The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 22
The Agricultural Life

by Thomas C. Fleming, Feb 18, 1998

On my first day in Chico, California, in April 1919, I looked around the neighborhood and saw acres and acres of empty land, unoccupied by any house. My sister helped me identify peach, apricot and fig trees in the yard of our home, plus almond trees, gooseberry vines, raspberries and blackberries, which were all still green.

Every house in Chico had at least one citrus tree in its yard -- orange, grapefruit or tangerine. Other fruits that I became acquainted with were persimmon, quince and loquat, all of which grew in Chico. My mother canned peaches and apricots every year. And we always had eggs, because my stepfather raised chickens on the side, to add to the income. Just about everybody in Chico grew vegetables in their backyard -- string beans, tomatoes, lettuce, collard greens and mustard greens.

The streets were lined with stately black walnut trees. In the fall, we would gather the walnuts, crack them and pick out the flesh, then pour a mixture of walnuts and figs in one of those hand meat grinders and make patties to eat in the winter. We would sell some of the walnut meat to confectionery stores which made their own ice cream, or used it in their soda mixtures.

Our family ate well, but we didn't have money. I had to start working when I was about 13. Summertime brought summer work harvesting some of the varieties of crops which are synonymous with the name California. You got 5 cents for picking a 40-pound lug of peaches. My friend Henry and I would go out early and work until we knew we'd earned $2. Then we'd knock off and go swimming. It would be 90 degrees every day, from around June until September, and there was no air conditioning, anywhere in California.

Other times I harvested prunes, olives and oranges. That first summer, I worked long enough to earn about $150.

You could always find seasonal work from about April to October, going from crop to crop. I didn't like seasonal work, but as a black person, that's about all you could get. The same was true for the working-class whites. A black man could also work as a janitor or a bootblack, but I didn't find either one of those things very inspiring.

Chico was an agricultural center, with a lot of ranches in the area. In the early years, I would see cowboys on horseback, driving herds of cattle down Main Street, or shepherds and their dogs, with whole flocks of sheep.

A word about blacks in the ranching business: Chico had none. But in Red Bluff to the north, the Williams family had about 3000 acres, most of it in grain and the rest in beef cattle. The founding father of the Williams clan came to California during the Gold Rush days in a covered wagon. I never did learn whether he was a slave or not.

Outside of Marysville, on the banks of the Feather River, was the Smith ranch, owned by a prominent black family. It was the site for an annual Fourth of July picnic, and blacks from all over Northern California would gather to swim, play games, eat and have a good time. Some blacks would come up from Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, 130 miles away.

After the picnic, there would be a dance in a hall in Marysville to finish the holiday. If blacks did not have a friend or relative to stay with, they were out of luck. The one good hotel in town would not cater to them, and the ones that did were fleabags. The Japanese operated one inn, which was always clean and served blacks, and both the Japanese and the Chinese operated eating houses where blacks could get good meals. But all over California, one never knew what to expect if one was black and entered a white-owned eating place or soda fountain.

That was a hell of a lousy way to live, to have that staying with you all the time. There were places in San Francisco and Oakland that refused to serve blacks as late as the 1960s.

One time I went to Sacramento with three whites friends to attend a Democratic confab, and on the way back, we stopped at a diner along the highway, in Vallejo. And the waitress brought water and silverware and napkins for everyone but me. So one of my companions said, "He's eating too." She said, "We don't serve them in here." So all of us got up and walked out. That was in the '60s I guess.

Deep within myself, I didn't want to stop there to eat. Vallejo had a reputation for discrimination. It might have been because it was a Navy town, and they could have been kowtowing to the wishes of the Navy. Segregation was always far worse in the Navy than in the Army.

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

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