|HOOVER AND ROOSEVELT||[Back to Top]|
In the presidential election of 1928, when I was old enough to vote for the first time, I registered as a Socialist so I could vote for Norman Thomas. When I told my uncle, I thought he was going to have a stroke. He said, "You young damn fools! What the hell did you do that for?" I never asked him who he voted for, but he was a very conservative, diehard Republican, and against all Democrats. Some blacks thought that Democrats had horns.
That election was won by the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover. He grew up as a poor boy in Iowa, graduated from Stanford University, and made a lot of money as a civil engineer in China. When he became a millionaire, he started doing public service. After World War I, he headed the U.S. mission to provide relief to the war refugees in Europe. The media built him up as a great organizer. But I didn't care for Hoover at all, because the principal platform in his campaign was to make the Republican Party lily-white. He upheld all Jim Crow practices to get white support in the South.
Until then, all political power in the South was held by the Democratic Party. It was organized like a private club that banned all but whites. Any black who had the temerity to challenge the system might end up being jailed, or in some extreme cases, pay with his life. Most black voters in the nation were Republicans. During Reconstruction, several states elected former slaves to Congress -- Republicans who had the protection of the Union Army, which assured blacks the right to vote. Those heady days ended when the last of the federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877.
In the 1920s, blacks held no public offices in the South, but in some Southern cities, black Republican leaders could fix a traffic ticket or stop a gambling raid. They didn't have any real influence, but it was better than what the Democrats did for blacks. Many of the black spokesmen for Republicanism, I later discovered, were just Uncle Toms who received a small sum of money during election times, which their white masters assumed bought the black vote. Perhaps it did, until Roosevelt was elected.
Most Southern congressional members were segregationists who used the floor of Congress to spew out their blatant racism. Some, like Theodore "The Man" Bilbo, who served in the House and then the Senate for Mississippi, used only one term when campaigning for election -- "I'm agin' niggers" -- which brought howls of delight from his all-white moron followers. Then there was Tom Heflin, the loudmouth senator from Alabama who was given the name of "Tom-Tom" by his adoring constituents, because he repeated himself like he was banging a drum. Both of these sterling examples of Southern politicians were residents of rural areas. White farmers who scratched out a miserable existence felt they were better than blacks, and any real or fancied crime that blacks might commit could lead to the hapless suspect facing a lynch mob. Most times the sheriff and his staff took part themselves.
In 1930, President Hoover nominated John J. Parker, an ultraconservative from North Carolina, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Parker had been very anti-black in his rulings while serving as a federal judge, and the NAACP protested all over the United States, writing letters to senators and congressmen and holding demonstrations in some cities. The American Civil Liberties Union joined with them, other white liberals opposed Parker, and the Senate rejected the nomination.
1932 was one of the real low years of the Great Depression. That summer the bonus marchers came to Washington. The government had promised a bonus of $500 to all veterans of World War I, but it was not supposed to be paid until 1945. When the Depression came, the men wanted the bonus right away. A call went out, and they descended on Washington in jalopies, on freight trains -- any way they could get there. I knew some black guys in California who went back there for the bonus.
The marchers camped out in the city and scared the hell out of Hoover. The so-called "Great Engineer" seemed paralyzed with fear to even leave the White House. He ordered the War Department to clear the veterans out of the streets. Douglas MacArthur was the Army chief of staff then, the head general in the Army. He used tear gas on them, and even brought out a couple of tanks as a means of intimidation. A lot of the marchers were badly beaten. They finally dispersed and went home. I was outraged: I didn't see the necessity to treat them in this manner.
That fall, in Oakland, workers were putting in a new sewage system near the Auditorium. The cement pipes were laying there on their side, before they were connected, and they were high enough that you could stand up in them. Quite a few people slept in them at night. They were shelter, and people didn't have anyplace else to sleep. It lasted until the new piping was put in the ground the next year.
The election of 1932 elevated a Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the presidency, and the jobless and homeless began to feel that maybe this man would make things better. I switched from Socialist to Democrat and voted for him. Since then, I've always voted Democrat.
Quickly after taking office, Roosevelt ended the noble experiment of banning booze to the public. He kept the Congress in constant session, submitting more and more bills. When he made his fireside chats over the air, he sounded so cozy, like he was in your own home. When I heard his voice, I felt that he was a friend.
Black voters slowly began to come into the Democratic Party. There weren't a lot of blacks voting then, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, helped to change that by going all over the country and speaking to blacks in their churches and other places. When Franklin Roosevelt supported the suffrage of all Americans -- although his support was very modest -- whites began their desertion of the party.
There was one black member of Congress, Arthur W. Mitchell from Chicago. Blacks in Chicago had more observable political muscle than anywhere else in the nation. A number of blacks from the South Side were elected as aldermen, which was equivalent to the city council. The majority of blacks were a part of the political machine run by Republican Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson. Roosevelt's election changed the political complexion of the city, as the Democratic Party replaced the Republicans.
The New Deal changed a lot of things for black Americans. Not as much as many of us hoped, but Roosevelt appointed more blacks to high posts than any other president had; they were called the Black Cabinet. They weren't Cabinet rank, but served an advisory role. They included William Henry Hastie, Walter White, Robert C. Weaver, and Mary McLeod Bethune, who was a close confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt. Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court justice, recommended some of those blacks because they had gone to Harvard Law School, where he had been a distinguished professor. They were called "Frankfurter hot dogs."
The Black Cabinet didn't just stay in Washington, but went out over the country to talk about the war effort. I saw Hastie when he came out to California. He and Weaver had a lot of influence with Roosevelt; they could get to him probably quicker than any other black, except for Ma Bethune, who could go in the White House anytime she wanted. She was the president of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Florida, and during the war she was given certain assignments to try to alleviate racial tensions.
Eleanor had a newspaper column, "My Day," which appeared in the Scripps-Howard papers. I used to read it every day in the San Francisco News. She had a lot to talk about: she was traveling all the time. She went overseas to visit our boys, to the Pacific and Europe both. Westbrook Pegler, another columnist for Scripps-Howard, always gave her a bad time. I think that's the first time he ever ran up against a woman with a lot of brainpower, and he didn't know how to take it. She ignored Pegler, which was the best way to do it.
|SURVIVING THE DEPRESSION||[Back to Top]|
The Depression was rough as hell. Blacks probably suffered worse than whites because they were at the lowest step of the ladder anyway. They had a depression before the Depression started.
My mother and sister had jobs as domestics all through the Depression, but the pay was almost nothing. Some people were fortunate enough to hold civil service jobs, in whatever positions the government permitted a few token blacks to slip or slide into. The federal government seemed to hire more blacks than the city or state. These jobs were said to be for life.
The post office had a long history of hiring blacks; they worked as postal clerks and mail carriers all over the country, including the Deep South. You'd find a lot of them with some college exposure working there, because they couldn't get jobs in other areas. Others worked for the customs service, under the Department of the Treasury. Oakland had maybe five or 10 black postal workers, whereas San Francisco might have had 100; many of them lived in Oakland or Berkeley and commuted every day.
The homeless did not flock to the inner areas of the cities, as they do now. But their presence was just as vivid -- hundreds living in shacks built of cardboard and wood on the outskirts of the cities, near the railroad tracks. In San Francisco, some homeless people would go into the Hall of Justice on Kearny Street and fall asleep in the corridors. Most of the time, the cops would take them upstairs and put them in cells.
At one time, California had a poor farm system in the rural counties. There was one in Butte County, where Chico was. It was around for a long time before the Depression. From the material I could gather, it was a damn sad place to put people. The poor farms could only handle a certain number of people, and in the Depression, there were so many people who were made jobless that the government had to get rid of the system.
I never had any bad problems during the Depression. I ate every day. I always enjoyed cooking for myself after I worked on the dining car, as long as we could keep the gas on. I had very little money, but it looked like everybody was in the same situation. My family never applied for relief. I don't know what others did, but I managed to exist.
I went to the unemployment office -- everybody did that -- but there were no jobs. When you're in that kind of situation, your wits sharpen. I had some friends in Oakland and Berkeley I knew real well, who still had jobs. I'd go by about 5:30 in the afternoon, and naturally when they sat down to eat, they'd ask me, would I have dinner? I never refused. I had a schedule worked out for a while.
When the Depression started, I owned two suits and half a dozen shirts, and two good pairs of shoes, so I could always look nice when I came out of the house, if I wanted. I used to wash my own clothes and iron my shirts. I never did want very much -- just a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. I never had aspirations to acquire property or anything.
A black churchman who named himself Father Divine was very active then. His congregation started in New York and spread to Philadelphia, Washington, and then Chicago. It was a phenomenon. He appealed to wealthy whites; they gave him most of the money he got. After his first wife died, he married a young white woman, who was called Mother Divine.
When the Depression came, he had churches all over the country, including Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco. Almost as many whites joined as blacks. They opened up dining halls where you could get all you could eat for 25 cents. If you didn't have 25 cents, they would still feed you.
I went into the place on 8th Street in Oakland -- more out of curiosity than anything else, because I had heard about the meals. The food was very good. The main entree could have been chicken or beef stew or lamb stew, and they served vegetables, rice and potatoes, dessert, and a small bowl of salad. They could probably seat 100 at one time, at those long tables. People were dressed in their Sunday best, because lots of them attended the religious service before the mealtime.
If you had the quarter, you'd put it in and say, "Thank you Father." And if you didn't have money, you would say it anyway. Of course they would try to convert you, to become a Christian, but they didn't bother you too much. I went down there about three times for Sunday dinner. I never attended their meetings, because it was still a church to me, and I didn't go to church.
|FURTHERING MY EDUCATION||[Back to Top]|
In 1928, a black man named Oscar McFarlane opened a combination newsstand, confectionery and stationery store on 7th Street in West Oakland. It was the first black-owned store in Oakland to sell hardcover books by black authors. McFarlane also sold black newspapers from all the large cities in the country.
McFarlane's store was about three blocks from the railroad commissary where I reported for work, and I used to stop quite often to pick up the magazines that I read at that time. McFarlane and I developed a warm relationship. I was an avid reader of cowboy stories until McFarlane said, "You've got a good mind. What are you reading that trash for?"
He asked if I had ever thought of reading other types of magazines. He turned my attention to The Messenger, edited by Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph, a periodical that was regarded by conservative blacks as being too radical. While still at the newspaper, Randolph had become president of the Pullman porters union, and his financial troubles forced The Messenger to close down later in 1928.
McFarlane also pointed out The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the NAACP. That led to my reading Opportunity, published by the National Urban League, plus the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, the best-known of the national black weekly papers. The Defender had the largest circulation; a little later, the Courier put on a mass drive and became even bigger. McFarlane also had the Baltimore Afro-American, the Kansas City Call, and the New York Amsterdam News.
The Defender gave strong support to Oscar DePriest, a Republican who was first elected as alderman in Chicago in 1915, then elected to Congress in 1928. He represented the district that included the South Side, which was populated by more than 200,000 blacks. He was the first black elected to Congress in the 20th century, and the only black congressman in the country at the time. That made interesting reading for black America, and was one reason why the Defender enjoyed its large national circulation. DePriest served three terms, until he was defeated in the Roosevelt revolution by Arthur Mitchell, a black Democrat.
A few black reporters wrote for the white press, such as Eugene Gordon, a young staff man on the Boston Globe, and George Schuyler, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier who also wrote for the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken's magazine. A lot of blacks didn't like Schuyler because of the acidity of his pen. He criticized all human behavior, in the style of Mencken. They admired one another very much.
Mencken was my idol. He called Herbert Hoover "Dr. Hoover." He ribbed all of them. I used to laugh out loud reading him. The American Mercury changed my way of thinking an awful lot, and I later adopted a lot of things I thought he would have done. He could really write it down.
In 1931 Schuyler wrote a hilarious book titled Black No More, which sold like pancakes. It was a satire about a guy who discovered a formula in his laboratory that could turn black people white, and showed all the confusion that would result. Some blacks read it and rolled with laughter. Some were sensitive about it. But I thought it was funny as hell.
Plain Talk, edited by George Seldes, was just a step behind the Mercury. Its contents always included serious presentations of social problems, and it was bitterly opposed to that act of national lunacy, Prohibition. McFarlane got me buying Harper's, the Nation, the New Republic, Colliers and The Atlantic, all of which had a large intellectual following. I liked the way these guys were writing, and after that, I started spending what little money I had on these magazines. This changed my views about society a great deal, for before this period, although I hated racial discrimination, I could not articulate my views to anyone about it, or on the social problems that confronted all of us.
In 1931, we had started buying the home we lived in. It was a five-room house on Dohr Street in Berkeley -- two bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen and bath. All the landlord asked was $2,000, for which we made a monthly payment of $25. Then the Depression came along and knocked me out of a job. In 1932 we closed the house up and my mother and sister rented a smaller place. We never lived together again.
I had a friend named Robinson Baker, and since I was a frequent visitor at his home in West Oakland, I accepted his mother's invitation to move in. She and her husband Moses had three lively sons -- Robinson, Charles and Edwin. Mrs. Baker was a sort or surrogate mother to students of both sexes who came to Berkeley in search of an education. She fed so many people every day, and made everybody welcome. She had a heart as big as that house.
The Baker family's best-known member was Moses' brother Charles Baker, one of the two black morticians doing business in Oakland. The other company, Hudson and Butler, had been there longer, so naturally they got whole families because people knew them. Butler got the "society blacks" and Baker the working-class blacks.
Uncle Charlie tried to make a mortician out of all of us. He used to send Robinson, his eldest nephew, and me out on the wagon when somebody died in their home. We'd get the bodies and throw them up on the slab and hose them down. I didn't last very long because I couldn't stand the odor of that embalming fluid; it looked like it would tear out all your nose. Edwin, the youngest, was the only one who stuck with it. He took over the business after Uncle Charlie died, because Robinson couldn't get along with anybody.
I just don't care much for the funeral business. Some people go to funerals just because they're funerals. I don't have that kind of curiosity. I've only attended a few of them in my life. I like to remember people how they were when they were alive.
In Berkeley I became acquainted with "Ma" Francis, whose son, Robert Coleman Francis, was possibly the first black ever to earn a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. He had been an all-city football player at Polytechnic High in San Francisco, and everybody called him "Smoke" Francis. Joe Francis, Ma's late husband, had been the editor of the Pacific Outlook, one of the few black weekly newspapers published in San Francisco at the turn of the century. It was founded in 1894, and continued until World War I or later.
After I met Ma, I stopped by quite frequently when I passed their home. I also met John Bussey, who had attended Berkeley with Smoke Francis. On his graduation, Bussey attended Harvard University School of Law and many years later became the first black judge in San Francisco. But he was even more famous for starting a coaching school for law school graduates, to train them to take the California bar exam. It was more than successful. There were a lot of lawyers here in town -- all white too -- who said they owed their passing the bar to John Bussey.
