The Columbus Free Press


Part 27

To the Future

by Thomas C. Fleming, Mar 25, 1998

From 1922 to 1926, while attending Chico High School in California, I wrote a few humorous columns in the Red and Gold, the school newspaper. A lot of my fellow students made comments about it, and I said, "Maybe this isn't so bad." It gave me a feeling of importance, because it seemed that more people were aware I was there. But my family had no money for me to attend college, and I didn't yet have any serious thoughts about going into journalism.

I always found it easy to write, because I read a great deal. Besides the two daily papers in Chico, we got the Sacramento Union every morning, and I read two San Francisco papers every day, the Chronicle and the Examiner. The day didn't seem right until I got a newspaper in my hand.

The San Francisco Bay Area -- which includes Oakland and Berkeley -- is about 180 miles southwest of Chico. I thought that there, I could possibly get a job on the railroads or the postal service, or something like that. And I knew what I'd be doing in Chico for the rest of my life if I decided to stay up there: I would be shining shoes or working as a janitor. Nothing disgraceful about that, but I thought I could do better.

In grammar school, most of the guys in our little gang were white. When we got to high school, most of our white crowd drifted away and went with whites. Some stayed with us, but it was different, and we began to realize even more so that we lived in a white-dominated world.

We were collectively aware of the fact that whites held to an outdated opinion, even in those days, that all blacks had an intense desire to consume large quantities of watermelon, fried chicken, pork chops and chitterlings. They also believed that all blacks carried the old-style razors or knives on their person.

Chico was a quiet town, where nobody locked their doors at night. It looked like the biggest activity the police had was arresting the town drunks. And of course there would be domestic outbreaks sometimes. But serious crimes were so few that you didn't give it much thought.

I didn't intend to stay in Chico after I finished high school. Chico had its limitations, because the black community there was almost nil. If you wanted to see a few hundred blacks living in one place, you'd have to go to Sacramento, about 90 miles south. Well, Sacramento never did impress me too much either. As in many other towns, blacks had their own barbershops, plus one or two pool rooms and at least one restaurant. But when I went down to the Bay Area for the first time, I could see there was much more in Berkeley.

I had heard a lot of talk about working on the railroads, and I thought that would be a way out for me. Two railroads came to Chico, the Sacramento Northern and the Southern Pacific.

My friend Henry and I would load baskets with apricots, grapes, peaches, figs or other fruit, then walk up and down the platform shouting that we had fresh fruit, and a lot of passengers would come off and buy it. The vendors on the trains protested that they were losing business. So the Southern Pacific got in touch with the local police, who told us to stop. We were just trying to pick up a few honest pennies.

Henry and I both began to long to leave Chico, particularly after we started to meet the northbound train that came through every evening. We would position ourselves near the dining cars, and the cooks and waiters -- who were all black men -- would shout out to us while the train was stopped.

Henry's parents were divorced, but he knew that his father worked on the railroads as a waiter out of Los Angeles. His father sent him a saxophone and a brand new bicycle. But I had to get my own. I felt sort of left out, as I did not have a father who bothered to correspond with his son and daughter.

I have already described the discrimination against blacks in California in public accommodations. By the time I was 14 or 15, I was well aware of the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has waged the battle for first-class citizenship longer than any other organization in the country.

It was still a fledgling organization at that time, whose membership was perhaps 150,000 nationally. They never did achieve a million members, even though the dues were only a dollar a year. I thought that was terrible, when you consider the work they did.

Now and then I would run across a stray edition of The Crisis, the journal that was the editorial voice of the NAACP. Robert Bagnalls, a field organizer for the NAACP from New York City, would come to Marysville each year to speak, and sometimes my mother, my sister and I would go down there to hear him. News of his annual visit always spread to other towns in the Sacramento Valley.

I just went to listen. At that period, I hadn't made my mind up that I was going to leave Chico, so I accepted things the way they were. It was not until after graduation, when I left Chico and moved to Oakland in search of a job, that my dislike of Jim Crow became an obsession to me.

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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