The Columbus Free Press


Part 56

Getting by on the railroad

by Thomas C. Fleming, Oct 14, 1998

When I began working on a Southern Pacific dining car in 1927, I was living with my mother and sister in a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, California. The apartment had a kitchen that was large enough for a single cot, on which I slept. After returning from each trip, I would have one night at home. Then Mama would wake me up at 6 a.m., and I would walk to the railroad yards, a distance of about 10 blocks.

Fred Turner, the chef on the dining car, told me that his mother-in-law had a vacancy in Berkeley, a two-bedroom cottage which rented for $25 a month. We moved, and after that, I was at Turner's house every time we were in town. Fred took great pride in his house, and would boast that he lived as well as the few black professionals in the city. He did not understand that the black lawyers and doctors and dentists lived on a different scale than he did.

Some black students worked at the railroad terminals as redcaps for a few hours every day, making enough money to maintain themselves in college. Some who attended law school or dental school continued these part-time jobs after graduation.

I knew a black lawyer in Oakland, Frank Larch, who worked each night on the Lark, an overnight train between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Each evening, he caught the train in Oakland and worked on the dining car until it reached Watsonville Junction, about 75 miles south. Then he worked the northbound Lark back to Oakland, preparing breakfast for the passengers and returning in time to practice law in the daylight hours. I don't know when he slept. He shared an office with another black attorney, George Vaughan, who had built up a large enough clientele to work at the business of law full-time.

Besides its passenger trains pulled by steam locomotives, the Southern Pacific operated many electric commuter trains in California, and had a fleet of ferries crossing San Francisco Bay, with their complement of black cooks and waiters.

The New Orleans, a passenger ferry operated by the Southern
Pacific in San Francisco Bay. (Undated photo, courtesy of Bill Yenne.)
There were not yet any bridges built across the bay, and trains headed north from Oakland always stopped at Port Costa, where they were broken up into sections before crossing the bay on train ferries. The lead locomotive pulled a few cars onto the ferry, which had rail laid on its deck. Switch engineers were stationed on both sides of the bay, and their busy little engines chuffed about, doing their job of uncoupling cars and reassembling the trains afterwards.

The Southern Pacific was one of the big corporations of America, had its own hospital in San Francisco for employees from the president on down. There were probably a few blacks working there. Everybody had to take a test for syphilis; that's the only time I ever went. Anyone who had serious injuries from all over the system, as far east as Ogden, Utah and as far south as New Orleans, would be shipped to the hospital.

The company did have at least one black, Ray Maddox Sr., working at the railroad's headquarters, at 65 Market Street in San Francisco. He was in the ticket printing department. The Maddox family were fair-skinned, and hated black people. Mother and son did their shopping in Chico, where I grew up. All the blacks there knew about their dislike of being blacks, and we called Ray Jr. "peckerwood," which was a derisive way in which blacks described poor whites.

The dining cars were spiffy; in five years, I never saw any vermin. The floors of all kitchens were covered by a sheet of copper, which was bolted in place. On top of the copper sheet were wooden slats fitted to cover every inch of the floor. As the fourth cook, I had to scrub the slats vigorously until they were white, then raise them and stand them on their sides while we mopped the copper sheets.

The crocks on the steam table had to be cleaned and put away, the stove oiled on top, the range and charcoal grills cleaned, and every space on the sides washed and scrubbed and polished until everything was shining bright.

The Southern Pacific had two black men, Henderson Davis and Max Hall, in supervisory roles for the dining car and restaurant services that the railroad offered on the trains and in some depots and ferries. They traveled over the system and made periodical inspections of the dining car crews. They had rank enough to recommend whether anyone who was not performing according to company rules could retain his job.

Davis, in his long career, had worked up the ranks to chef, and performed so well that the superintendent of the Southern Pacific decided he could serve the company well as a traveling supervisory chef cook. Hall had performed equally well as a waiter, doing his job better than the white stewards on the diner.

Davis was given the title of traveling chef, and Hall was named traveling headwaiter. They would travel all over the West, to inspect the kitchens and dining cars. Davis would remain in the kitchen during mealtime, despite the close quarters, and watch very closely to see if company policies were being strictly observed in the way the food was cooked.

You never knew when an inspector was going to climb on board. But when we'd pass a train going in the other direction, they'd signal to us that the inspectors were waiting at the next stop, so we'd start straightening things up. But you never had much to clean, because the chef and the pantryman -- who was really the headwaiter -- saw that everything was clean all the time.

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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