Smoke Francis went on to teach at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, a state-supported segregated school. He married one of those women who was black and didn't want to be black, and she didn't speak to his mother or his sister. Smoke followed that direction. He came back to San Francisco after seven or eight years, and became a heavy alcoholic. I would see him down at the Transbay terminal, hustling small change off people who knew him when he was an all-star athlete. It was a disgrace what he did to himself.
There was always a lively bunch gathered at Ma's house. On one such occasion, she said, "You've got a good head on you. You ought to go to college." I told her I hadn't given it a thought. My mother and sister needed my support. Ma asked me about it every time, but I always answered that I did not know how I could do it without some source of income. One day she said there was a four-year college in Chico, and that since I had been raised there, I should explore the possibility of going back.
California's state colleges had not been defined as universities then, although they offered some graduate courses. When I attended high school in the 1920s, there were eight of those schools located in the state. They were then two-year teacher training colleges, called normal schools. In 1930, they were made into four-year liberal arts schools, but remained heavily oriented towards education and the turning out of teachers. Chico State Normal School became Chico State College.
Charles Baker, the nephew of the mortician, had just graduated from high school in Oakland. I mentioned to him the idea of attending Chico State, which interested him, as well as my friend Ken Levy, who had made the trip to Reno with me as a waiter on the Southern Pacific, and had attended UCLA for a year. I convinced both Charles and Ken that we would have a bed to sleep in, since my grandmother would be glad to see me come back. Our only problem would be how we could feed ourselves, since Granny was in her seventies and received a very meager assistance from the state.
In July 1932, Charles, Ken and I made the trip up north to the small town where I had spent a happy childhood, to scout the layout before registering for classes. We got a big welcome from Granny. We didn't have to pay her any rent because she owned her own place. She was overjoyed that I was going to college, because I don't think she had gone past the third grade.
Chico State was the only four-year school in the Sacramento Valley then. There was no cafeteria, and only one dormitory, at the Bidwell Mansion, which housed about a dozen female students. I enrolled and took 12 units, majoring in political science. Tuition was $10 a semester at all the state colleges, and an additional $2 a semester for student body fees, which admitted you to athletic events and other social activities. I didn't join the student body because I had to do everything I could to find work.
The first black student to attend Chico State was a girl from Red Bluff named Irma Williams, who enrolled in 1921, when it was still called Chico State Normal School. She stayed till she graduated. I never heard of any other blacks there until I attended myself. Besides Charles, Ken and me, there was only one other black student on campus, Maude Watson from Oroville, out of a student population of about 1,400.
I had one advantage in my favor: a lot of folks knew me from my adolescent years, which helped me in securing odd jobs, like washing windows, polishing hardwood floors and working in yards. We took everything we could get. If somebody said they wanted their car washed, the three of us would go there and do it together.
The manager of a chain of supermarkets through the Sacramento Valley stopped me one day and congratulated me on my return. He told me that when a big supply truck arrived with the produce, he would give me a job unloading. The next day he called me. I brought Ken and Charles with me, and we got about four hours of work, because the truck was as long as a freight boxcar. We did that a number of times. He paid us each 50 cents an hour.
That was a lot, with the price of food being down. Ribs were 20 cents a pound, a loaf of bread 12 cents, a pound of red beans 10 cents. The beans became a very steady diet. That first fall, we bought 50 pounds of red beans and about 30 pounds of rice, and I fixed beans every way you could think of for about a month. For a long time after that I wouldn't look a red bean in the eye. On Sundays I made bread pudding out of raisins and bread. There were always fresh vegetables, some donated by people who had gardens at home, and some from my friend at the supermarket -- frayed, but still unspoiled and edible.
Some middle-class families came to the students' employment office looking for help. That's how I met Staples, a professional photographer who had a studio on Broadway. He learned I had been a cook on the railroad diner, and asked me, could I fix hot lunch for his two small boys at noon every day when they came home from grammar school? My last class in the morning was about 11 o'clock and the Staples home was right off campus, so I answered yes. Then he asked, could I prepare dinner for the family? I agreed.
I thought maybe they had some doubt about what I could do in the kitchen, so I made a lemon cream pie. That sold them. I'd also come over on Saturdays to clean up the studio, wash the floor and windows, and take care of the lawn. And for that I got the magnificent sum of $5 a week. It was just that tough. The job lasted for one semester.
Gradually word got around that I was back in town to go to school. When I was riding a bicycle near the home of Virginia Wright, my first teacher in Chico, she came running out of the house and said, "Thomas, I'm so proud of you." I stood there and talked to her quite a while.
It always struck me as odd that when I became the first black male from Chico to go to college, the white people appeared more delighted than the blacks. There were two black families who resented me. I think they were a little bit envious. They had a lot of white blood in them and bragged about it, and they didn't think anybody my color could do that well. But I didn't let it discourage me: I'd been in the outside world. To me, they were provincials and I was a cosmopolite.
Mrs. Johnson, Ted's mother, told me to my face, "You can't make it." I said, "I'm going to show you that I can make it." And I thought that was a hell of a way to receive me. She'd known me since I was a kid. She always thought her son Teddy was a little god, and that Henry Herriford and I were too rough for him. When he was about 19, he left home and tried to become a pimp in Los Angeles, while Henry and I sought lawful occupations. He didn't do too well there so he eventually came back home. He did many things to humiliate his mother, and was a source of real sorrow for her.
One person who gave me a warm welcome back was Mrs. Boyd, a white woman who lived across the street from Henry Herriford's grandmother. The Boyd family never engaged in condescending conversation toward me. Mrs. Boyd was a stout, white-haired woman and the mother of four sons. "Red," the eldest, had been one of my teachers at Oakdale School. Another son, George Boyd, was a graduate student from Berkeley, and I started going over to his house so that he could help me with my classes. I think George had turned his back on society, because all he did was to stay in his mother's house and read all the time. He loved for me to visit him, and he'd go over everything with me every night. He was the greatest help to me, showing me what techniques I could follow to study better. I was a C student.
Moses Mosley, my stepfather, was still up there. He was then managing a hog farm on about 30 or 40 acres in the nearby town of Paradise, owned by a Cadillac dealer named Sanford. He had four or five hundred hogs on that place. When I came back, he was so glad to see me and to hear what I was doing.
In the winter of 1932-33, you couldn't get 5 cents a pound for hogs. So Moses killed some, and Sanford smoked the hams for him. Moses drove down to Chico every Friday, and Ken, Charles and I would go up there with him, and he'd bring us back Monday morning for classes. We got so sick of eating pork. Moses liked to have the company, because there wasn't even any electricity. He had lanterns that burned coal oil. The outhouse was quite a distance from the house, and when you went out there at night, you had to take a lantern and a shotgun, because there were so many rattlesnakes. They didn't go into the pig pen because the hogs would eat them. Moses stayed up there until he died.
When you become an adult, you don't run around with people in the same way that you did when you were a child. They become adults and get families, and things change. So I didn't go out fishing and all that stuff when I came back. Most of the white kids at Chico State were very friendly, and more so when they found out I grew up there. I mixed pretty well, but I was always conscious that they were much younger than I was. If there was any prejudice, it was very limited.
I'd run across an occasional faculty person who seemed to be surprised that I was able to get into the college. When I took a class in Western European history, not one of my blue books was under a B, and the professor gave me a goddamn C. I went to him and challenged him. And he said, "You couldn't do the maps very well that you traced." I said, "Well, I showed my knowledge of history. Is tracing maps more important than the subject?" He wouldn't look me in the face because he knew I understood why he gave me that C: he hadn't expected me to perform that well. But I wasn't going to let the opportunity go by. That son of a bitch let the C stand. They've got a building named after him now.
Everyone who entered college had to write an essay to show whether they could compose a coherent description of any given subject. Those who failed had to take English X. In the student world it was known as Dumbbell English.
My composition was very poor; I could write, but I needed a lot of improvement. In the six years since I had been out of school, I had retained only a vague memory of how to use a noun, verb and adjective. In the class, all you did was to write a composition every week, and the teacher pointed out your mistakes. Time has erased her name from my memory, but she helped me a lot. I got a B in that.
When we had a break from class, Charles, Ken and I sometimes took a freight train to Oakland and back again. One night in November, returning to school, we caught a freight in Oakland that was hauling refrigerator cars full of perishable products. We had to get up on top and lie down flat. The brakeman came along, walking on the catwalk that all freight trains had on top for the crew, and he said, "You guys are going to have a cold night tonight." He didn't try to throw us off.
We each wore a couple of sweatshirts, a mackinaw and extra socks, and lined our clothing with newspapers. The wind beat the hell out of us all the way to Sacramento, 80 miles away. We arrived the next morning, and when the train slowed down, we jumped off and ran. My hands were so numb from the cold that I almost fell off.
We waited alongside the tracks in the hobo jungle. Some men had a big blazing fire going, and told us to get up close, so we did. They gave us hot cups of coffee and some stew they were cooking in a five-gallon can. Then we hopped on a Western Pacific freight going east, dropped off at Marysville, and took a chance of hitchhiking. The train fare from Oakland to Chico was only about $2, but that was a lot of money when you didn't have anything coming in at all.
Around September of 1933, I was coming back to Chico on a freight train with about a hundred other people, and the growers did not harvest the peaches that year in the Sacramento Valley, because they weren't getting anything for them. They were falling off the trees. In Yuba City near Marysville, there was a mile or so of peach trees all along the track. When the train reached there, the conductor signalled the engineer to stop the train. Everybody got off, ate all the peaches they could, and stuffed their pockets. If they had containers, they put more peaches in them. When everybody had finished, they got back on board. The conductor signalled the engineer, who gave an answering toot on the whistle, and the train started north again.
I became friendly with my economics instructor, John Howard Angell, because his wife had attended Chico High School when I was there. When I came back to school in the fall of 1933, I had not been successful in finding work that summer, and had absolutely no money. The first person I saw when I came back was Angell. I informed him that I did not even have tuition, and he promptly loaned me the fees.
I wrote a few columns, mostly humor and things, for the Wildcat, the student newspaper. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do. Sometimes I thought I might want to go into law, but it cost more money than I had to even go to college.
An event occurred in November 1933, when "Sunny Jim" Rolph was governor of California. Rolph was a good time Charlie, like Jimmy Walker, the mayor of New York. He was always well dressed, with a boutonniere every day.
In San Jose, the son of a wealthy department store owner was seized by two kidnappers, who demanded a heavy ransom. The distraught family paid it, but then the boy's body was found. The suspects were arrested and placed in the San Jose County Jail. But the brutality of the crime inflamed the so-called law-abiding people in the city. Vigilantes stormed the jail, took the prisoners out and hanged them. Governor Rolph gave a public speech in which he said that California should be proud. Of course I was shocked, along with many others, because this appeared to be an encouragement to hoodlums to take whatever action they deemed necessary.
As I walked to school that morning, I read of the incident in the big bold black headlines of the Chico morning paper. Although the kidnappers were white, I was aware that this type of mob rule was common in some Southern states, where the victim was always black. Most of the lynchings in California were against either Asians or whites.
By the time I reached the campus, I was very angry. Groups of students, primarily males, were standing around in knots discussing the lynching. I pushed myself into the center of the biggest group, stating very loudly, "It's a good thing I wasn't sheriff down there last night, because the first son of a bitch that had crossed that doorstep, I would have shot and killed his ass."
Some started booing and jeering me, and some kept their mouths shut. I kept saying I hated lawlessness no matter who committed the acts, and that those two men were going to be tried in court anyway and probably convicted. We had a legal system: go through that. Only Glenn Smith, a big, burly fullback on the varsity football team, stepped to my side and said, "Fleming is right."
I was very much surprised at Smith, since he was a junior and still taking Dumbbell English, which he had failed every year. I thought he was attending college simply to play football and didn't have any philosophy at all. We used to laugh at guys who majored in physical education, because we figured they didn't know anything else. Of course that was incorrect.
Glenn and I started shouting back at the crowd, when Dr. Taylor, who was head of the geography department, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Young man, I think you'd better come inside. You might get in some trouble like this." I looked at him and said, "Aren't you ashamed that you're white?" I just had to let it out of me. He said, "Well I'd have to say that I am." I left with Taylor, who shook his head in disbelief that such a thing as a lynching had taken place downtown in a large California city.
Ken Levy and Charles Baker only stayed at the college for one semester. Charles' older brother Robinson then came with me instead. We washed a lot of cars together, and had a pretty good little thing going. Then he and I fell out. He moved out after that.
I dropped out of Chico State in the spring of 1934. I guess I got tired of it all -- scheming how I was going to get enough money to feed myself and pay my bills. A job I had there ran out, and I was well disgusted with myself. There were other things: the social activities were very limited for me. Except for a couple of faculty members, I didn't get near to anybody I could say anything to. There were so many things I had done in the Bay Area that I missed. I never sought to become involved in socializing with whites per se, and with nothing to do but study all the time, I didn't want to be bothered with it any more.
|BLACKS IN THE LABOR MOVEMENT||[Back to Top]|
The labor movement reached its height in the 1930s, when the Depression seemed to bring American industry to a halt.
San Francisco has always been a strong union town, whereas Los Angeles was what you'd call an open city, where you didn't have to belong to a union to work. But most unions excluded black workers. Up until the late 1800s, blacks worked as cooks and waiters in some of San Francisco's best restaurants. Then the restaurants began to unionize, and they wouldn't accept blacks as members, so the black workers were replaced by whites.
In order to be recognized by company owners, a union had to be a member of the American Federation of Labor. The biggest and most powerful unit in the AFL, then and now, was the Teamsters Union, which operated all commercial vehicles, including the ones on the docks. The union was plagued with leaders out of the underworld, and ruled by thugs and hoodlums. The truckers have enormous power, and are the only trade union that could call a national shutdown of everything, if they ever took such a course.
They were called teamsters because at one time they all drove wagons pulled by teams of draft horses. When I first came to San Francisco in 1926, workhorses were still being used on the waterfront, pulling heavy freight wagons called drays, which had an open seat and reins, although they were rapidly being replaced by trucks.
In 1934, probably the biggest industry in San Francisco was shipping. The system on the docks was called the shape-up, in which the bosses on all piers selected whom they wished to hire on a daily basis. They held absolute power. No one had a guarantee of a daily job, unless he paid a sum of his daily earning, or was a pet of the dock boss. The longshoremen had no real union on either the West or East Coast. Blacks could work on only two piers in San Francisco. If you went to any other pier, you might get beaten up.
That year Harry Bridges, an Australian who had migrated to the United States and worked on the waterfront, emerged out of the pack of dock workers as one of the great labor leaders of the century. He was a great liberal and a champion of working men, regardless of color.
