The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 24
My Mother, the Domestic

by Thomas C. Fleming, Mar 4, 1998

It was 11:30 at night when I arrived in Chico, California in April 1919, after crossing the country by rail. I had not seen Mama for seven years, ever since she and my younger sister Katie had left me in Florida when I was four years old. Mama smothered me with hugs and kisses, then introduced me to my stepfather, a genial giant named Moses Mosley.

Katie had lain awake waiting to see her older brother, of whom she had heard a lot but had no memories. I guess I had become a sort of myth to her. In Chico, Kate felt left out, because she had no other siblings to stand up for her.

Before Mama had gone to the depot to meet me, she had put a lot of water to heat on the stove and placed a galvanized washing tub -- very fashionable then -- in the middle of the kitchen floor.

When we came in, she fed me. Then she poured the hot water in the tub, added some cold water and tested the temperature with her index finger. When she thought it had reached the proper temperature, she began to undress me. After four days and nights of travel without changing any of my clothing, I smelled very gamy. I tried to resist out of bashfulness, and she gave me a gentle slap on the head and told me that she was my mother and that I did not have to be ashamed in front of her.

I wore long black stockings and knee pants, which were the vogue for boys then. A boil on one of my feet had burst, and the stocking was stuck to my foot. As my mother was placing me in the tub, she examined the sore, then put both stocking and foot in the water, and finally worked the stocking off.

That was perhaps the most exhilarating bath I had taken in my short life. The warm water made me drowsy, and I suddenly felt very tired. Mama took me into the living room and placed me in the bed alongside my sister. I did not think too well of sleeping with my sister, and she thought likewise. She informed me that it was her bed, and to keep on one side, which I did.

Like almost every black woman in Chico, Mama worked as a domestic for a white family. It was very tiring, because she had to keep the house clean, do the laundry and cook the meals. She worked 10 hours a day, easily. Domestics received such low wages. I don't think Mama ever earned over $45 a month.

Mama brought home leftovers from whomever she worked for. It was customary all over the country for black domestics to cook enough food for the white folks so that they could bring some home for their families. Those people weren't going to eat it the next day anyway.

Refrigerators were just coming into being, and could probably be found in restaurants and soda fountains, but they weren't yet popular in homes. The ice man would traverse the streets every day. Most of the wagons were horse-drawn until about 1923, when they started to become motorized.

One black woman in Chico, who had come from Philadelphia, took two rooms in her home and opened her own beauty parlor. All of her clients were white. She had operated the same type of business in Philadelphia, which had more than 100,000 blacks at the time, more than any other city in the country except New York, Chicago and possibly Detroit.

My world was much bigger than Mama's. She read until late at night -- mostly the Bible, or literature about her church. She belonged to the only black church in Chico, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but she would sometimes go to the Pentecostal Church in Oroville, also called the Holy Rollers.

I always looked at it with cynical eyes. When they got to that stuff about speaking in tongues, I'd be laughing out loud. The members would go to one another's homes practically every night of the week, and the only time I was forced to be there was when it was in our house.

My stepfather could do a lot of things, but he never kept a steady job. He did some janitorial work, and when I got to be 16, he turned some of his window-washing jobs over to me. He wanted me to drop out of school and work, but Mama said, "Thomas is going to finish high school."

Mama never complained. She died when she was 57 from kidney failure. I always felt it was because she worked hard all her life, and was not a big person. She was 4 foot 11.

Mama was a very decent person. She never took anything that didn't belong to her, and she always gave you a straight answer. She would keep her mouth shut and not say anything, rather than tell a lie. She had the greatest influence on me, to be honest in your relationships with other people in the world. She was the most wonderful person I have ever known.

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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