The Columbus Free Press


Part 43

Racial Attitudes on the Railroad

by Thomas C. Fleming, Jul 15, 1998

The San Joaquin Flyer, the train on which I first worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1927, started its journey south by backing into the Oakland Mole, a pier which extended out into San Francisco Bay to meet the ferries. There were many redcaps working the Oakland Mole. Some of them would come over from San Francisco along with the passengers, pulling those big hand carts lined with baggage, and assisting them right up to the railroad cars.

Like the dining car crew, the redcaps were all black men -- regular workers hired by the Southern Pacific and paid very modest wages. Some of them were professional men just starting out as lawyers, dentists or other professions. These men worked part-time, serving the evening trains and using the day hours to work at their professions. Some were college students who worked when they were not in class. None of the part-time men ever received any regular pay from the company; they worked mostly for tips, which were good at some places and very niggardly at others.

The San Joaquin, formerly called San Joaquin Flyer, which operated between Oakland
and Los Angeles. Thomas Fleming worked on this train as a cook from 1927-29.
The Flyer departed promptly at 8 a.m. Some passengers quickly entered the dining car, were seated by the white steward, and gave their breakfast orders to the waiter. There were mothers with infants who wanted milk heated up in bottles, which the waiters handed to the cooks. As we prepared and served breakfast orders, some things were already in preparation for lunch.

At noon we were ready for the "snakes," as our chef called the passengers. We heard a waiter going through the cars calling out, "First call for lunch!" while beating on a gong.

All of this time, the train was stopping at all the small towns in the San Joaquin Valley. When the two trains -- the L.A.-bound and the Oakland-bound -- passed each other, the engineers on both trains tooted the whistle, and other crew members waved their arms at one another. Railroaders always called locomotives "hogs" and the engineer "hoghead." Firemen were called "tallow pots."

I never learned the names of the engineers, firemen and brakemen. Why should I? They didn't know my name. I was back in the dining car. In the five years I worked for the Southern Pacific, there was only one time when I came into contact with them. It was when we took a special train for a movie company to shoot some outdoor scenes near Sonora, California. We were up there all day long. The actors and technical people were away from the train, and I got to talk to some of the engineers and firemen, because they wanted coffee and sandwiches, and they would come back to the dining car.

There were not many black passengers, but just about every trip, you'd see some. They could stay in the same sleeping cars as the whites, because the cars were owned by the Pullman Company, and they couldn't restrict them.

On my first trip, the San Joaquin Flyer sped through the night to Glendale and Burbank, the last stops before Los Angeles. The waiters and dining car crew who had some place to go -- either a woman to see, or some nightclub -- changed into their street clothes. I kept on my cook's uniform, but put on my hat and jacket.

By the time we drew near Los Angeles, the cooks had cleaned the kitchen, the waiters had removed all of the table covers, and the crew was sitting in the dining room, looking through the window. I could see that the yard was much bigger than Oakland's. Finally, the train pulled into the huge depot and the redcaps were swarming alongside. The crew got off as fast as the passengers.

The railroad paid for our rooms, and provided all the meals we ate on the train. All we had to furnish was our shoes and the knives and large kitchen forks we used for preparing food.

The Southern Pacific had a contract with a black man who operated a fleabag hotel for the dining car crew to sleep, right across the street from the depot, on Alameda Avenue.

On the ground floor was a pool hall, fast food place and recreation center for the black cooks, porters and waiters. All three of the upper floors were bedrooms. The whole operation catered mainly to black rail workers, who came into town on trains operated by the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe railways. I think the Pullman Company rented rooms for Pullman porters. The owner had some whores on the upstairs floors, and he supplied bad booze for those who suffered from a great thirst. This was during the days of Prohibition.

The stewards always stayed at a hotel that catered to whites. I think that's the way they wanted it; they didn't mingle. Some of the stewards were liked and some weren't, but they seemed to look down on the blacks as being beneath them, even though most of them didn't have any more education than the black men they supervised. In Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco, black visitors were refused service in all of the major hotels, regardless of their income.

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, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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