Until this time, I clung to views that the trade union movement was just formed to continue racial discrimination. But Bridges and John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers, felt that by keeping the unions lily-white, there would be a steady reservoir of black, potential strikebreakers whenever strikes were called, which would weaken the unions when negotiations broke down.
The longshoremen were only getting about 50 cents an hour. They asked for a dollar, and demanded their own hiring hall, operated by the union. The company refused, so they walked out. They were regarded by many conservatives as being Communists, or at least a Communist front organization. The strike began on May 9. Every port on the West Coast and Hawaii was locked up.
The strike culminated in a big demonstration on the waterfront on July 5, "Bloody Thursday," in which the cops couldn't handle the crowd. They shot and killed two strikers in the melee. The mayor asked the governor, Frank Merriam, to declare martial law. Merriam was like James Rolph -- another dinosaur. Politicians in California didn't even think about black voters then.
Merriam sent the National Guard to the California port cities. The Guard set up camp on the San Francisco waterfront along the Embarcadero, where they took the place of the beleaguered cops. They kept all the strikers on one side of the street. On the other side were the piers, where the ships were tied up. They didn't let anybody but scabs walk on that side.
On July 16, Bridges and his council called a general strike in San Francisco and Oakland. The Teamsters and other unions went out with them in sympathy. It was one of the few times a general strike has been called in a major American city. The only reason the Teamsters would cross the picket lines was to bring supplies to the hospitals.
Everything stopped. Streetcars weren't running in San Francisco, Oakland or Berkeley. This lasted for four days. One would have to experience it to understand how helpless one felt. The Key System, which operated all the streetcars in the East Bay, halted its ferry service across the bay. But the Southern Pacific ferries carried mail, which exempted them, because that was government. The unions never did mess with the federal government, because if necessary, they'd put troops in to do the work.
Many blacks took the opportunity to work, despite the strong picket lines. Bridges saw this, so he went to black churches on both sides of San Francisco Bay and asked the ministers if he could say a few words during the Sunday services. They agreed. Bridges begged the congregation to join the strikers on the picket line, and promised that when the strike ended, blacks would work on every dock on the West Coast.
Both black and white students worked as scabs, unloading the ships. A dormitory ship was tied up at one of the docks, where they slept and ate. They met at Alameda to wait for a launch that carried them across the bay, so they didn't have to enter the pier by land. They could work as many hours as they wanted because ships were stacked up in the bay, and couldn't get to the piers to unload their cargoes.
One of my enterprising friends went over on the launch to the dormitory ship and brought his dice with him. He never did go out and work, but started a crap game on board. He was running the game, so naturally he made a lot of money.
The students didn't care anything about unions: they wanted money to go to school. They could work for two weeks, put in a lot of overtime and maybe come home with a couple of hundred dollars. The tuition for UC Berkeley was then $25 a semester.
I heard there was a truck picking up people who wanted to be scabs. It was supposed to arrive one night at 35th Street and San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. So I went down there one evening with a couple of students I knew real well. There were about 12 of us waiting, all black guys. I felt a little bad about it because I had been a member of the Cooks and Waiters Union, and I supported the strikers. But shame leaves you when you've been out of work a long time, and you'll take anything where you aren't breaking any laws.
A truck came up there all right, but it was the wrong truck. To our surprise, a bunch of longshoremen jumped out carrying baseball bats, which they started swinging. I ran all the way back to Berkeley. I didn't see if anybody got hit, because I was running for my life. I didn't try any more after that. I saw it was wrong.
The strike ended on July 31 when the International Longshoremen's Association, ILA, was recognized by the ship owners. Bridges kept his word: blacks went to work on every pier on the waterfront, and some of them later became union officers. As part of the agreement, the ILA got its own hiring hall, which it controlled, and the men got a minimum 30-hour week and a raise to $1 an hour.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service decided that since Bridges was an alien and possibly a Communist, he should be deported. He went on trial four times, but was never found guilty. He always said he wasn't a Communist, and I believed him. Later, the Internal Revenue Service charged Bridges with failure to pay his taxes. He was convicted, and served time in a federal pen.
In the late 1930s, the ILA expanded to include workers in other trades, and changed its name to the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, ILWU. Harry Bridges was its president for almost half a century. He retired voluntarily and died in San Francisco in 1990 at the age of 88.
In Chico I had come into contact with the agricultural workers' union, which was trying to organize farmworkers in California's two great valleys, the Sacramento and San Joaquin. Some organizers were former members of the International Workers of the World, the Wobblies. Mostly the workers were whites. Some of them stayed the year round because they didn't have anyplace else to go.
The union failed. It was received by the growers with intense hostility. The American Legion, formed by veterans of World War I, made it their duty to see that there were no unions in the agricultural fields. They acted as a sort of vigilante society, and attacked the union organizers as Communists. In some instances, the Legion rode them to the outside of town and said, "Get moving and don't come back." They didn't understand the nature of unions. I think they were very naive people.
There were clashes in Chico, but not on a scale that you found in other places. A lot of agricultural workers were living in shacks made of cardboard boxes. Everybody was trying to get something to do, so they could feed themselves and their families. It's possible that the county didn't give them anything, because there was a sort of mean spirit about welfare in those days.
The growers in California had an organization called the Associated Farmers. That was the funny part, because none of those men were farmers: they were millionaires who owned agricultural land. They were all Republicans, and the organization was formed to elect conservative Republican candidates to office.
When Upton Sinclair, the socialist writer, got the Democratic nomination for governor in 1934, the Associated Farmers spent a lot of money to defeat him. Sinclair came up with a program called EPIC, End Poverty in California. There were several million people who had no jobs here, plus everybody who was pouring in. That appealed to them, because a lot of the newcomers had been here long enough -- the one year that the law prescribed -- to register to vote.
The United Mine Workers, which held a charter from the AFL, was one of the few trade unions that was truly integrated from its infancy. Its president, John L. Lewis -- perhaps one of the most able leaders in the history of the U.S. labor movement -- early perceived the need for blacks to work alongside white workers.
Like Harry Bridges, Lewis recognized that if blacks were left out, they would be used by owners whenever strikes were called, so the owners would not be compelled to sign any sort of labor contract with the union. Lewis had to persuade the rank and file to bring blacks in: it was a matter of self-preservation.
American industry in the 1930s was largely steam-operated, as electricity was still in the experimental stage as a power source. Coal had to be used in the steel mills, which were largely concentrated in states from the Atlantic coast to Illinois. There were a lot of blacks living in the coal-mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia. The only way for the union to survive was to make it all-inclusive.
In the automobile industry, Henry Ford did not discriminate as much racially as General Motors, which then was separate companies -- Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick. Ford enjoyed some industrial peace initially, for he was the first of the big car makers to start paying $5 a day, and he got some stool pigeons to form what they call a company union in the Ford plant. It didn't belong to the AFL.
When the Depression came, the auto workers union began to take shape under the able leadership of Walter Reuther, with stiff opposition by the owners. Reuther received moral support only from John L. Lewis. I'd put Reuther and Lewis in the same category as Harry Bridges. All of them welcomed black membership, and I think all were devoted to the cause of the working man.
There were more strikes during the Depression than ever before. In the early 1930s, the sit-ins started in the Ford Motor plant and other big industrial plants. They closed whole auto factories in Detroit. The companies didn't meet the demands of the workers about raising wages and the number of hours to work, so most of the workers went inside the plants and sat down, and stayed in there for days.
Henry Ford controlled his workers with the aid of Harry Bennett, the head of security for the Ford empire. Bennett hired his own private police, got them permits and gave them guns. He made exclusive use of "Chowder Head" Cohen, an infamous strikebreaker who worked anywhere in the nation where a strike was in progress; he scoured the gutters and alleys of big cities to recruit men noted for their brutality and sadism. I have a feeling that Hitler's Gestapo learned some techniques from Harry Bennett.
The National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner Act, was passed by Congress in 1935 to try to bring some labor peace. Until then, there was no such thing as collective bargaining. If you went out on strike, the owners could keep you locked out, and didn't have to bargain with you. The Wagner Act straightened a lot of that out, working to bring an agreement between employer and employees.
At this time, some union leaders, including John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, and Sidney Hillman, head of the garment workers union, had become disgusted with the almost lily-white practices of the AFL. In 1935, Lewis and other unions withdrew and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization, or CIO. Later it changed its name to Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO never discriminated, and it had almost as large a membership as the AFL.
Green believed, as did most of the lunatic fringe, that Reuther's budding union was part of a Communist plot to take over the nation. I don't know whether Green was racist himself. It was the membership that didn't want blacks in, and the leaders had to do what the rank and file wanted.
|BLACK COLLEGE STUDENTS||[Back to Top]|
Blacks were going to a lot of small colleges in Southern California in the 1920s. The three schools in the state with the most black students were the University of California at Los Angeles, UCLA; the University of Southern California, USC; and UC Berkeley, or Cal. All the black students knew practically all the others on the three campuses.
Quite a number of blacks were attending Sacramento Junior College, a two-year school located in the state capital. Either they did not have good enough grades from high school, or they felt the four-year schools were too big and they needed to go somewhere they could become adjusted to college-level work.
The number of blacks going to white colleges was very small nationally but growing, as black alumni worked on the administration to bring in more black athletes. Many from California attended black colleges in the Deep South because their parents came from there.
I never heard of any college on the West Coast or the Northeast that excluded blacks. The only thing that barred them was a lack of money. I don't think there was ever very much prejudice shown by college presidents and faculty, because you were dealing with people who had a lot of education themselves.
The South was another thing altogether from the rest of the country. Blacks there were segregated by state law, from kindergarten to the college level. Some faculty people at the white colleges might not have opposed blacks coming in, but they couldn't go against the policy. Some of them spoke out against it, but they didn't have the courage to continue fighting.
So every state government had to fund a black state college -- either that, or open up their existing school to blacks. Separate but equal: that's what the white Southern politicians called it. But they weren't equal. They didn't spend the same amount of money. They didn't have the graduate departments that the white schools had. They weren't equipped like the white schools were.
Most of the Historic Black Colleges were in the South. None were located on the West Coast. In the North, there was Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce University in Ohio. Some of the Historic Black Colleges were founded by blacks, and others by whites.
The teaching at the state-operated black colleges was possibly as good as it was at the white colleges, because to get a job there, you had to have a graduate degree, which came from a white university outside of the South. With a degree from a Historic Black College, you could get admitted into most graduate departments at white universities. But I don't think the black schools measured up to the white schools, with the exception of Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Howard was named after Oliver Otis Howard, a Civil War major general who commanded one wing of Sherman's army that marched through Georgia. After the war he was made the head of the Freedman's Bureau in Washington. The government set up Howard University for the freed slaves who wanted to go to school.
Howard was the only one of the Historic Black Colleges that I would call a complete university. It had a school of dentistry, a school of medicine, a school of nursing, an engineering school. In the others, all you could get was a liberal arts education. It isn't like that now, but I still don't think most of the Historic Black Colleges are up to a par with Howard or the white universities, because their graduate departments aren't that old.
The most important social organizations for black college students were the fraternities and sororities. At Howard, they formed the first sorority on campus, Alpha Kappa Alpha, in 1908. But they wouldn't pledge any brown-skinned or blacker girls. Most of my life I've noticed that it's been particularly hard for darker females.
UC Berkeley was the only school in Northern California with black fraternities and sororities, so students from other colleges and junior colleges -- in San Francisco, Sacramento and other places -- were pledged by the Berkeley chapter. Berkeley had two black fraternities, Alpha Phi Alpha and Omega Psi Phi. Alpha was founded at Cornell University in 1906, and was the oldest of the black fraternities. The Alphas at Berkeley pledged me when I was a student at Chico State College. At the meetings, the brothers carried big paddles around, and they'd tell you to assume the position, and whack you. I thought they were acting too ridiculous, so I gave them back that pledge pin. A lot of guys joined for social reasons, but I didn't need that. I felt that the only reason some blacks wanted to go to college was so they could join a frat.
UC Berkeley also had two black sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta. Besides holding dances, parties and meetings, they made contributions to the black community.
There were no black frat houses on the West Coast then, because the students didn't have the money that the white students had. The members of black fraternities and sororities were brothers and sisters for life. They were just as active after they graduated as they were when students. The membership consisted of the elite of black society -- doctors, lawyers, dentists. The fraternity and sorority soirees were the most prestigious social affairs in the black world.
None of the undergraduates could be elected president. It was the graduates who were running the thing and keeping it going. Now they've got both graduate chapters and undergraduate chapters, but in those days, there was just one chapter of each in any area.
From my observation, there were always slightly more black women going to college than black males, even though their job opportunities were more limited. Most women graduates went into teaching or nursing. A smattering became doctors or dentists. There weren't any jobs then for black secretaries in private industry.
In the 1930s there were only two blacks on the city payroll in San Francisco -- Walter Sanford Sr., the receptionist and mail clerk in the outer office of the mayor at City Hall, and a woman named Floyd Green, who was a psychiatric social worker at San Francisco General Hospital.
Only two places in California hired black teachers for the public schools. One was the city of Los Angeles, where probably more than half the black population of California lived. It had black teachers, black principals, black cops, black firemen and black city council members before anywhere else in the state. In San Francisco, no blacks got any of these jobs until the 1940s or later. The city did not even hire black janitors.
The other place that hired black teachers was the Imperial Valley on the Mexican border. It had the only segregated public schools in the state. Most students were Latinos, and blacks were placed there too. I knew two women who moved to the Imperial Valley so they could get teaching jobs. It was common for blacks to graduate from college in California, then go to the South to work in the segregated schools. The only black teacher in public schools in the Bay Area was Ida Jackson, who was already teaching grade school in West Oakland when I arrived there in 1926.
San Francisco's only black teacher, Josephine Foreman Cole, worked at a Catholic school. There wasn't any fuss made about it at the time. She graduated from the University of California in the late 1920s, and was unable to procure a job as a public school teacher in San Francisco, where she was born. The Catholic church dealt with race a little bit differently.
After returning from Chico State College in 1934, I rented a room in a private house for $2 a week. I used to hang around the campus at UC Berkeley to use the library, although I wasn't a regular student.
Students could live at International House, located next to Memorial Stadium, for about $85 a month, which included three meals a day. It's a big place -- about eight stories high -- and it's still there today. It was intended for students of diverse ethnic and cultural groups to live together and probably learn something about one another -- sort of a League of Nations idea. Students waited on you, and everybody ate the same meals.
The Rockefellers donated the money to set up International House. They established one at Columbia University in New York, one at Berkeley, a third one at the University of Chicago, and a fourth one in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa. I think they did it to create an international spirit of living.
I spent a lot of time at I-House in the mid-1930s. Among the residents were three African students from the Gold Coast, as Ghana was called then. It was a British colony, and the British government paid the students' tuition and gave them spending money. Unlike other European powers, the British were training the native people in their overseas empire, giving them enough education so they could serve as civil service workers to administer the colonies. They did the same thing in India. The French were rather slow about it, as were the Portuguese and Spanish.
