The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 19
The Great Experiment

by Thomas C. Fleming, Jan 28, 1998

Prohibition, known as the great experiment, became the law of the land in January 1920, when Woodrow Wilson was president. It lasted until 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and kept his campaign promise of bringing alcohol back to public consumption.

I was 12 years old when Prohibition came in, and of course I soon found out about the many ways people could avoid the law.

The only place where you could legally buy whisky or other hard liquor was at the pharmacies. I don't know what ailments it was supposed to cure, but people would go to see their doctor and get him to write a prescription. That way, they could get all the booze they wanted.

Under Prohibition, the thirst of the nation increased. Even teenage girls were openly drinking alcohol. In Chico, in California's Sacramento Valley, where I was living then, some people had stills in the hills on the outside of town, where they distilled whisky from grain. All over the United States, people were trying to make wine and other alcoholic beverages. They gave it all sorts of names, depending on where you lived. In the Valley they called it jackass, because it was supposed to have a kick like a mule.

You were taking a chance on your life with that stuff. Some people were buying five-gallon cans of wood alcohol, cutting it with something and drinking it.

In Sacramento, which had the largest black population in the Valley, there were a number of nightspots where bootleg booze was sold and patrons danced. These places were called cabarets or nightclubs, and during Prohibition, their business boomed throughout the nation. Seekers of after-hours pleasures had to go to the nightclubs, all of which sold whisky surreptitiously.

Everybody knew who the bootleggers were. They kept getting arrested, but it must have been a misdemeanor, because they always got out quickly and were back in business.

Bootlegging was one of the few professions in the 1920s that were open to all races. The biggest bootlegger in Chico was an immigrant from China, Mrs. Chung Hai, who had to raise six sons by herself when her husband died, but she made so much money she was able to buy her eldest son a brand new Hudson automobile when he was in high school. All the kids would hang around him.

In the nearby town of Oroville, the biggest bootlegger was a black woman who was in what we called the sporting life. I used to visit her son on welcomes, and listen to the console radio she bought him. She always gave him lots of money to spend.

Most professions at that time were closed to black people, no matter how light they were. I can tell about a Chico girl named Stella Edwards, who was fair-skinned and very pretty. Her mother was a maid in the home of Dr. Daniel Moulton, one of the best-known surgeons in the Sacramento Valley, and the rumor whispered was that he was her father.

Both Stella and her mother lived with Stella's grandfather, Cornelius Daily, who helped support them. He was one of the most respected black men in Chico. He had the only black-owned barbershop in town, and most of his customers were whites, principally farm or ranch hands. He also served the black community.

Stella, his oldest granddaughter, was the first black person to graduate from Chico High School, and she had brains. Cornelius had high hopes for her to become more than a domestic worker in the home of some white family, like all the other black women in town. He sent her to Heald College in Chico, a school oriented to teach young women to become typists and secretaries in the business world.

When Stella finished her courses, Cornelius heard that there was an opening for a clerk typist at the Diamond Match Company. The company sold lumber primarily; it had lumber yards in every town in the Sacramento Valley. In Chico, the company also had a match-making plant, which was the biggest industrial plant in the town, employing several hundred persons. Only one employee was black, and he had been brought in from another town.

Stella went by herself and applied for the job. Because she had all the qualifications, and looked like she could be a Latin type, she was accepted.

Cornelius was so proud of his granddaughter that he accompanied her to work on her first day. While he was thanking the company officials for hiring his granddaughter, they were shocked to find that Stella was a black. They promptly informed her that they had made a mistake and could not hire her. It was an instance when Cornelius, in his pride, made it impossible for his granddaughter to get out of the white folks' kitchen.

Stella remained a domestic until she married a young black who held a civil service job with the state of California. She left Chico and moved to Sacramento, the state capital.

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 new 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage. Send mailing address.

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