it infuriated her that he did it for another woman. He was a good chef, because afterwards he went to work cooking at a big white restaurant.
|THE DEPRESSION BEGINS||[Back to Top]|
When the stock market crashed in 1929, few thought that the nation and the world were on the verge of the Great Depression, which would bring many profound changes, politically, socially and economically.
I could put together what was happening. Newspapers spread stories about industrial plants and coal mines closing up. Trade unions fought hard to survive as more and more workers were laid off. Farmers ruined the crops that they couldn't sell. In Chico, they poured their milk down the drain.
I began to realize just how big the Depression was during my first trip to Chicago. Every freight train we passed was full of people -- men and women, blacks and whites, sometimes entire families with babies in their arms, wandering in search of jobs that simply did not exist. The families always stayed inside the cars; some men rode on top. People were on the move all over the nation. More were riding the freights than the passenger trains. Some people would go down in the yards where the trains were made up and try all the sliding doors. If they found an unlocked one on an empty car, they would climb in.
All railways had their own police to assure the security of the railroad property. The public called them railroad bulls. They threw off all freeloaders, even in desolate sections of the nation. The Santa Fe had a reputation for hiring the toughest railroad bulls. I heard that at a junction in the Mojave Desert, the Santa Fe would watch to see how many people got on the freight train, and when it started rolling, three or four bulls would get on to force the riders off. They didn't care what happened to them.
I saw trains in the depot in Los Angeles with 10 or more cars filled with Mexicans headed south across the border, with bars on the windows so they couldn't get out. The immigration service had picked them up. Most of them came right back.
My mother and sister were now both working full-time as domestics, but I was paying most of the rent on their house because I made more than both of them together. Mom was tied up with her church, which Kate had joined. Mom looked at me and said I was a lost soul, but never seriously attempted to recruit me.
The passenger business went down, so the railroads started reducing the work force. Some Pullman sleeping cars were replaced with chair cars to accommodate people with little money. And some routes were canceled, which meant fewer crews in all categories. If your seniority was less than 10 years, your chances of working every day were not good.
I was bumped around from one dining car to another, and began to suffer my first apprehensions about life. I would spend the day down at the board, hoping that a vacancy would occur for a third cook, but I had no luck. Before 1931 ended, work had become so infrequent that for long periods I did not go near the commissary. I worked maybe one trip every three weeks. By 1932, the railroad no longer had a place for me. I didn't quit my job; I just stopped going down there.
If the Depression had not created a situation in which I could no longer work steadily, I might have remained a rail worker. No doubt I would have been a chef cook, since I was next in line to be promoted to second cook when I left.
Even today, I'd much rather ride a train or a bus than an airplane. When you're down on the ground, you can watch the countryside and see the changes, wherever you're going. I've always been interested in geography.
The last time I took a long train ride was in 1980, when I traveled across the country. The kitchen crew is mixed now, because they're paying a lot more than they did in the 1930s. The food was much better when I worked there. Now they serve you a hamburger and a Coke. I call them hamburger cars.
I did all my own cooking until I was 98 years old, and almost everything I cooked, I learned on the railroad. But I didn't make french fries. I used to work my tail off to get those potatoes peeled and shaped and cooked, and I hated the sight of them.
The railroads never did recover after the Depression, but they continued to haul a lot of people until the early to mid-1950s. Then the freeways and commercial airlines took off, because people wanted to get wherever they were going in a hurry. But the airlines didn't hire nearly the number of people that the railroads did.
The railroads started to eliminate the passenger business, and in 1972, nearly all long-distance passenger lines in the country were taken over by Amtrak, which is run by the federal government. There are no private passenger trains anymore. The people who ride Amtrak: you can't drag them on a plane.
I didn't think the Southern Pacific would ever be sold, as big as it was. But Union Pacific bought it out in 1996, and there's no Southern Pacific any longer. The merged company hauls only freight.
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