The Africans were eager to learn something about U.S. blacks and the American way of living, and I became their tutor. One of them, Andrew, bought me a ticket to get two free meals a day in the big dining room. He once asked me, could I get some alcohol for him? He gave me about $20, and I brought up two quarts of whisky, and got everybody drunk on that floor. He could have bought it himself, but he didn't know where to go.
There came the time when two of the African male students -- Andy Deheer and a man named Chimba -- informed me that there was something they wished to ask me. Both appeared to be somewhat embarrassed. I blurted out, "What do you want, a woman?"
One said, "You know those women who sell sex?" I didn't personally know any members of the opposite sex who sold that commodity, but I did know that there were a number of such houses in West Oakland, and I knew some men in that area who were hustlers. The three of us boarded a streetcar, disembarked on Wood Street, and walked over to 7th Street, where I eventually met a character who earned his living by his wits, for I never knew him to have a job.
Willie -- that is the name I shall give him now -- walked over to my two companions and asked, did they wish to see a woman? Chimba became angry and berated me for letting Willie know why they were there. He went back to 8th Street.
Willie took us over to a house on Willow Street, where I talked with Jenny. I told her that Deheer was a graduate student at Berkeley, and a gentleman who was in search of relaxation, and I did not wish her to rob him in any fashion. If she did so, I would see that she got in trouble. The deal was cut. Willie and I waited in the parlor while Jenny accompanied her client to a bedroom. We waited until Andy had enjoyed himself. Then Andy and I stopped at a liquor store before boarding a streetcar for the return to I-House. I learned that later on, he took his friend there without me.
There wasn't as much racial tolerance at I-House as some students would have liked, because everybody tended to stay together with whatever racial identity they had. Naturally, when students first entered, they looked for people who spoke their language. The Africans didn't mingle with whites socially in their own country; we might have done a bit more here than they did there.
The director of International House was a white man named Allen Blaisdell. He didn't ever look relaxed when talking to people, and seemed very provincial for someone who worked for such a diverse group. Whenever Blaisdell saw a black male engaged in conversation with a white female, he would come over to the pair and start asking questions of nothing in particular, even though he well knew that most of the people at I-House were student residents. He knew the Africans, and he would go by our table and others, greeting students. I was annoyed by the way he tried to talk down to us. Blacks all agreed that the job was simply too big for him.
|BLACK ATHLETES||[Back to Top]|
When I worked for the railroad, I was down in Los Angeles every week, and became very close to some black college students there. On one trip I went to a football game at Jefferson High School, played by teams made up of former high school and college players. There were four of these teams in Los Angeles, and they had a league of sorts that played on weekends. I met Paul Bryant, the manager of one team, and he asked if I could arrange for them to come north and play against the same type of team. When I got back to Oakland, I found Mitch Walker, who had been a star at Technical High School, and he knew who to contact to assemble a team. Then I wrote Bryant and gave him Walker's home address.
In November that year, the black players from Southern California came up in three cars and played a game at McLymonds High School in West Oakland. I was the messenger boy between the two teams. The game did not receive anything more than word of mouth in Oakland and Berkeley, and as a result only a few spectators attended. A collection was taken up, and together with the money Walker and the others had solicited days before the game, about $150 was raised, which was handed over to Bryant. Gasoline was less than 20 cents a gallon then, so that amount took care of fuel expenses. The Los Angeles players were housed in different private homes.
After I left the railroad, I met many young male and female students from Los Angeles who came up to Northern California for various reasons. Some were attending Cal. Others simply followed the college games. UCLA, USC and UC Berkeley all had blacks on their teams in the '20s. UCLA had the most blacks of any campus, and recruited more black athletes than any other school.
There was an intense rivalry among the schools, particularly between Cal and USC. For some reason, UC Berkeley had a lot of contempt for USC, as if the whole institution were conducted like something that came out of Hollywood. Berkeley always prided itself on being a very intellectual school. They always said, "We want to recruit scholars, not athletes." It looked like USC was getting the cream of the crop in both football and track and field. They were winning the national title in track and field quite often.
Every time USC played Cal in Berkeley, all the black students from UCLA and USC came up in droves to spend the weekend. They mostly belonged to the same fraternities and sororities, and visited one another's homes. When Cal played in Southern California, they'd all go down there. The white students did the same thing. The railroads ran extra trains to bring the rooters.
Every year after the game, the Alphas -- we called them the Apes -- rented the ballroom in Stevens Union and held a formal dance. The dues-paying members could invite other people. All the black students knew about these parties; they had been going on for a long time. I went to every one of the parties in Berkeley, and to some in Los Angeles, because they were the best affairs that I knew I could attend. I owned a tuxedo, which I had bought when I worked for the railroads.
One year, around 1936 or 1937, the Alphas weren't going to do anything, so my friend Carlton Goodlett and I promoted the black students having a dance over in Oakland on the big game night. We rented the small auditorium in Oakland, got tickets printed, hired a six-piece black band, bought a lot of noisemakers and confetti, and sent out about 500 invitations. We charged about a dollar a head. It turned out nice: we broke even.
We always thought of UCLA as being the little brother. Cal dominated West Coast football through most of the '20s and the early '30s. UCLA didn't start beating Cal until Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode played on the team together in the late 1930s. They tortured Cal rooters at Memorial Stadium with their great play. I was wishing somebody would break their legs.
In basketball season, the Alphas and Omegas fielded teams composed of players from junior college and the University of California, and some very good high school players. Games were played once a week at the National Armory in Oakland and were well attended. The Los Angeles chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi -- another black fraternity -- was composed of men from USC and UCLA, who came up once a year to play the Alphas. The intercity games played to large crowds. Three of the L.A. Kappas played on the varsity at USC. Those games, which were played on Saturday, were a big social event. The games were always followed up with a dance, with music furnished by a local trio or quartet.
In 1935 the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) track meet was held at UC Berkeley for the first time. The event was notable because it was the first year that so many black athletes competed in an intercollegiate track meet. There were about 10 of them, and they all came from big white universities.
Jesse Owens was the stellar attraction for the Berkeley meet. During his senior year in high school in Cleveland, he had tied the world record in the 100-yard dash. Then he had been induced to attend Ohio State University in Columbus, which always had a lot of blacks enrolled on its campus. Jesse worked his way through school, and in one track meet in 1935 he set three world records in a single day, in the 220-yard dash, the broad jump, and the 220-yard low hurdles.
Ohio State sent to the meet only four men: Owens, Mel Walker and Dave Albritton -- both high jumpers -- and a hurdler. Other blacks at the meet were Claude Walton, a discus thrower from the University of Colorado; Albert Threadgill, a high jumper from Temple University; Owens' great rival Eulace Peacock, also from Temple, who had beaten him that year in the sprints and the broad jump; Ben Johnson, a sprinter from Columbia University; and John Woodruff, the huge middle-distance runner from the University of Pittsburgh, who was unbeatable. The next year he would win the 800 meters in the Olympics.
Of course, all of the black community in the Bay Area who had interest in track -- mostly males -- attended the two-day event. I went up on the campus to look at the guys when they were working out, and met them. When I was walking up Bancroft Avenue with a group of them, several white people stared at us, and we overheard one matron state that she guessed all of us were athletes participating in the events. Of course, I stuck my own chest out a bit more than usual.
Jesse Owens took four first places and almost won the whole meet by himself. But the Trojans from USC had a big team and got a lot of second and third places, so they had enough points to win.
I arranged a social event for all the athletes after the event. I knew a family in Berkeley named Gibson that had three attractive daughters -- Lois, Thelma and Audrey Gibson. Lois was a podiatrist, who had an office in the Monterey Peninsula. Thelma was a registered nurse, and Audrey was still a college student. Their father Charlie Gibson was a redcap for the Southern Pacific at the Oakland Mole, and he raised his daughters on that redcap salary.
Audrey knew I had met the athletes, so she asked if I could persuade some of them to come to the Gibson home. I got busy, and Audrey invited some other young ladies over to meet the visitors. About six of the track stars, including Jesse Owens, Johnny Woodruff and Claude Walton attended. We had a great party. Jesse mixed with everybody, and seemed to be a very modest guy, although he was famous already.
The tryouts for the 1936 Olympics were held in Los Angeles. The American track team had 12 blacks, which was the most there had been until then. Their exploits were constantly written about in the media. After Jesse came up with four gold medals in the Berlin Olympics, he dropped out of college with one year to go. I guess he needed the money badly, because he was married and his wife had started having babies. When he came back home, nobody offered him a job, so he finally let old "Bojangles" Robinson, the black tap dancer, talk him into racing a racehorse. It drew a lot of curious people. We all got disgusted because we thought Bill Robinson wanted to take advantage of the immense popularity Jesse had gained. Had Jesse graduated from Ohio State, I think he would have eventually become a track coach there.
Track stars then were truly amateurs. College athletes didn't get full scholarships; they were given jobs, so they could work for their tuition. And the United States government didn't give them anything. But as these sports began drawing big crowds, the manufacturers of sporting goods started slipping these guys money at the back door. And the U.S. authorities looked at the way some European teams were putting their athletes on regular salaries, and letting them make a career out of it. So the Amateur Athletic Union finally had to change. Track stars today make a lot of money.
One person we felt pretty sure was going to make the Olympic team was Archie Williams, a black man who had graduated from Berkeley High School and was a senior that year at Cal. We used to run around together. He was breaking records in the 400 meters. Archie went to Berlin and won a gold medal in the event. While Archie was going to Cal, he was taking flying lessons. When the war broke out, he went into the Army Air Force and they sent him to Tuskegee, Alabama as a trainer, to teach blacks how to fly. He came out of the Army as a full colonel.
I met Jackie Robinson in the late 1930s when he was on the football team for UCLA. Jackie's wife, Rachel Isum, attended the School of Nursing at UC Medical School in San Francisco. She grew up in Bakersfield, where she was a close friend of the Hall family. I knew the Halls very well after they moved to Berkeley. Rachel spent as much time as she could over there at their house, and that's where I met her.
|BLACK COMMUNISTS AND THE NAACP||[Back to Top]|
In the 1930s there were four big daily newspapers in San Francisco, but none of them hired black reporters. The only paper that did was the Daily People's World, a Communist paper that started during the Great Depression and always had a racially mixed staff.
Black reporters also worked at the other two Communist papers in the United States, the Daily Worker in New York and the Midwest Daily Record in Chicago. They all came out about five days a week, but I never heard anyone include them as part of the daily press, because they weren't commercial papers. You only saw them in a few newsstands. They weren't dependent upon circulation like the others. Who would advertise in them?
Until the Russian Revolution, Communists called themselves socialists. The socialist system has always had a strong appeal to people who feel they are oppressed, and the Communists worked hard to enlist blacks, thinking it would be a very fertile field for them. Some black intellectuals joined because they were frustrated that they couldn't move ahead in the big society, and the Communists were fighting some of the same things they were.
Communists worked in the trade union movement and tried to convert everyone in the unions to be Communists too. I felt they were friends, not enemies, and I was amazed that more blacks didn't join the party. But the majority did not seem to understand what socialism meant. Black ministers were anti-Communist all the way.
I went to about four of their meetings altogether, but I never felt the necessity of joining. One who did was John Pittman, whom I met about 1929, when he first came to California and enrolled as a graduate student at UC Berkeley. John roomed at Mama Williams' rooming house on the corner of Harper and Russell streets in Berkeley, where several black male students lived every year. She accepted only male students, and any student who attempted to sneak in a female companion did not stay long if caught. I knew Mama Williams, and used to come by there a lot. I later lived there. I think she charged $3 a week, and you got two meals.
John was more liberal than anyone else I had met before. He had early revealed his dislike of the social system as it existed. John and I became very close friends, and he met some left-wing people who gave him a hand in starting a weekly paper in San Francisco in 1931, the San Francisco Spokesman. It was about eight pages long, with columns, news, John's editorials, and cartoons if he could get a cartoonist. John wasn't able to pay anyone because he wasn't wasn't getting much advertising. What he got was more in the nature of a courtesy. The Hibernia Bank, Pacific Gas & Electric and maybe some other big firms would give us a small ad. I guess they did it because the person selling ads pestered them so much that they wanted to get rid of him, or maybe it made them feel good that they were doing something for blacks.
The office was a storefront at Baker and Sutter streets. I had always been interested in writing, so I started coming over to San Francisco quite often to see John. We had a linotype machine, and set our own type. Then we put the paper together and took it to the printer's. Three other people who worked in the office with John were Gladys Wysinger Crawford, Mason Robeson and Lawrence "Nick" Nixon. Nobody was getting any money but John. He and Gladys were living together. She wrote a column called "I Have Eyes." Any little gossip, whether it was dirty or clean, she would put in the column. It was a good seller for the Spokesman; a lot of people bought the paper to see whether their name was in it, and some became very unhappy about items that appeared.
Mason was a San Francisco-produced intellectual who had dropped out of Cal because he became disgusted with the system. Nick was the son of a prominent black physician in El Paso, Texas, a pioneer who had filed a lawsuit to challenge the Texas voting laws that prevented blacks from voting in the Democrat primary. He sent his son out here to attend the university, and Nick was living in the rooming house when John Pittman was there. Nick was more scholarly than the others, and never had very much to say. John asked me, would I write a few things for them? I did, once in a while, and Gladys had to do them all over.
John came out of what you'd call a black middle-class family in Atlanta, and he went to Morehouse College there. His mother was a schoolteacher. John was an unabashed Marxist, and never tried to hide that fact. He formed a working alliance with the liberal community in the Bay Area. The Spokesman was called the little People's World. We got stories of lynchings over the wire, and we'd always rewrite and print them.
The Spokesman supported the waterfront strike of 1934. During that time, there were some vigilante groups patrolling the Bay Area, clashing with the pickets. And apparently they were displeased with some of the editorials we were writing, because we came to work one morning and all the plate glass windows were broken. They had gotten inside and smashed the keys of our linotype machine, and pasted up a note: "You niggers go back to Africa."
They didn't do too much damage that a good mechanic couldn't take care of. The police came out and looked at it. We always thought maybe they put somebody up to do it, because we were always on them for cases of police brutality. The Communist papers also looked for that kind of stuff. We survived the attack, but the Spokesman went under in 1935.
Another one of the young rebels was Ishmael Flory. He graduated from UC Berkeley, then returned as a graduate student in the early 1930s after his expulsion from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee for leading a student demonstration at the school. A young black man was hanged by white folks half a block from the campus and the faculty was supposed to issue a report about it, but didn't. Ishmael also protested against racism in the theater there. The administration said he was a damn Red.
