The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 15
The Klan Marches in California

by Thomas Fleming, Dec 31, 1997

After I moved to Chico, California in 1919, the discrimination never bothered me very much, because I kept occupied as a child, and I didn't have to go out and earn a living. But ever since I was about 12 years old, I had been planning to leave Chico.

There were only about 65 blacks in the entire town, and Chico offered no job opportunities for black men. I didn't want to work as a farmhand or bootblack; my aspirations went to a higher level.

Around 1923, when I was 15, I got a chance to visit another area of California for the first time. The minister of the only black church in Chico persuaded me to drive with him to a church convention in Santa Barbara, about 400 miles south, in his sputtering old Model T Ford coupe.

I found that Santa Barbara, a winter colony for wealthy white easterners, had quite a sizable black community in comparison to anything I had seen since leaving Florida. Most of the blacks worked in service as maids, cooks, chauffeurs, and for whatever else was needed in the huge mansions. They received good pay, and most were homeowners themselves -- some having homes as good as those owned by the upper-class whites in Chico. One enterprising black owned a thriving grocery store in Santa Barbara, which was quite a source of conversation when I returned.

While passing through the city of Stockton en route back home, we saw a Ku Klux Klan parade of about a dozen hooded, sheet-wearing, 100 percent Americans, marching down one of the main streets of the town. There wasn't any music or anything -- they were just marching in formation in the middle of the street. Some people stared at them, and some ignored them.

I had heard vaguely about the Klan from the old folks, and suffered from the elusion that they were active only in the Southern states. I was very wrong, for about three years later they marched down the main street of Chico. It was publicized in the paper before it happened.

Chico had a round auditorium called the Hippodrome, which was used as an indoor skating rink. I think the Klansmen used it for their gathering, following their march.

I had no occasion to go downtown that day, and I didn't feel I wanted to watch the bastards anyway. My stepfather, Moses Moseley, was so mad that he sat out on the porch with a loaded .30 caliber rifle and I sat beside him with a loaded 25-20, plus we both had loaded shotguns. I don't know until today whether either of us would have fired if the Klansmen had decided to march on the street where our house was located.

Boxing was popular in Chico; it attracted most of the male population, and some women. We would always try to find some way to crash the gate, because we usually did not have the tariff charged to the boxing devotees.

One night when I was 17, I was standing around the entrance when the boxing promoter came up to me. One of the fighters for the opening bout had gotten sick, and the promoter was desperate. He said, "Hey, Thomas, do you want go make some money?" He had probably seen me fight in the street and thought that I handled my hands pretty well -- a view which I shared with him.

He offered me $10 to fight the four-round curtain raiser against Harold Lightfoot, a white boy who attended high school with me. I'd seen Harold a lot, and I thought I could whip him. I didn't know that he had been training to be a professional fighter.

My friend Henry Heriford, who was standing with me and yearning to get in to see the fights, said, "Take it, Thomas. You can lick that guy." I agreed, with the stipulation that Henry would be admitted along with me, as my second.

The promoter hustled us into the dressing room, where he found some dirty trunks and a jockstrap slightly cleaner, and I changed my clothes. Henry and I marched down the aisle to the ring.

The referee was a former world lightweight champion, "Battling" Nelson, who had knocked out the great black lightweight champion Joe Gans. Gans was sick with tuberculosis at the time, and had no business fighting, except for the pride of being champion and the need for money.

Nelson explained the rules to Harold and me, and then the bell rang. I charged Harold, and was greeted with a number of sharp left jabs as he danced away from me. I tried to land a roundhouse right, but Harold continued to dance, jab and retreat. Soon I found that lack of training was causing me to run out of gas.

In the second round, Harold stopped dancing and went to work. He landed a right in my belly, and I went down. Being both arm-weary and heavy of foot, I decided to stay down.

The old battler, Nelson the referee, began to count. Leaning over me, he snarled, "Get up from there! You're not hurt."

The crowd was booing and shouting, "Kick that nigger in the shins! Niggers can't take it in the shins! Kill the coon!"

I felt mortified, as the crowd continued to shout all of the racist remarks that came into their minds. But it didn't surprise me, because I had heard it a lot of times.

I struggled to my feet, only to meet my tormenter, so I grabbed him and clinched as much as I could. I did manage to throw one roundhouse punch that drew blood from his nose, and I finished the four rounds. It was the first and last time I ever fought for money.

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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