The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 12
Race Relations in a Small California Town

by Thomas C. Fleming, Dec 10, 1997

From 1919 to 1926, when I lived in the small town of Chico, California, the boys of all races mixed with each other easily. But the black girls didn't mix with the white girls. The white parents might have forbidden it -- I don't know. Not until years later did I realize how deeply that wounded my sister.

I mingled with all the boys -- Asian, Latino and white -- because I did all the things they did: hunting, fishing, and getting into mischief. We were all just kids. There were about six guys that I ran around with all the time -- two whites, two blacks and two Chinese.

The guys seemed to like us and we liked them. Their parents sometimes invited me to dinner at their house, and my mother in turn invited some of the boys to ours.

I don't think most people in Chico were biased. But sometimes I'd be walking through different neighborhoods with my friend Henry, who was black, and kids would start yelling, "Nigger, nigger, nigger!" If we chased a boy up to his front porch, his mother might come running out and say, "What are you doing to my child?" We'd say, "He called me nigger." Then she'd turn beet red and tell her son, "You shouldn't do that to people." But he had heard it at home; that's why he was doing it.

There was no black section in Chico; you could live anywhere that you could buy or rent property.

On the outskirts of Chico was a little Indian settlement. A few Indians lived in town and identified with black or white people, but most of them stayed in their village.

I was reading a lot of American history then, and my sympathy was always on the side of the white settlers because it always told how they were attacked by the Indians. But I started to question that literature when I saw how those Indians were living in their village in Chico. It was frightful.

The Chinese were segregated by choice, because they seemed to have a desire to live together for cultural reasons, and I guess the Indians did too.

Nearly every town in California had a Chinatown. Chico had two -- both of them just one block long. The smaller one had mostly old men, living in red brick buildings that had been built especially for them. The bigger one, a block from city hall, was where the Hai family lived. Three of the brothers, Hong, Wing and Wong Hai, were part of our gang. The oldest brother, Kim, associated more with white kids.

Some people asked me, why did I run around with those Chinese boys? I said because they were fun, and they were friends.

Their father, Chung Hai, was called the mayor of Chinatown. When he died, the family had one of those big Chinese-style funerals and took a lot of food out and put it on the grave. Then Hong went over and put a $10 bill on there. We heard that it was a Chinese custom to do that so it would pay the dead person's fare into heaven. Well, as soon as Hong got out of sight, Henry and I grabbed that $10.

Alongside the railroad tracks, as in other towns, they had what was called the jungle, where all the hobos lived. They observed what was happening, then came over and got the food and ate it.

On Memorial Day, one of the Hai brothers put that money down on the grave again. We were waiting. But then he put it right back in his pocket; he was going to make sure we didn't get it.

Chico had some Mexicans; we didn't use the word "Latino" then. Most of them worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad as section hands; they took care of the tracks so the trains could run smoothly. The company had taken the wheels off some old boxcars, laid them alongside the tracks and converted them into two-room cabins where the Mexicans lived. Sometimes they'd have six kids. And of course they got the lowest pay. The ones at school took a lot of abuse from the kids, that the black kids wouldn't take.

There was plenty of anti-Semitism in Chico. You'd hear people talk about it, including some of the black people. All through the Sacramento Valley, most of the Jews were merchants in some commercial activity, such as grocery and hardware stores.

At school in Chico were a pair of Jewish twins, the Korn brothers, who were always thinking up some prank to use against other people. Some of the students did not appreciate their humor and would attack them physically, calling them "dirty Jews" or "kikes" in a tone that upset me, even at 11 years old.

I had seen how the Jews lived in New York, before I moved to Chico. The Jews in East Harlem were just as poor as the blacks. I'd heard people calling them names there, and it had stayed with me. Whenever I heard it, I realized that the name-caller felt the same negative way about me, because of my color.

Neither of the twins was handy with his fists, nor was I, but I would wade into the fight. Whenever they started getting embroiled, they would run towards me. I finally announced that anyone who hit "Korny" -- that was what I called them -- would have to hit me.

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. Send mailing address.

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