After he arrived back in Berkeley, Ish became active right away. He worked with C.L. Dellums, vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and he corresponded with leftists, both white and black, all over the nation. He had a great sense of social responsibility -- a terrific guy. Ishmael was the host of "Negroes in the News" on KWB Radio in Oakland, the first non-music show where blacks appeared on the air in the Bay Area. WB stood for Warner Brothers, which had the biggest electrical appliance store in Oakland, emphasizing radios and electric phonographs. The company got a license for a radio station.
Ishmael had no money of his own, so he solicited advertisements to pay for his time on the air. He managed to bring in enough for him to do a 15-minute broadcast every Sunday morning. All were from white merchants. The program covered everything about blacks in the United States.
Ishmael and I were frequent visitors to the home of Tarea Hall Pittman, one of the first civil rights leaders in Northern California to become well known outside the Bay Area. Ty, as everyone called her, lived on Grove Street in Berkeley with two younger sisters, Faricita and June Hall. Ty was a Hall, the daughter of a pioneer black family that came to California in the days of the covered wagon. She was a native of Bakersfield in central California. Their father had purchased the Berkeley house when the family moved north. She was a liberal, the way the middle-class people called themselves liberal -- articulate and well-informed, and always in the middle of fights that legitimately sought equality of opportunity. When the NAACP created district regional offices, Tarea was selected to be regional director for the West Coast.
Ishmael performed his radio program until one Friday, he came by Tarea's house when I happened to be there, and informed me that I would have to take over the show, because he was leaving for Chicago in the morning. I said, "Man, I never even took speech or anything at school. I don't think I can handle it." He said, "I don't have anyone else." So Saturday I went out and bought the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American, and started clipping out things, making up my program. When I went on the air I didn't know how to pace myself, and I was still talking when the time was up.
A lot of my friends said afterwards, "We were surprised to hear your voice on the radio." I did the program about three times before I finally informed Tarea that I could no longer do it. I knew there wasn't going to be any pay, and I even had to buy the papers. So Tarea got a girl named Olga Jane Lewis, who was very ambitious to do a thing like that. She did it for about four weeks, then she gave it up and Tarea took it over, and had it for several years.
Ishmael was a party to the formation of the National Negro Congress, which was founded at Howard University in 1935 and made a historic call to blacks all over the nation in the winter of 1935-36, when the Depression was very desperate. Ishmael joined right away, and talked Reverend Henry Johnson Sr. and some others to form a chapter in the East Bay.
The organizers of the National Negro Congress were two black men who were Communists, the editor and intellectual John P. Davis, and Ben Davis Jr., whose father was the black Republican leader of Atlanta. Ben Davis Sr. handled whatever patronage the blacks got there, and became very wealthy. If blacks got in trouble, they'd run to him and he'd get it fixed. He had ties at City Hall and perhaps at the state capital. He was probably involved with illegal activities -- buying police protection for blacks who operated gambling establishments and other forms of vice.
Ben Junior didn't go for that. His father sent him to Harvard, where he became a lawyer and an outspoken leader of the Communist Party. He never went back down South to live. I often wondered how he was accepted when he paid a visit home.
Reverend Johnson, who had a Baptist church in West Oakland, was the only black minister would let us have public meetings in his church. He said he didn't give a damn if they called him a Communist or not. But we did all of our strategy in Tarea's kitchen.
The first big meeting of the National Negro Congress was held in February 1936 in Chicago. More than 800 attended the meeting, which lasted a few days. Ishmael could not attend because of his other activities, but at least three blacks did go from the Bay Area -- C.L. Dellums; Louise Thompson Patterson, the radical who was married to the well-known black Communist Bill Patterson; and Frances Albrier, who was just a good housewife. Nobody had any money, but Frances said, "My husband is a Pullman porter. I can get a pass and go to Chicago by train. I won't have to pay." So she went.
Anytime there was a demonstration on race relations, the Communists had somebody there. They raised a lot of money for the Scottsboro Boys, and got into the case very heavily. The NAACP did also. It became an international event: all the blacks in the country knew about it, and workers in Europe were demonstrating against it also.
The Scottsboro Boys were nine young black men -- the youngest was 13 -- who were accused of raping two white women on a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The women got into the car where the black men were, and when the train stopped, they started hollering about how the "niggers" had raped them. Those women told a damn lie, it was proved later on. They were hobos who would sell themselves to anybody who had money. The men were arrested and all convicted, and sentenced to death.
None were executed, but they didn't get out of jail for years. One of the guys, Angelo Herndon, became a Communist then. They trotted him all over the country. Later, when I was working for the Sun-Reporter newspaper, he used to come by the office. I didn't think he was very bright, but I never felt that he or the others were used by the Communist Party.
Some blacks rose up to be national spokesmen for the party, like William L. Patterson, who graduated from UC Berkeley, then Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, where he became a lawyer. He lived for several years in Moscow in the early 1920s, then returned to the United States and stayed in New York. When he and and his wife Louise got older, they came back to California, but he never did try to practice law again here. He and I liked one another very much.
The movement started by the National Negro Congress didn't last very long because so many blacks felt like Tarea: when she found out that most of the leaders were Communists, she got a little afraid of it. Only the real radicals remained, and of course they didn't have too much influence in those days. I never asked people if they were Communist or not. If they wanted to tell me, that was all right. I don't think it bothered anybody except the FBI.
When I first met Tarea in 1931, she was already married to Dr. William Pittman, a graduate of Cal who received a degree in dentistry from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, a black school. Blacks had difficulty in gaining admission to the white dental and medical schools.
Tarea and Bill were a little older than we were, but we mixed with them as equals. They didn't have any children themselves, but they took a great deal of interest in all blacks who were going to Cal or any other school. They had parties at their home just about every weekend. Serious discussions went on all the time. Tarea had a razor-sharp mind and was a tough opponent in debate. Bill was one of those black professionals who held out the helping hand to young blacks who were interested in furthering themselves.
Bill was a practical joker. He always had booze on hand, but refrained from imbibing himself. When a party was in progress, he would pour liberally, then have a glass of water for himself. When the subject showed the effects, Bill would heckle him, shouting, "That cat can't take it!" and laugh like hell.
Tarea never ran for office; no black person, male or female, had even tried to be elected to any office in the Bay Area then. But she had quite a big following, and I think she relished what she was doing. She worked with organizations of both sexes, with labor unions, and with all the liberal groups in the Bay Area. She saw social problems, and tried to do something about them. Tarea became more and more active in the NAACP. She attended several national conventions, where she became well acquainted with the leaders of both that group and the National Urban League.
The NAACP, the daddy of all the civil rights organizations in the country, had been carrying the ball for a long time. It was founded in New York City in 1909. In the beginning, it didn't have any money. It never would have come into existence, had it not been for whites financing it. Wealthy Jews from New York and Chicago put up a lot of the money.
It didn't try to get legislation passed, but depended on the courts. It had a tremendous belief in the Constitution, and studied the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments very thoroughly. The 13th ended slavery, the 14th said you couldn't be discriminated against because of prior status in your life, and the 15th guaranteed the right to vote. Blacks were not going to court too much until the NAACP came into being.
Since the beginning, the NAACP has conducted legal wars in its long and costly fight to bring full citizenship to black Americans, which was so stoutly denied and blocked by a well-entrenched white society through legal and pseudo-legal methods, simply because white people held the power.
When the NAACP started, it had a rivalry with Booker T. Washington, the president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington went to white businessmen primarily, to get money. The NAACP was more liberal in its early years, when W.E.B. Du Bois was head of it. Du Bois was from Massachusetts, and Booker T. Washington was born in Virginia. There's a difference. Washington didn't have the mind that Du Bois had, but I think he performed something that had to be done at the time. At least he had blacks learning to read and write, and there's always hope if they can do that. There weren't many going to school anywhere before he came on the scene. And he had to use the techniques that he used to get the funds. But Du Bois went a little bit further.
The NAACP later became more conservative, which is one of the reasons it got rid of Du Bois in 1934. At that time, Communists were joining the NAACP and trying to develop policy. Du Bois wasn't a Communist then. He just wanted to break down all the barriers. He saw the changes that came to Russia: the serfs had once been slaves, sold from one wealthy landowner to another. After the revolution in 1917, things were a lot better for them. The British and French and Americans were mad because they loaned the Russian imperial government a lot of money during World War I, and when the Reds took over they said, "We don't owe a goddamn thing," and never paid it.
The leaders of the NAACP also scorned Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. He didn't depend on the courts, and they had no use for him at all. The NAACP was formed by black and white intellectuals, and failed to pay any attention to the uneducated blacks. But Garvey did mingle with the black masses.
For years, the NAACP's membership was $1 a year, and that couldn't carry the organization. Even when the fees were that low, it didn't have a national membership exceeding half a million. I thought that was terrible, when you consider the work it did.
The NAACP met once a month during the 1930s at Third Baptist Church in Oakland, which was then the biggest black church in the Bay Area. I used to go to some of the meetings with my buddies from the Spokesman. We thought the local leadership under Walter Gordon was moving too slow, and we were disruptive at the meetings, jumping up and questioning what they were doing. They called us Communists because of the way we acted. It was as common for blacks to practice Red-baiting as it was for white conservatives.
We challenged Gordon's presidency one year. Of course, with all those solid churchgoing people, we didn't have enough numbers to win. We thought they were provincial in outlook -- afraid to challenge the establishment. I think even they recognized that they weren't doing much but beating their gums up and down in useless chatter. But they wanted to hang onto that. It did give them a certain amount of prestige in the community.
Everybody who wanted to express themselves had to be a member of the NAACP. You didn't have too many other organizations. There wasn't yet an Urban League branch in Northern California. I've had a membership in the NAACP at different times in my life. In the 1940s and the 1960s I served as press chief for the San Francisco chapter.
There was the time when blacks protested the use of a book written by a white author titled Little Black Sambo, which was aimed at readers in elementary school. It was castigated by the NAACP, which had to wage a hard fight for decades before the odious tome was withdrawn from the schools.
The nationally known forces of the NAACP traveled all over the country every year and spoke in the large cities. I met two of the national leaders, Walter White and Roy Wilkins, when they came to Berkeley in the 1930s. I just had a chance to shake hands and exchange a few words. I admired both of them. Walter White had blue eyes and was very fair. He grew up in a small town in Georgia, and people from there knew what he was. But he could go where they didn't know him, and stay in the best hotels. One reason the NAACP started using him so much was that he could go in places, ask a lot of questions and investigate things, and no one could identify him as being black. It was said that he was the black kin of the Callaway family, one of the richest families in Georgia. Some of the wealthy white planters had two families -- one by their white, legal wife, and one by their black concubine.
After the Spokesman closed, John Pittman went to work for the People's World. It was able to pay its workers, although not the wages the daily papers did. Mason Robeson got a job there too, typing on the linotype machine. He married a white woman, Doris Walker, who worked in one of the big law firms that handled cases for radical causes. Mason never attended anything that black society did. He went with the liberal crowd. They didn't recognize color.
|BLACK PROFESSIONALS AND CALIFORNIA POLITICS||[Back to Top]|
In the 1930s I was part of the "drugstore cabinet," a group of young black men who gathered at Montgomery's Pharmacy on Sacramento Street in Berkeley. Montgomery was a black man from Washington, D.C. who came to Berkeley around 1931 and opened up the city's first pharmacy owned and operated by a black. Byron Rumford, a young pharmacist whom I had known since he was a student, worked there every evening, and a lot of guys who were going to college would hang out in the back after Byron closed up.
Most of the guys in our drugstore cabinet had gone to Cal, like George Johnson. He had finished Boalt Hall, the law school at UC Berkeley, and was one of the lead attorneys for the State Board of Equalization. He wrote most of California's tax legislation, which the Board presented to the state Legislature every year. We called him "Mastermind" because he was a very bright lawyer. Before the outbreak of World War II, George got a call to go to Howard University, and became dean of their law school. After Nigeria got its independence in 1960, he was asked to help establish a law school there. He accepted the offer, and stayed until his retirement. He spent his last days in Honolulu.
D.G. Gibson, a Pullman porter, also came into the pharmacy frequently, bringing some black newspapers and beauty preparations. He worked on the Overland Limited between Oakland and Chicago, and would bring home a few copies of the Chicago Defender. Then he started distributing black papers from all over the country, which led him into selling some black manufacturers' cosmetics, magazines and other things related to black people. His business became so big that he left the Pullman Company to devote all of his time to his own operations. He didn't have his own store; he was a wholesaler, and he made a good living off of it.
Rumford, Johnson and Gibson were all active in public affairs, and I liked to be around people like that. I didn't spend time with people if I felt that I couldn't learn anything from them. I think that's one reason those men talked to me: they felt I was pretty well informed also.
When Roosevelt nominated Hugo Black to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court, we all thought it was bad, because Black had been a former Klan member in Alabama. But George Johnson said: "I don't oppose it too much, because this guy might turn out to be the most liberal justice sitting on the court." And damned if he didn't. Because he knew he wouldn't have to run for office again: the Supreme Court was a lifetime appointment.
Byron thought like I did on everything, and we had a mutual admiration for one another. He came from a very liberal family background. His uncle Clarence Johnson was the head man of the Dining Car Cooks and Waiters Union for the Los Angeles area.
After Montgomery died, Byron eventually bought the pharmacy and changed its name to Rumford's Pharmacy. I knew that his desire was strong to go far. In 1948 he was elected to the state Assembly, becoming the first black person in Northern California to be elected to statewide office. He stayed for 18 years. He was a bull Democrat -- a leader in the party. In 1963, Assemblyman Rumford authored the state's first law prohibiting racial discrimination in housing, known as the Rumford Act. The post office in the new federal building in Oakland is called the William B. Rumford Post Office.
We always looked one another up. If he came over to San Francisco, we'd go out and have lunch together. He finally decided to run for state Senate, and lost. After that, he took a job in Washington, but kept the pharmacy in Berkeley. Then he came back home and went back to running the pharmacy. After a while he let other people run it. He remained busy with city and county government; he never stopped doing that.
In 1926 there was one black doctor in San Francisco, Stuart Davison. His father had gone up to the Yukon in the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, where he struck it wild, then came back and settled in San Francisco. Stuart was the first black to graduate from the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, and the first black to intern at San Francisco General Hospital. There was a long hiatus before they accepted any others. He opened up a private office in North Beach.
George Johnson's younger brother Ken went to a medical school in Loma Linda, California that was operated by the Seventh Day Adventists. They didn't discriminate. Ken had to go East to intern because no hospital here would take on blacks. He spent his professional career in Sacramento; he was the first black to open up a medical office there, and he did very well. His older brother Bill was a physician in Kansas City.
Black doctors weren't hired at San Francisco's hospitals. If they took a patient to a hospital, they'd have to turn him over to a white physician. But there was one small hospital on Bush Street where they could bring their patients and keep them.
