The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 13
Jim Crow in 1920s California

by Thomas C. Fleming, Dec 17, 1997

Late one night in the spring of 1919, I got off the train in the town of Chico, California, met my mother and stepfather, and walked from the depot to the first house where I would sleep on the West Coast.

I stayed in Chico until 1926, when I became the first black male ever to graduate from Chico High School. Then I returned from 1932-34 to attend Chico State College. Many times I look back on those happy free years, and think of how it was then. I have not been there too often over the past 63 years, but a lot of Chico will always stay with me.

That first night, I was not too impressed with Chico from what I could see in the dark. It was simply not New York City, nor did it seem in a class with Jacksonville, the cities where I had spent my first 11 years. But I began to like Chico better as the time rolled by.

In the 1920s, California had no racial separation in neighborhoods or schools. But Jim Crow practices still existed in some public accommodations, such as certain hotels and restaurants. Unlike in the South, where the police power of the state was used to enforce discrimination, it was not official in California.

In most cities in the state, you couldn't get a room in the better hotels; you'd have to stay in the fleabags in the lower end of town. And most of the time, white-operated eating places that catered to middle- and upper-class whites would not serve blacks.

The house that we rented in Chico was owned by Mrs. Johnson, a middle-age mulatto widow, who took great pride in the fact that she was very light-skinned. Although she had been blind for a number of years, she never failed to ask about pigmentation or lack of the same, whenever she met someone new.

The morning after my arrival, she began to question me about color and hair texture. Most fair-skinned blacks of that day were very much like old lady Johnson - frustrated individuals trying to find themselves in a racist society, while looking down on their darker-hued brethren.

At elementary school, my best friend was a black boy named Henry Heriford. He was well respected by all the students in our peer group, and he could take care of himself very well with his hands. Some light-skinned black kids were busy trying to impress whites that their families were as good as theirs. They imitated whites and held themselves to be the upper class. But Henry and I always attempted to prove that physically, we were the equals of everybody.

The fights always developed out of someone striking us first, or calling us nigger or some other derogatory name. We of course referred to ourselves as colored or Negroes. If someone called us black, and the detractor was in our age group, he had a fight on his hands. The racial insults were plentiful until Henry and I established ourselves as warriors who fought cleanly and with a sense of purpose.

Because I was black, the other students - including the white kids - seemed to look upon me for leadership, which was a new experience for me. I had never had any solid contact with whites outside the classroom, but in Chico, I soon developed close friends of all races.

But when I would talk to the white kids in school, I'd find out about all the things they would enjoy that I couldn't.

The best hotel in town was the Hotel Oaks. But blacks couldn't rent a room there. They wouldn't even hire black chambermaids.

There was a fancy soda fountain called Price's, where all the students went after school. But they wouldn't let blacks in. They had a sign in the window: "We have the right to refuse service to anyone." And blacks all knew what it meant. If you went in, the waiter would say, "Didn't you read that sign out there?"

I didn't like it at all. And some of the whites that I went around with resented it. If I were with them, they would tell people off and say they weren't going in there if I couldn't go in too.

There was another soda fountain that looked just as good, owned by two guys from Greece. Everybody called it Greek's. We could go in there and get the same things. The owners were always nice to us. They must have been first generation, because they spoke with a very heavy accent.

It didn't make too much difference to me if I couldn't stay at the Hotel Oaks or eat at Price's, because I didn't have the money to go into those places anyway. But I just didn't like the idea of being stigmatized in that manner.

I knew Price well - used to talk to him out on the street. Other than his policy, I always found him to be a very pleasant fellow. But I think he was suffering from the same disease as a lot of people who practice discrimination: he thought it was good business, that's all.

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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