The Columbus Free Press


Part 48

On to Chicago

by Thomas C. Fleming, Aug 19, 1998

In the winter of early 1930, during my third year as a cook for the Southern Pacific Railroad, I boarded the Overland Limited for Chicago, on my first trip on an eastbound train.

Observation platform on the Overland Limited, the train on which
Thomas Fleming made several trips as a cook in the early 1930s.
The Overland was one of the premier luxury passenger trains in the nation. It was operated by three major lines. It left Oakland, California on Southern Pacific tracks, as far as Ogden, Utah. Then the Union Pacific took over the tracks until Omaha, Nebraska. The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad picked it up in Omaha and took it to Chicago. Each of the rail lines had four or five dining cars assigned to the Overland, with an all-black dining car crew, except for the steward.

Every line had its own operational crew, consisting of conductor, engineer, fireman and two brakemen, all white men. They had a contract with the railroads to go so many miles in so many hours, and then get off and take a break, before catching the next train going back the same way they had come.

Sometimes they'd have to lay over overnight. The railroad provided lodging for them near the station, and a food allowance. It was a nice job. From what I saw, those guys didn't really seem to work hard. The dining car crew were kept on board, working right through to Chicago. It was three nights out.

Chicago was the hub of the rail system in the United States, and perhaps the biggest in the world. All the passengers going between California and the Atlantic coast had to change trains there. More than 40 different rail lines left Chicago every day, to carry passengers, mail and luggage to all 48 states.

All those different rail lines coming in offered a lot of jobs to blacks. Chicago was the headquarters of the Pullman Company, which hired all black porters. Chicago had at least three monster depots, all with black redcaps. In Union Depot, which was the largest, one found maybe 200 or more redcaps working.

Chicago also had the biggest meat-packing business in the world, and there was a lot of work for blacks in the stockyards. Some blacks also got jobs for the city, as policemen and firemen. This happened about the same time in most other big cities on the East Coast and Midwest -- New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis.

Chicago was a beacon for the blacks of Tennessee and Kentucky. It looked like the farther away from the Atlantic the blacks lived, the more likely they were to come to Chicago. Those who lived in states bordering on the Atlantic went straight up the coast to New York.

The round trip to Chicago took a total of about a week. The Southern Pacific had a lease with a black woman who operated a large two-story rooming house on the South Side, where black crew members stayed overnight. The white stewards always stayed at a hotel downtown or near the depot.

My layover in Chicago was two days and one night. One of the waiters, who knew the Windy City, asked me if I would like to do some sightseeing. I quickly accepted. He showed me around the South Side, which was the black part of Chicago.

There were few white faces visible on the street. I was amazed when I saw the number of businesses that blacks had going there. Along State Street, one found the usual number of small, black-operated commercial enterprises -- eating places, barber shops and hair dressing parlors. There were also shops for dry goods and furniture which were operated by white owners, but all of them had black staffers. There was one large department store owned by the Jones brothers, who were black.

On State Street, one found the Regal Theatre, which presented movies every day, plus stage acts where the biggest names in Black America appeared. The Regal was one of a chain of movie and stage show houses that belonged to the Theatre Owners and Bookers Association, TOBA. The theaters were owned by whites, but featured all black entertainers, playing to black audiences.

Chicago's Grand Terrace nightclub was an answer to the Cotton Club in Harlem. It was where Earl "Fatha" Hines presided for so many years. In California, we got Hines several nights a week on the radio when he was at the Grand Terrace. Since he had never been West, his broadcast was awaited just as eagerly as were those of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Don Redman, and the Blue Rhythm Band from the Cotton Club. Hines made the Grand Terrace a national name.

We went by the Supreme Life Insurance Building, a multistoried building on Michigan Boulevard. It was the second largest black-owned and operated insurance company in the nation; the largest one was located in North Carolina. Supreme Life operated in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and perhaps other states. My guide had been by several times, so he introduced me to the manager and some staff members. I noted the attractive young ladies working in there as secretaries and clerks.

But Supreme Life was not as big as even the smallest white insurance company at that time. Most of the customers were old-style people who were looking for burial insurance. They could have charged them 50 cents a month for a life policy of $250 to $500, and still made money off them.

I imagine it assured you of some status, to know that your funeral expenses would be taken care of. But I always thought it unnecessary, and I didn't want any of that nonsense around me. My feeling has always been: have me cremated. Save enough money to have that done, and forget about it.

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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