During the Depression, Leonard Richardson was the most successful black attorney practicing law in Northern California. His office was on the second floor of the American Trust Bank in Oakland. Most of his practice was nonblack; he had many white clients, and a lot of people from Portugal, plus other Latinos.
Len grew up in Oakland, the son of a barber from Indianapolis. He was a graduate of UC Berkeley who was commissioned as an officer in World War I. He went to officers' training and came out a lieutenant, then was sent to France with one of the black outfits that served there. When the war was over, he went to Hastings Law School in San Francisco, and after graduating, opened an office on 7th Street in West Oakland.
Len was like an older brother to me. He had a very good home on Derby Street in Berkeley, where pingpong tournaments were held on weekends, and I was a member of the Richardson team. Whist was another pastime, and bridge when it became popular. I played a hand when Charles Houston, the dean of Howard University Law School and one of Thurgood Marshall's teachers, came to the Richardson home. Houston was also the chief lawyer for the NAACP, and spent some time traveling about the nation on NAACP business. He was taking those, you could say, affirmative action cases and going to court with them. Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, was beginning to evolve as a central figure in the future fight to attain the legal rights of blacks to vote.
Another visitor I met over bridge was Ralph Bunche, who was then a graduate student at UCLA. His side won, of course. I had heard about Bunche in the summer of 1926, while working as a bellhop for the Admiral Line. That same summer, he was a waiter on the company's flagship, the H.F. Alexander. I never ran across him then, but the fellows talked about his scholastic brilliance.
Ralph knew both Len and Walter, because they were undergraduates at the same time, only Ralph was at UCLA and they were up here. Everybody in Berkeley knew Ralph from his student days, because he came here occasionally. I found Ralph to be a very proud young man with an easy personality. Little did I know how famous he would become. After receiving his doctorate, he got a teaching job at Howard University and later joined the U.S. State Department. He ended up at the United Nations, where he became the U.N. mediator in Palestine. In 1950, for his work in bringing about a truce between Arabs and Jews in the new nation state of Israel, he became the first black person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Bunche, Houston, and other prominent blacks who visited the Bay Area always came by the home of either Richardson or Walter Gordon Sr., another black attorney, who lived on Acton Street in Berkeley. Walter was one of the best-known blacks in the city. In 1918, he had been the first All-American football player from UC Berkeley. He was also the first black police officer ever to be hired in Berkeley. He started working on the night beat while he was an undergraduate, and continued while in law school. He had a wife and two small children, and needed to work his way through school.
Walt served under Chief August Vollmer, who was known as one of the premier criminologists in the nation. Later, Vollmer was lured away from Berkeley to Chicago. He served there for a couple of years, then resigned with the statement that the only way to clean up the Chicago police was to fire every member and start anew.
In the late 1920s and early '30s, Walt had a law office on the second floor of the American Trust Bank at San Pablo and University avenues in Berkeley. He was elected, then reelected every year as head of the NAACP branch in the East Bay. He also became an assistant coach and chief scout for the Cal football team. He probably made more money from his connections with the university than he did in the practice of law, until Earl Warren was elected governor in 1942.
Gordon and Warren were lifelong friends, who had both graduated from UC Berkeley and Boalt Hall Law School. Warren started his political career in 1925 as the crime-busting district attorney of Alameda County -- which includes Berkeley, Oakland, and the city of Alameda. He was a tough law enforcement man, a crusader against vice of all sorts. He led raids on suspected gambling dens and houses of prostitution in a very spectacular manner, breaking down the door with an axe. He raided the Chinese gambling places too.
After being elected state attorney general in 1938, Warren ran for governor and won. He was reelected twice, and we thought he was very conservative. After Warren became governor, he appointed Gordon chairman of the California State Parole Board. No other black had ever held such a high appointment in the state government.
This left Walt with some time to practice civil law. He and his wife Sis were the parents of two sons and a daughter. Walter Jr. was appointed to the same post his father had held on the parole board. Edwin, the other son, graduated from dental school, married, and opened an office in the same bank building where his father had worked. In World War II, Walter Jr. was drafted and sent to a training camp in Mississippi, and started complaining to his father about how black troops were treated. Gordon was very indignant about that.
When Earl Warren was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953, it was a blessing for the civil rights movement. The following year, the Warren-led court ruled that it was illegal for schools to segregate because of color. Warren followed with several other decisions that paved the way for Lyndon Johnson's affirmative action decree of 1967.
Warren offered the name of Walter Gordon to Eisenhower as governor of the Virgin Islands. The president took the advice, and the Senate confirmed the nomination. Gordon stayed there long enough to become a U.S. District Court judge before he came back to the mainland.
|SENATOR BILLY KNOWLAND||[Back to Top]|
Around 1930, my mother and my sister Kate both started working for the family of William F. Knowland in Alameda. Bill was the youngest son of Joseph Knowland, the publisher of the Oakland Tribune and one of the three newspaper moguls in the state. The other two were Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times and George Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle. They were the undisputed rulers of the state's Republican Party, and the saying was that no Republican could get elected to office without their endorsement.
"Old Joe" Knowland had served six terms in Congress himself, before losing a race for the U.S. Senate in 1914, which ended his political career. The next year, he got control of the Tribune, and his family owned it for more than 60 years.
Bill Knowland was seven months younger than me. Everybody called him Billy. I used to see him at Cal when he was a student there. He had a big booming voice, and when he talked in a conversation, he'd always yell it out like it was a speech. You'd hear him all over campus.
My mother was his cook and Kate was his maid. They lived in his home, in a room with twin beds, right off the kitchen. Billy and his wife Helen had two small children then, but were always out and never saw them. My mother and sister did everything for the kids. Joey was still wearing diapers, and it looked like he was abandoned by both parents because Kate couldn't get rid of him most of the time. When I went there, he would be hanging hard on me to pick him up. The older one, Emelyn, was a little brat, and Kate used to warm her tail every once in a while to keep her straight.
The Knowlands kept a well-stocked cabinet after the repeal of Prohibition, and I used to go out there and drink some of their liquor and get a meal too. I didn't eat when they were around; I just visited my sister in the kitchen and didn't go to any other parts of the house. Kate stayed there for three or four years.
I used to see Billy sometimes when I went there. I don't think he had any color bias at all: he met people real nice. A typical politician -- he knew how to give you a glad hand. And that great big grin.
When he found out that I would be attending Chico State College, he was delighted. I told him I'd like to be a newspaperman, and he stated that I should not major in journalism, but in one of the social sciences or literature. He said the mechanics of journalism could be learned very quickly if a graduate applied for a job, but the social science course would teach one how to look at things, and then interpret what one had read or seen.
Billy worked at the Tribune with his father, but he wanted to go into politics. Old Joe advised him: "Stay out of it. They're just going to dig into your family history." But Bill was determined; his skin was harder than Joe's. He ran for the state Assembly in 1932 and won. Then he was elected to the state Senate.
Billy didn't have an air of superiority, because he was a political animal, and he couldn't afford to act that way. The Knowlands showed a sort of benign paternalism toward Oakland's black community. I think that's why Old Joe gave a job to a black woman named Delilah Beasley to write a column, "Activities Among Negroes," which came out every Sunday.
In 1919, Beasley had published a book, The Negro Trail Blazers of California, which was probably the first black history book about the state. Her column in the Tribune started in the early 1920s; she was the only black person in Northern California to write for a daily paper. Everybody knew Delilah; Oakland was like a small town. I used to see her all the time. But I never read her column; all she wrote about was churches, social events and women's clubs -- no hard news.
Beasley died in 1934, and the column was vacant for a while. Several black women tried to get it, but none of them had been to school like I had. That same year, I worked for Billy in his candidacy for state Senate, so I persuaded him to give me the column. It was the first time I ever got any pay for writing. I received $10 a week, which was pretty good for a Depression year.
But the black women continued to besiege the Knowlands that the post belonged to another woman. They harassed Billy so much that after about three months, he decided to discontinue the column and not be bothered with that yap yap. No black writers worked for the Tribune again until other papers in the Bay Area started hiring blacks in the 1960s. Of course, all of them hired blacks as janitors, which perhaps eased their conscience some.
Governor Earl Warren was a protege of Joe Knowland. So in 1945, when Senator Hiram Johnson died, Warren appointed Billy Knowland to fill Johnson's seat in the U.S. Senate. Billy was then serving in the Army. He won election to a full term in 1946, and was reelected in 1952. The labor forces in the country called him the senator from Formosa, because he was the strongest voice in the Congress for Chiang Kai-Shek, and was bitterly opposed to the Chinese Communists. He was the great Red fighter. Red-baiter is what I called him.
He became the Senate majority leader for the Republicans, and could have been reelected easily in 1958. I don't doubt it at all, because he hadn't done anything to offend anyone. But he had aspirations to run for president, so he decided to seek the governorship that year; he thought it would be a better launching platform to get the presidential nomination in 1960.
His Democratic opponent was Pat Brown, the attorney general for California. Billy thought Pat was a pushover, and probably the greatest amazement he ever received in his life was when this bumbling guy defeated him. It wasn't even close. After that, Billy quit elective politics and devoted all of his time to the newspaper.
He never did forget who I was; I saw him and Helen at the Republican National Convention in 1952. When he was running the Tribune, if I wanted assistance for our newspaper, like photographs or newsprint, I could call him, and they would give it to us.
I liked him as a person, but we were poles apart in our social views. He was honest, but always wrong. He was a wheelhorse in the Republican Party, and he only thought one way. When he took a position, he stood by it. He was a conservative down to the bottom of his feet. I never voted for him or any other Republican.
Kate had gotten a good job at the Heinz cannery in Berkeley during World War II, and was a staunch member of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, receiving the same hourly pay as the longshoremen. Around the mid-1950s, business at Heinz got bad and she was laid off for a short while. She went to the unemployment office to see if there was a job down there, and mentioned that she had done domestic work for the Knowlands. The interviewer said, "Well that's funny, Mrs. Knowland is looking for someone now."
Kate went out to see Helen and they interviewed one another, and Kate said she would work for her until the ILWU called her back. She told Helen what she earned and said, "I don't work for $45 a month now." Mrs. Knowland said, "Well, I can pay you $150 a month anyway." Bill came home a few days later, and Helen said, "Bill, guess who's here?" He said, "I don't know." She said, "Go in the kitchen and look." When he saw my sister he said, "Katherine!" He grabbed her and kissed her and told her how glad he was to see her. Then he said, "Katherine, how do you vote?"
She said, "Senator Knowland, when I went to work for you, the Republicans controlled the country, and you paid me $25 a month and my mother $25 a month. We had to stay on the place. You gave each of us a day off. Since then, I got a job in private industry and started earning over $200 a month. That all came under the Democrats. And that's the reason I always vote Democratic."
Kate said he turned beet red. But I doubt if it struck him real hard, because I don't think the Knowlands ever thought too seriously about people who were below their level in society. People like them always exploit the poor workers. That's one of the ways they become millionaires. Kate only worked for the Knowlands about two weeks that time, then she was called back to her union job.
Billy and Helen were high school sweethearts. He stayed with her much longer than I thought he would, because she played around on him a lot. She had nothing to do all day but think of different types of mischief. She'd bring men into the house while he was at the office; my sister saw that. She probably felt that the reason he married her was because he had to. Helen always had a glass in her hand; she wanted to be a flapper still. Bill didn't drink or smoke, and I imagine after all those years she annoyed him.
|BLACK SOCIETY IN THE 1930s||[Back to Top]|
In California in the 1930s, as in the rest of the United States, there was a white society and a black society.
The black women's movement of clubs was in full force. They did the same things that white middle-class people enjoyed -- dances, picnics in summer and fall, and big annual affairs, partly to raise money, but mostly to show off that they were a part of the socially inclined.
Social classes have long existed among blacks, just as they have among whites. It began during slavery days, when blacks were either house servants or field hands. Owners very cleverly divided them in this manner. The house servants worked in the big house where the master and his family resided. They were generally the master's offspring, since the master and the foreman -- who was always a white male -- used the bodies of the black females liberally to satisfy their own sexual needs. Babies born out of this situation were often more white in appearance than black. Many times, the slave woman would have a black mate, as they married in ceremonies that the master approved of. That created a system where some children of the same woman had very different shades of pigmentation.
The people of my color were the field hands, who picked the cotton and did all the work outside the house. The master quickly created the social distinction, and it continued after slavery. Light-skinned babies were constantly reminded of their color. The house servants always thought that in the social structure, they were above the field hands. The butler might have several young black males who worked as coachmen, driving the owner about the country in a handsome buggie. Each driver had a young black male assistant who served as footman, and rode up in the driver's seat with the groom. If the owner bred racehorses, black males were used as jockeys.
After emancipation, the light-skinned onetime house slaves aped their former owners in clumsy attempts to speak like whites. They lived in the manner they thought whites lived, and practiced the same type of snobbery that they had closely observed in their masters' families.
Black entertainers of the early 20th century, such as the comedy team of Miller and Lyles, turned the color complex into a subject of humor. When I saw them on vaudeville in New York around 1917, they conducted a ridiculous dialogue on the subject that was designed for black audiences.
I've known some blacks who passed, and left the black world completely to live as whites. They didn't want to have anything to do with blacks. I felt that if this was the way they wanted to live, each to his own, because it has been going on ever since slavery days.
I thought the black women's social clubs served a very good purpose. They engaged in activities that tried to make the community a better place. That's what their main purpose was; fashion shows were incidental. Just about everyone who suffered from the disease of social recognition found some organization which suited their needs. A single person with an invitation to a women's club party seldom had a problem finding a guest of the opposite sex. I'd go if I were invited, but I regarded all of them as hen parties.
In the 1930s, most black females still worked as domestics, and a large number of such jobs demanded that the woman live in, with one day off each week. Thursday was their traditional day off, nationwide. The men called it Kitchen Mechanics Day; it was said in a tone of jesting. Some promoters saw that all these single women were off on the same day, so they started holding a dance in West Oakland every Thursday night, which many of the younger and some not so young attended. And of course there were always males in attendance who were in search of a woman with a job, in the hopes that they might advance themselves financially. Admission to the dance seldom exceeded 50 cents, and the music was furnished by local bands.
The white middle class had private clubs that owned their own clubhouses, bought from dues. The country club set in the white world had swimming pools, tennis courts and golf courses. There were even bigger organizations in the cities, such as the Olympic Club in San Francisco and the Athens Club in Oakland, where white males had large buildings with dormitories for single male members.
Of course, there was no chance for black males to join such clubs. The best answer that black men had was their national fraternal organizations. Some, like the Black Elks, owned their own buildings, but they were never more than about a third the size of buildings owned by white fraternal groups.
I had heard for years that North Oakland was a place where the more polite blacks lived, and that Berkeley was on a higher level still. The North Oakland young males suffered with a tremendous inferiority complex versus the ones in Berkeley. West Oakland, or Deep West, as residents of the area called it, was populated by the hustlers and the rough-class blacks.
