The Admiral Line
by Thomas C. Fleming, Apr 22, 1998
When I was hired by the Admiral Line in San Francisco in 1926 -- my first job after graduating from high school -- I had never worked on a ship before, but in the summer of 1917, during World War I, I had lived for a while on a ship with my father, when he worked on a small coastal steamship that carried ammunition between New Haven, Connecticut and New York City. It was unloaded in New York, where its cargo was placed on one of the ships carrying men and munitions to the war in France.
In the 1920s, there weren't any commercial airplanes, and buses weren't running the way they are now. The only way you traveled in the United States was either by water or by rail. They didn't have the highway systems that came in, starting in the 1930s. That's the first time I heard about people driving across country.
The Admiral Line had four big passenger ships that operated on the West Coast between Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Ensenada, Mexico. H.F. Alexander was the founder of the Admiral Line, and he named the largest and fastest ship after himself. The H.F. Alexander could go more than 25 knots. It was the fastest ship on the Pacific Coast, and used to compete with the Shasta Limited, a luxury train operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The S.S. Emma Alexander, a 442-foot passenger ship in the Admiral Line fleet.He bestowed the names of females on the other ships -- the Emma Alexander, the Ruth Alexander and the Dorothy Alexander. The Ruth Alexander was a former German passenger ship that had been unfortunate enough to be in an American port when World War I broke out. It had been interned by the government and used as a troop carrier, to transport the young Americans to the war fields in Europe. He had acquired the Emma Alexander and the Dorothy Alexander when he bought the old Pacific Steamship Company in 1916.
The Admiral Line was the leading company for intercoastal trade on the West Coast. Its main rival was the Los Angeles Steamship Company, which operated the Yale and Harvard, two fast ships which ran between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The Harvard and Yale competed for passengers with the overnight Lark, Padre and Owl on the Southern Pacific. The trains had an advantage because the passengers would arrive in Los Angeles, a city which is about 20 miles inland. The Emma, Ruth and Dorothy were much slower, and did not get into this derby.
People who weren't in a big hurry would go by ship. Only the H.F. approached the speed that the trains provided.
The stewards department took care of all the personal needs of the passengers. The man who presided over the department was called the chief steward. He and the assistant chief steward were always white men. All the rest in the stewards department were black. They included the waiters, porters, cooks and bellhops. Blacks were not hired for deck jobs or in the engine room, where the chief engineer was boss, with powers just short of being the captain.
After I was presented to the bell captain, he took me to the glory hole or crew's quarters, assigned me a locker, and gave me a blue linen uniform and that little cap that bellboys wear while on duty. He informed me just what my duties were: always look out for the wants and the needs of the passengers, with first-class service.
He conducted me to various sections of the ship to learn what parts were port, amidship and aft, and all of the other names used by men who ply the seas.
Then I was taken up to the dining room, where I was put to work helping the waiters get ready for the evening meal and performing other duties, such as answering the bell at the bellhop stand, where the bell captain was stationed. We would receive the telephone calls from passengers, and when they asked for some service, we would go to their cabins and take their orders.
Saloon on a ship of the Admiral Line
All of the crew worked from 10 to 12 hours a day. There were no unions for the black members of the crews on any ships, and the seamen's union for the white crew wasn't very strong then.
There was no such thing as overtime pay. The black crew got about $45 a month in wages. The company thinking was that porters, bellhops and waiters received untold amounts of money in tips, plus the fact that the company furnished the uniforms, food and lodging. Cooks received higher pay. The chief cook and the headwaiter, who were always black, earned about $150 a month.
I'd heard my father talk about these things -- about jobs that black men did. Of course, he didn't say it that way. He said, "the jobs WE can get." We were aware of the job situation, and talked about it among ourselves all the time, but we didn't exactly know what to do about it. The NAACP was still a struggling, growing organization, and the field was just so big, it couldn't cover all of that ground.
Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage. Send mailing address.
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