The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 11
Black Life in Rural California

by Thomas C. Fleming, Nov 26, 1997

When I arrived in Chico, California in the spring of 1919, after crossing the country by train in a chair car, the first thing Mom did was to take me to the bathroom for a scrubbing. I had not bathed in a week, nor even removed any of my clothing or taken off my shoes.

I had spent the first 10 years of my life living in big cities on the East Coast, and was coming to an entirely new situation.

Chico is in north central California, in the middle of the Sacramento Valley, a big agricultural region. The valley starts in Sacramento, the state capital, and goes about 175 miles north, as far as Redding. The farms have rich soil and get their irrigation from the Sacramento River, because it doesn't rain for about seven months out the year.

Chico then had 65 or 70 blacks out of a total population of about 10,000. There was one black church in town, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had a steady membership of 25 or 30. Church was held every other week because the congregation shared a minister with another town, Red Bluff, and he preached there on alternate Sundays. I never heard of a white person attending the services. But I let church go early.

In 1919, I don't think there were 60,000 blacks living in the whole state of California. In the Sacramento Valley, blacks in all the small towns constantly saw one another, because people had cars, and they thought nothing of driving from one end of the valley to the other. The roads were all two-lane, but you didn't have nearly as many cars as you do now.

Besides the black churches, Chico and other towns had branches of black fraternal organizations, which were national in origin. There were black Knights of Pythius, just like there were black Masons and white Masons. The blacks took up the names of the white fraternal orders and started their own because they couldn't get into the white ones.

These organizations planned a lot of social events. Chico had a big dance every year on January 1, Emancipation Day. It was the day the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. You used to see things about it in the national black press, but it's no longer publicized.

Everybody came -- all black people. They'd get a band of black musicians from Sacramento, of about eight pieces -- piano, two trumpets, a trombone, two saxophones, a drum, and a tuba for the bass line, because the string bass hadn't come in style yet.

Marysville was a little smaller than Chico but had triple its black population. Every Fourth of July, there was a big picnic in Marysville, on the Smith ranch, owned by a black family who had about 40 acres along the Feather River. They would have a barbecue out on the beach, where people could swim. Then at night, there would be a dance in town, in a rented hall.

Most blacks in Chico were natives of the town, who had not gone to school beyond 5th grade. They were a variety of shades. Some were the offspring of an interracial liaison, and you couldn't tell whether they were black or white. Many of them had that color complex: they tried not to get too close to people of my color. Some of them got by passing.

The Sacramento Valley had no black newspapers, but it did have three branches of the NAACP -- in Sacramento, Marysville and Redding -- and people from the surrounding area would come in to attend the meetings, maybe two or three members from each little town.

At the meetings, the NAACP looked at racial problems as being national. Just because there wasn't segregation in California doesn't mean there wasn't discrimination in hiring.

All black women in Chico worked as domestics. That was the only job they could get.

I knew a very attractive girl in Chico named Stella, who was about five years older than me. She was the daughter of a white doctor in Chico, Dr. Moulton, who was one of the biggest surgeons in the Sacramento Valley. Stella was born to the black maid who worked in Dr. Moulton's house. Everybody knew what was going on between them.

Dr. Moulton persuaded a black man in the town to say he was the father, and to marry the woman. Then the man left right away. Most people thought he had been paid off.

When Stella graduated from high school, her grandfather -- who was so proud of this white-looking granddaughter -- enrolled her at Heald Business College. She took shorthand, typing, and all the other courses for preparation to be a clerk in a business office.

After she finished the courses, her grandfather took her out to the Diamond Match Company, which had a big plant in Chico, to apply for a job. And the manager told her, "We don't hire colored people in here."

That was quite a shock to her. She was as prepared as any of those other females who were going in there. But that was the policy.

Stella spent years working as a domestic. Dr. Moulton probably could have helped her get into Diamond Match, because he was not only one of the best-known surgeons, but he was on the board of directors of the Sacramento Northern Railroad, and he had a lot of influence in that town.

Copyright © 1997 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 new 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is now available for $3.

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