Although I lived in Berkeley, I became a part of the North Oakland young blacks. We formed a club called the North Oakland Boys, which we shortened to Nobs. We paid dues every month, and when we got enough money, we gave a dance, sending out invitations to all of those people who, in our misguided state, we thought were the upper-class blacks.
Blacks from Louisiana held a large Mardi Gras ball in Oakland every year, at the same time the celebration was held in New Orleans. Many blacks in Oakland defined themselves as Creoles. All they had going for them was a light complexion, which they put as the most important item in their lives. But a lot of the women married any black man who had a good job and could support them decently.
Most of the upper-class black men worked on the railroads. Some were bootblacks who saved their money and, along with their working wives, bought homes with lawns and gardens, which looked just like the homes of white middle-class white families.
Some black male clubs were organized, it seemed, solely for the purpose of holding social events, which were by invitation only. Members invited a select number of guests, and there was a lot of interest by nonmembers to be among the chosen to attend such soirees. The Sanobar in Oakland was one of those organizations. It held dances several times a year, plus a big annual affair, generally during the Christmas season.
|LANGSTON HUGHES COMES WEST||[Back to Top]|
Langston Hughes was one of the leading figures to emerge out of the Black Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. The movement was centered in Harlem, where most of the writers and other artists lived. After all, the majority of the big publishing houses were located along the East Coast, primarily in New York City. All of the big monthly and weekly periodicals had their editorial offices in the Big Apple, and of course the American theater was and still is centered there.
I met Hughes about 1934, at Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland. I came to hear the Jimmie Lunceford band, which had replaced Cab Calloway as the house band at the Cotton Club in New York City. At the dance, I encountered Mason Robeson, my friend from the Spokesman. He was with a short, slightly built, brown-skinned man wearing a suit and a tie. Mason asked me, had I met Lang yet? Then he explained that the man with him was Langston Hughes.
I shook hands with him and joined in the conversation. He was very friendly and outgoing -- one of easiest persons to meet. I knew Hughes as a poet and a playwright, from reading about him in the black press. Nobody at the dance recognized him. Mason was taking him around because Langston was staying in San Francisco.
Two years earlier, Hughes had been one of a party of 22 black intellectuals who made a trip to the Soviet Union. Their fares and hotel accommodations were paid for by the Soviets. Two blacks from the Bay Area were part of the group, both lifelong socialists -- Louise Thompson, a graduate of UC Berkeley, and Matt Crawford, a chiropractor who also worked for an insurance company.
The group left the Soviet Union after a few months, but Hughes stayed for over a year. He took the famed Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok, and from there a ship to Japan. But the Japanese forced him to leave, suspecting him of being a Communist spy, so he took a ship to Shanghai, then another ship back home.
I felt drawn to Langston immediately, for neither of us felt any restraints in talking about the problem. When I say the problem, I mean race relations in the United States. I used to see him quite often after that because I was friends with Mason and Roy Blackburn, and those were the two people Hughes was closest to, along with Matt Crawford.
Roy Blackburn was Langston's personal secretary, who worked with him in San Francisco and in Carmel. But I don't think any money ever changed hands. Roy wanted to be identified with him because he was a celebrity. Crawford and his wife held affairs for Hughes in their Berkeley home.
Langston had a very thorough knowledge of people with no visible source of income. He was a survivalist, which he later displayed so graphically in the hip cat character Simple, in his column in the Chicago Defender. I saw right away how he could create such a character, because he mingled with everybody and kept his ears open all the time. Simple had a sort of street logic, and was always trying to figure out ways to take care of any matter that demanded the use of money. I think Langston was writing about himself, because he was sharp in mind but always short in cash. He led a very interesting life. He was a sort of vagabond, because he didn't really have any roots anywhere. But he was a very beautiful writer.
He must have stopped at pool halls a lot, because he certainly was familiar with those people. I think it amazed him at first, how these guys existed with their street logic. And because of his literary skills, he was invited to homes of what we'd call the black bourgeoisie. He didn't write about the big blacks, but the little blacks, because they were far more numerous.
Hughes' father lived in Mexico, and Langston had gone down there to visit him. He said the Mexicans looked at what you had in your pocket; they didn't discriminate as long as you could pay your way. And they didn't prohibit intermarriage down there either, because so many of them were dark-skinned.
Hughes was staying in San Francisco at the luxurious home of Noel Sullivan, a white man who was a patron of the arts. Sullivan had the urge to be a concert singer, but had an indifferent voice of no recognizable pitch or tone. All people could do was shake their heads. I think he realized his limitations. But he liked to be around artists, and had money enough to attract those who shared his interests.
Sullivan knew of the humiliation black artists faced when they came to perform in music halls in the city but could not stay in the good hotels, so he opened up his home to them. Hughes, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and others found the welcome mat at the Sullivan mansion, located at 2323 Hyde Street on Russian Hill.
Sullivan and his sister were the sole heirs of their uncle James Phelan, a millionaire who was a Democrat -- a real rarity in San Francisco then. Phelan had served as mayor of San Francisco, and later U.S. senator from California. The senator also owned the Phelan Building, a large office building in downtown San Francisco; the 12,000-acre Phelan Ranch outside of Chico, where my stepfather had worked when I was growing up; a second ranch of the same acreage 20 miles away, outside of Gridley; and a house in Carmel, right off the ocean, where Hughes would go to write.
Hughes was very close to Sullivan. He had a suite of rooms in the mansion and a well-trained staff of housekeepers to serve him. He stayed around San Francisco for three or four months. He had several parties while in residence at the Sullivan home, and I got invited. When I arrived at the place, it was full of blacks. Sullivan had all black servants and an interracial guest list -- blacks and whites of the literary and artistic world. I met Sullivan that night. He was dressed in very severe black, and was a sort of odd-looking guy. I told Sullivan that I had fished and hunted on the Phelan Ranch in Chico, and knew his foreman Murphy very well. He seemed pleased that I was aware of his properties outside of the city.
Hughes depended on wealthy people for occasional handouts, since there were not too many black writers making a lot of money -- that is, not like Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, or even Carl Van Vechten, the white writer who earned national fame for his best-selling novel about the Harlem Renaissance, Nigger Heaven. Van Vechten used to go to a lot of house parties where blacks and whites mixed. He was writing about black intellectuals. The title alone would make people want to read that book. I think it was exploitation.
Langston knew a wealthy white woman in New York who used to send him money. He would write to her to get a loan when he needed it, and it looked like he needed it most of the time because he led a sort of carefree life, and didn't worry too much about what tomorrow would bring. But he always had an obligation to help his mother out. She depended on him, and if he had anything, he would send it to her. Langston never married. He and the writer Zora Neale Hurston had a sort of engagement, but he never explained it clearly, and Zora never said anything at all.
|SARGENT JOHNSON AND THE BOHEMIAN LIFE||[Back to Top]|
In 1930, there were only about 2,500 blacks living in San Francisco, out of a population of about 700,000. You could walk up and down Market Street, the main street, all day, and the only black face you'd see was by looking in the big plate glass windows and seeing your own reflection.
For the most part, blacks were barred from eating in "first-class" restaurants, if I can use that term. Some places had the gall to put up a sign: "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." Well, we understood what they meant. You never knew when you were going to run up against these unpleasant situations. Once during the 1930s, I was in Chinatown with another black guy, and we took a chance by going into a bar called the Pagoda. While we were sitting there, some white tourists walked in. They saw us and said to the Chinese bartender, "There's niggers in here. We ain't coming in." The bartender said, "I serve anybody that comes in." We didn't say anything back, because they weren't talking to us.
Right beside Chinatown is the North Beach area, which was primarily a district inhabited by people from Italy and their American-born children. That was the one place in the city where blacks were most welcome. You could eat in almost all the restaurants, and could go into most places where there was live entertainment.
North Beach has always been the bohemian part of San Francisco because it's where the Barbary Coast was located. It was an area known for its brothels, bars and entertainment, and was very international and very cosmopolitan. The government persuaded the city to close down the Barbary Coast in World War I because it was afraid the servicemen would get infectious diseases from those women.
A lot of artists lived over there. One thing that attracted them was that food and drink were cheap. I'd come over from Berkeley to eat at the Iron Pot on Kearny Street, where you could get a hell of a meal for 45 cents. I used to order a bowl of minestrone, then put in a lot of grated cheese and get some Italian bread, and you had a meal.
There was a famed barkeep in North Beach named Izzy Gomez, a Portuguese, who operated a pub on Pacific Avenue, even through Prohibition. He always saw that you got a drink or a bowl of soup, whether you had money or not. Top artists from all over the United States went to Izzy's. Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, the Mexican muralists, used to hang out there, which attracted the literary people and the working press.
One of Izzy's best customers was Sargent Claude Johnson, the black sculptor and painter. When I met him in the late 1920s, he had already gained an international reputation. He preferred to be called Claude. He had a small cottage in the backyard of his Berkeley home, which he converted into a studio. His work was exhibited in New York and other parts of the country. But like Rivera, he lived a sort of hand-to-mouth existence.
I lived in Berkeley too then. John Pittman, Ishmael Flory and I all knew Claude, and we would often come around his house on Dohr Street late at night with a gallon jug of wine. We spent many an evening at the studio, staying up to 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning discussing the plight of the world, and particularly of blacks, and the need for social changes.
On a few occasions, while we were waging our plans for creating a different world, Claude's wife Pearl stormed out of the house clad in her robe, and asked each of us, did we not have a home where we could go to bed, as the hour was early morning, and time for all decent persons to be at home asleep? She was very bourgeois, and would have been much more interested had Claude been a social figure and making a lot of money. But he didn't give a damn about that. He liked to be around the people on the streets, and to mingle with everybody.
If Claude had a burst of inspiration, he'd stay in Berkeley and work in his studio. But he spent most of his time at Izzy Gomez's with fellow artists. He'd go there and stay for days, chasing younger women. He lived a very lusty life. I don't think Izzy's ever closed. Maybe Claude would go home with somebody, but not to his wife and daughter.
Claude was a very amusing but intense guy. I wasn't interested in art that much; he was just another guy to me, and this was just the way he made his living. We called each other "Horse." We never did talk about art. We were always either drinking booze or cracking wise at one another. He liked to have somebody around to talk to all the time. And he was an ultraliberal, as a lot of talented people in that day were, particularly in the art world.
The last time I saw him, I ran into him in San Francisco one day, and he said that he and his wife had separated. He told me he had moved down to the Yucatan Peninsula. He said, "You can get girls down there 12 years old. You old son of a bitch, why don't you come down there with me?" A lot of men, when they get up in their 40s, think that the younger their partner is, the more it reinvigorates them.
|WORKING FOR THE WPA||[Back to Top]|
The Depression had the entire industrialized world bogged down in a state of economic doubt, so that many questioned just what the world would be like in the near future. Millions of people left their homes when the plant where they worked closed down, and farmers who were unable to sell their produce sought jobs in other industries. Both local and state government discovered that they were unable to cope with what was a national problem.
A series of great droughts and dust storms occurred in 1934 and '35, and people began fleeing from Oklahoma and Arkansas. Those Okies and Arkies, as they called them, got into their jalopies and poured into California. So many of them headed for Los Angeles that in 1936, the city's chief of police sent members of the Los Angeles Police Department to the state line at Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. When people tried to enter, they'd ask how much money they had. And if they didn't have $10, the policemen would say, "You can't come into California." That continued for several years, until the governor finally stopped it.
The government had to do something to restore confidence. Out of this period of massive homelessness came relief funds from Washington. Nobody wanted relief work, because we thought of it as welfare. But when Roosevelt started the Works Progress Administration, WPA, in 1935, it was a lifesaver to me and many others I knew then.
The government started the WPA to put money in people's pockets. It had to do so, or there would have been revolution in the streets. And I accepted it that way. I thought it was the duty of the state to provide ways and means for people to survive. I still think that.
I made my way to the local WPA office in Oakland and asked for an application. They told me they needed laborers to work on a project near Lake Merritt, which included the present courthouse for the Superior Court. I took what they offered, not informing them of what I had done before. They put me out with a pick and shovel, and I dug ditches for one or two days, along with other black male laborers.
A lot of WPA money was spent doing research work at colleges. When they found out I had college background and had just left the Oakland Tribune, they said, "You don't belong out here." They sent me to the Federal Writers Project at Bancroft Library on the campus of UC Berkeley. It paid $94 a month. That was the top pay they gave you on WPA; the unskilled workers got about $60 a month.
With apartment rents being no more than $2.50 a week in the Bay Area, this salary was most attractive. One could rent a five-room house for $18 monthly, and for about $10 more, a large two-story house. Houses in San Francisco sold for $5,000 or $6,000. You could go into just about any restaurant, and wouldn't have to pay over 50 cents for a meal. A top sirloin steak cost 18 to 20 cents a pound. You could get a quart of milk for about 12 cents and a pound of stewing beef for 8 cents.
There were roughly 30 people in the writers' group, all very talented, and all liberals. A couple of them had Ph.D.s. Most had worked on small newspapers or trade papers. We did research work on the history of California, because the library had the greatest collection of California history books in the state. We were all working on our own, but we got assignments, so we knew what to do. It was interesting, because I did a lot of extra reading about the early days of California. We scattered at lunch. I went to Stevens Union. They had nice sandwiches, and you could sit on the veranda outside.
I was the only black person in the group, and they accepted me as a colleague. We took notes for eight hours every day, writing them by hand, then typing them later. Or we just sent our notebooks in. I don't know what they ever did with that stuff.
It was a very unruly group. I've never seen a crew like that. One of the first things they did was to form a union, which I joined. We had the audacity to threaten to strike if we didn't get higher wages. And this was welfare money: that's what seemed so amusing to me. The Federal Writers Project was the most rebellious unit in the WPA, and got in disfavor all over the country.
The job only lasted about six months, and the writers became so fractious that the unit was closed down. Then I got another WPA post on the campus, at a laboratory in the hothouse on Oxford Street, where plants were cultivated for study by the biology department. We watered the plants and conducted experiments as assistants to the Ph.D.s. I wasn't interested in plant life; it was just a job to me. I knew it wasn't something I could make a career in.
While working for the biology department, I made a deal with the professor in charge to let me take a class in political science at the extension department on campus. It worked out well. Also during this period, I took classes in botany, philosophy, anthropology and Western literature. After that I started taking the ferry every day to attend San Francisco State University. I went for three semesters, commuting to class, then rushing back to my job on the Berkeley campus. My professor friend let me work on Saturdays to make sure I put in enough time on the job.
I had bad grades because so many things were bothering me. How was I going to pay my rent? How would I get across the bay? I never got a degree, but that didn't bother me. I was trying to make it. Several times I thought about taking the postal examination. My uncle was urging me to do that, since he had been working there for more than 30 years.
