The Columbus Free Press


Part 28

Burned Out

by Thomas C. Fleming, Apr 1, 1998

In 1926, the year I graduated from high school, necessity made it that we had to leave Chico. There was a disastrous fire which burned our house to the ground. We lost everything.

We had made one of the many moves that we had to make, not because of an inability to pay the rent -- Mama worked in some of the best homes in Chico as a domestic -- but because my stepfather, Moses Mosly, had bought a brand new Chandler automobile for $2200 and was trying to make the payments. He was a lowly handyman who cut wood, cleaned houses and washed windows in a few stores.

Early one morning I heard him shouting, "Kate! Kate! Wake up! This place is on fire!" My sister's bedroom was next to mine.

I opened my eyes and saw a red glow in the ceiling. I got out of bed, slipped into my shoes, put my feet into both legs of my trousers and came out through the kitchen. I heard my mother saying, "Where is Tom?" I ran to the front of the house and shouted, "I am here."

Henry Herriford, who lived across the street, ran up to me and asked, did I get my saxophone? I gruffly told him that I did not have time to get the instrument, as I was more interested in saving my hide.

Our neighbors took us in that night. The clothing store where I traded let me have some shirts and underwear, a hat, and socks and a suit, which cost $20. Mama found an old house in town and moved us into the place. We did not have much more than the beds we slept in, a stove, and a table with a few chairs in the kitchen.

We did not get another phonograph, and I have often thought of the records we lost: Mamie Smith, Miller and Lyles -- two excellent black comedians -- Paul Whiteman, Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, the Mound City Blue Blowers and a host of others who were very popular.

The furniture was insured. My mother and I always suspected that Moses started that fire for the insurance money, because he was the first one to wake up. I guess he got the money. My mother didn't get any of it.

It was about this time that we started to talk about moving to Oakland. Mama decided she'd had enough of up there. She wanted to get where both of her children would have better opportunities than they were getting in Chico. I had an idea that I would work on the railroad as a Pullman porter or cook.

We weren't concerned about Moses. Mama's second marriage had soured by then. My mother and sister were probably more anxious than I was to get out of Chico.

My mother was still in her twenties when she came up there, and she never had any reason to become fond of Chico. Why should she? Going from a big city to a small town like that. I had fun, but my mother was isolated up there.

Mama said that she and Kate would leave first, as I worked at a bootblack stand and earned between $18 and $20 a week. I was doing my share at home for an 18-year-old.

The bootblack stand was in front of Tom King's smoke shop on Main Street. In the back room, King conducted a big poker game, plus other games of chance. It was all illegal, but the cops never bothered the operation.

Mama and Kate left for Oakland in June. I made a promise that I'd follow them in about a month, and I did. It was a wise move for all of us to get out of there.

But Chico was a very nice little town. I think it was one of the best things that happened to me, coming from New York to a place like that.

Moses Mosly kept his beloved car for several months longer, but inevitably lost it. He stayed in Chico until he died.

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.

Fleming Biography
More Fleming articles
Back to Front Page