One of the functions of the arts section of the WPA was to put life into the American theater. Broadway was suffering too because of the Depression. I think the most outstanding things that came out of the whole WPA program were the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Music Project. They presented plays and musicals on Broadway, and afterwards they traveled all over the United States.
Out of that period came the Broadway musicals The Green Pastures and The Swing Mikado. I saw The Green Pastures when it came to San Francisco. Its theme was taken from black spirituals, and it had an all-black cast. It ran here for several months, but it didn't impress me a great deal. Like most of the big musicals with black casts, it was written by a white man (Marc Connelly), in collaboration with blacks who wrote the music.
|CARLTON B. GOODLETT||[Back to Top]|
Carlton Benjamin Goodlett, teacher, physician and publisher, was a native of Chipley, a small town in South Florida, of which I had never heard until I met Carlton shortly after his arrival at UC Berkeley in 1935. I had a very close association with him for more than 50 years, first as a friend, then as both a friend and a business associate.
His parents left Florida when he was very small, and traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, where he grew up. The schools weren't segregated, so he learned to adjust. His mother worked in a laundry. His father worked in a slaughterhouse and was the secretary general of the meatcutters union in Omaha. A lot of blacks worked in the packing houses, but there was strong opposition to them joining the union.
Carlton's mother encouraged him to get an education. He thought more highly of her than he did of his father, who was quite a womanizer. But Carlton turned out to be the same damn thing. He came to Berkeley with the intention of studying for a master's degree. After he got out here, he decided to take the comprehensive exam for a Ph.D. in child psychology, and passed it.
I first met Goodlett off campus, at a cleaning and pressing shop on Ashby Avenue owned by Lawrence Macklin, who had lived in Omaha. Goodlett came in and started strolling around, very cocky. He had just received a B.S. degree in psychology from Howard University, where he served as president of the student body in his senior year. When I saw him, I had the Nation and the New Republic in my pocket. He said, "Oh, you do good reading." I don't think he encountered many black guys who read those publications.
He heard that I was going over to San Francisco the next day, and said that he was driving through the city. How would I like to go over there with him? I said, "I don't mind." He gave me his phone number. The next day I called the number, but he didn't live there. The day after that, I saw him on the campus and he said, "What happened to you? God damn, you told me you were going to call me." I said, "I called the damn number and you wrote it down wrong."
He said, "How long have you lived around here?" I told him about eight years. Then he asked if I'd ever gone to a black school. I said no. He said, "Well you sure bullshit like those cats do back there." He was on his way to Macklin's house. Mac had a bunch of single guys renting a house together in Berkeley; they called it Tomcat's Inn. Goodlett didn't like to go there because, he said, "All these guys do is party, drinking booze and playing poker all night. I want to meet some nice people. Do you know any good people here?"
I told him I did, and said, "Meet me this afternoon." I took him to the home of Leonard Richardson, the attorney. He followed me straight on through into the kitchen. Harriet, Len's wife, just had a slip on, and she started screaming. He said, "What the hell you screaming about? You ain't the first woman I've seen that didn't have any clothes on."
I never had met anyone like Carlton B. Goodlett. I quickly saw that he had been involved in a different style of student life than I had. I was over at Len's every day, and he came there all the time, looking for me. So we started running around together. There was an understanding that we'd meet somewhere, every day.
Carlton had a leadership role in the black students' association at UC Berkeley when they protested that the barbers in the student union wouldn't cut black students' hair; the barbers said they didn't know how to. The university didn't make a change right away, but later they did.
I knew of only one black on the faculty of UC Berkeley during the 1930s, Joe Gier. He graduated from the school of engineering and got a job in the same department, but only stayed for a short time because he was offered a better job at UCLA.
Goodlett went to some of the black alumni who had made a good mark in the world after graduation, such as Leonard Richardson, George Johnson and Walter Gordon, and tried to persuade them to seek the appointment of E. Franklin Frazier, a distinguished black scholar whom Carlton knew from Howard University. Frazier, who conducted some lectures on the Berkeley campus during summer session, was one of the most influential teachers at Howard, and was well known for his writings.
Frazier thought that the black middle class was self-satisfied with its position, because a lot of black bougies, as he called them, had a country-club mentality, instead of trying to work full-scale to improve all society. These people, who were primarily light-skinned, tried to set up a separate group based on pigmentation. He thought they weren't living in a very real world: they couldn't have complete separation because they still had relatives who were dark. He later put these ideas in his blockbuster of a book, Black Bourgeoisie.
But Goodlett found only indifference on the part of the alumni. Perhaps it was because he was pushing too hard in the campaign, which was a part of his personality for all of his life.
UC Berkeley had close to 20,000 students each year throughout the 1930s. The highest number of blacks it reached was 105, in 1935. That didn't increase until after World War II. We thought it was a big number, because usually it was around 40, and some of those were graduate students who had attended college somewhere else.
Goodlett was a good musician who had paid his way through college largely as a member of the Howard Collegians, a big band that played for dances. It was particularly busy in summer, when it went on the road and played one-night stands all over. Trummy Young, the trombonist who became famous later on with Jimmie Lunceford, played with the Collegians, as did Billy Eckstine before he left for Chicago to play and sing with the Earl Hines band.
It looked like Goodlett knew everybody back in the East Coast -- entertainers, faculty members, some of the foremost black scholars in the country. He knew Charles S. Johnson well, a noted sociologist who was on the faculty at Howard while Goodlett was there, and later became the first black president of Fisk University in Nashville. He knew Dr. Ernest Just, the distinguished black biologist, and Charles Houston, the great legal scholar.
In his second year at Berkeley, Carlton moved into International House, and I spent more time with him. He was a member of the graduate student council that worked with the I-House director. Goodlett was the only black man I knew who had a white girlfriend. They were both graduate students in the psychology department. He brought her everywhere, and she always looked like she was comfortable. There might have been some eyebrow-lifting, but I don't think anybody on campus paid much attention. He always went out with more white girls than he did black girls.
Carlton was always scheming how to earn some money while he was going to school. He got some from home, and I think he had some scholarships too. He bought a brand new Chevrolet, which he did not tell his parents about. He said if his old man knew he was doing that well, he'd quit working in the slaughterhouse and come out to go to school too.
Goodlett and I read in a local black paper, the California Voice, that a young black doctor, Legrande Coleman, had just established a medical practice in West Oakland. He had attended medical school at Howard at the same time that Goodlett was an undergraduate there. So we went down and introduced ourselves. After that, he started running around with us in the evenings. He was single like we were, and on top of that we knew all the young women. He didn't.
Carlton drove himself hard. He already had an ulcer when he was a graduate student. Legrande asked me one time, "What's he in such a goddamn big hurry for? Where's he going?" I said, "Damned if I know. Only he knows that." Carlton never changed. I never met anyone who studied the way he did. I don't see how he did it. I used to go with him sometimes to the Institute of Child Psychology. I'd bring my books and study along with him until about 12:30, 1 o'clock in the morning. Then I'd say, "Man, I'm going to leave you." And he was still working, trying to get that thesis completed. It looked like he had set a schedule for himself.
After three years of hectic preparations, Goodlett's thesis was accepted by the board, and he received his doctorate in child psychology in May 1938, when he was 23 years old. He sent for his mother to attend commencement, and wanted me to go with him to meet her train in Oakland. Apparently he had been telling her a great deal about me, because she informed me that she felt she had known me all of my life. She said, "You're the best friend Sonny's ever had. Just stick with him." From that day on, she always called me her second son.
That September, Carlton was on the faculty of West Virginia State College, an all-black undergraduate college that the state operated. When he left, I didn't think I'd ever hear from him again, because he always found fault with California and missed the activities among blacks in Washington. He promised to write, and I was surprised when he did -- a correspondence that continued the entire seven years until he returned to San Francisco.
He admonished me to go back to class and seek a degree in education, saying that I would not have a hard time finding a teaching job in West Virginia or some other Southern state. But I wasn't interested in residing anywhere where segregation was much stronger than we faced in California.
Goodlett lasted just one academic year at West Virginia State. Then Charles S. Johnson at Fisk University led him to a source where he could get some financial aid if he were enrolled at Meharry Medical College. The two schools were in the same city. Goodlett always saved his money, and found some ways to make enough to stay in med school.
|OAKLAND IN THE '30s||[Back to Top]|
In the 1930s, Oakland had one segregated company of black firemen and one black policeman, Hop Sanderson, who worked as a plainclothes detective. He was very fair, but was married to a brown-skinned woman. In the daytime when on the job, he was white. But then he came home to his black family every night. One also found black deputy sheriffs and black janitors at Oakland City Hall.
During the general strike in 1934, the Oakland Police Department hired about 10 blacks as temporary cops because the police were working 24 hours a day and needed some help. The city didn't hire any more permanent black cops until World War II.
West Oakland, the older part of the city, was the biggest black community in the Bay Area, and had quite a number of black homeowners. The yards of both the Southern Pacific and the Western Pacific were there, and the famous "Big Red" electric ferry trains roared down 7th Street, the main drag for black-owned businesses. There were barbershops, pool halls, hairdressing parlors, a few restaurants, and a branch of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance, a black-owned company founded in Los Angeles.
The only black-owned clothing store was Hubert Hilton's little haberdashery where he sold men's underwear, socks, shirts and pajamas. But his main occupation was loaning money to rail workers at an interest of 19 cents on the dollar. He owned a lot of real estate in Oakland, including a large apartment building where he lived.
Charles "Raincoat" Jones owned two square blocks of houses and commercial edifices in West Oakland around Willow and Wood streets, between 7th and 8th streets. I think he had more actual cash money than any other black person in the Bay Area. "Coat," who wore an all-weather coat every day of the year, was one of the most gentle guys you've ever seen. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American War of 1898, and had served in one of the black infantry regiments sent to Cuba. After the war, he mustered out and made his way to the Klondike, where gold had been found in that snowbound land. He did little digging, but operated a gambling club in a tent and loaned money at interest, making far more than the diggers.
When he came back to the States, he landed in Oakland and remained for the rest of his life. He had the most successful gambling club in West Oakland. Those clubs weren't bars; all that people did in there was play poker, blackjack and craps. He opened a pawnshop on 7th Street, around the corner from the gambling room on Wood Street, where some losers went to pawn whatever was pawnable so they could return to the gaming operations in an attempt to retrieve their losses.
Coat was one of the solid citizens of West Oakland. He had good relations with the Oakland Police Department because he paid protection money so they wouldn't raid him. I know this, for every Friday, he brought a brown manila envelope by Leonard Richardson's law office. Len would give the envelope to me, and I would take it down to the Oakland City Hall, where police headquarters were then, and give it to a captain. I never knew the amount, but I knew it was money.
Coat was an unusual person, always looking for opportunities to help out young blacks who were going into business. He financed two brothers to buy an empty sawmill and start a lumber business in Humboldt County. He reportedly laid out a quarter of a million dollars for someone to buy a mine in Colusa County, but the operation failed.
In some parts of Oakland, San Francisco, and other cities nationwide, white owners banded together in given areas and signed an agreement that they wouldn't sell to anyone who wasn't white. It was called a restrictive covenant, and was used against Asians too. Blacks and Asians who were servants of the owners could live on the premises, but if they owned the house, it would mean that they had money enough to have servants themselves, and were equal to the people who signed these covenants. It was challenged in the courts, but in 1919 the California Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants were legal.
A black man named Sid Lomax, who made a lot of money running gambling clubs in Oakland, wanted to buy a home in the white neighborhood of Piedmont, so he got a white real estate broker to buy it for him, with Sid's money. The man then transferred the deed to Sid, much to the consternation of the white owners. That was fairly common. Chinese did it too. Sid was the first black person to buy a home in Piedmont, and all the blacks marveled at it. He didn't live there very long because he moved down to Los Angeles and sold the house.
Blacks weren't welcome in San Leandro, the town next to Oakland. Nobody would sell to you. There was a lot of hostility directed against blacks by the largely Portuguese community there. I think it was based more on language than color, because many of the Portuguese speakers came from the Cape Verde Islands and were brown-skinned or black themselves.
The YMCA had a small facility in North Oakland for blacks, and a two-story building in downtown Oakland for whites, with a swimming pool in the basement where everybody swam together. They weren't segregated: if you belonged to the Y, you could go to either one. There was another YMCA on the campus at UC Berkeley, and two in San Francisco.
I always went to the North Oakland Y at night, and never saw a white person there. It served as a sort of community center, with meetings that were of interest to the black community. I'd go by because there were a lot of guys there I liked. We'd sit around and play checkers and talk, and we formed a club called the Renaissance.
Streetcar fare was seven cents in Oakland and a nickel in San Francisco. You could cross the bay by ferry for 21 cents. The Southern Pacific owned most of the ferries, which also carried trains, trucks and automobiles. One of their ferries docked at the foot of Broadway in Oakland and provided a scenic journey down the estuary before entering the bay. The trip took about 40 minutes and cost just five cents. The Key System also had a few ferries, which hauled only people. I rode them most of the time; they were both faster and newer than the SP boats. But I didn't always have that 21 cents.
|MY FATHER RETURNS||[Back to Top]|
I hadn't seen my father since 1919, when he put me on a train to California. But in 1939 he showed up in Oakland and found Kate's phone number in the book, and took a chance that it might be his daughter. The hunch proved to be correct. He decided to stay out here, and opened his own cleaning and pressing shop on Steiner Street in San Francisco. Katy never did warm up to him, but I used to go by there quite often.
He told Katy and me about "your sister" back in New York. He and my stepmother Luvina had a daughter named Thelma, who was born the year after I left. He brought her out here right after he rediscovered his older children. I saw her for the first time when she was 18. Kate didn't like her. I guess she felt jealous because Thelma wanted to be close to me and called our mother "Mum." She told Thelma, "Why don't you stay with your father?" After about three months, Thelma went back to New York. But I stayed in touch with her.
Later, Thelma came back to San Francisco with her husband, Johnny Jones and their two sons. They stayed for a few years, and Johnny worked with my father at the clothes cleaning business. Then there was tension between them, so Thelma and Johnny went back to New York. Johnny started his own cleaner there and was very successful. They bought a two-story house in Queens. I didn't see Thelma again until 1968, when I attended a newspaper publishers convention in New York City. Johnny came to the hotel and drove me out to the house. Thelma wanted to have me all to herself during that trip. I never saw her again; she died about three years later of leukemia. Johnny and the boys moved back to Florida, where he was from. I don't know what happened to them after that.
My Dad got religious late in life and became a steady churchgoer. I never took that too seriously about him, because I felt he was a hypocrite to say he'd become a Christian after ignoring his first two children the way he did. He was getting old and maybe was afraid he was going to die. He stayed in San Francisco for the rest of his life, and I became very friendly with his third wife, whom he married here. He died in 1955.
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