The Columbus Free Press


Part 58

Getting an education

by Thomas C. Fleming, Oct 28, 1998

While attending Chico High School in California's Sacramento Valley, I thought about going into law. But when I graduated in 1926, I discovered it cost more money than I had, to even go to college. So I spent the next six years working on the ships and railroads. There I became well acquainted with the college crowd, and learned a lot about black student life in California.

In 1928, a black man named Oscar McFarlane opened a combination newsstand, confectionery and stationery store on 7th Street in West Oakland. It was the first black-owned store in Oakland to sell hardcover books by black authors. McFarlane also sold every black newspaper published in all of the large cities in the country. This included the California Voice, the black weekly in Oakland owned and edited by E.A. Daly and his wife. It was founded in 1918, and is now the oldest black newspaper published in the state of California, since the California Eagle in Los Angeles died.

McFarlane's store was only a few blocks from the railroad commissary where I reported for work, and I used to stop quite often to pick up the magazines that I read at that time. McFarlane and I developed a warm relationship. I was an avid reader of cowboy stories until McFarlane said, "You've got a good mind. What are you reading that trash for?"

He asked if I had ever thought of reading other types of magazines. Then he turned my attention to The Messenger, edited by Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph, a periodical that was regarded by conservative blacks as being too radical. By this time, Randolph had become founding president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and his financial troubles forced the Messenger to close down later in 1928.

Cover of The Messenger for July 1918. Describing itself as
the "only radical Negro magazine in America," it was edited and
published in Harlem by Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph.
In 1925, Randolph would become founder and president of the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and resistance to the union
would lead to the magazine's financial collapse in 1928.
McFarlane also pointed out The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which I had seen before. I had attended NAACP meetings in Marysville, California when a teenager, and was much impressed with the program. Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, Roy Wilkins, and other nationally known forces of the NAACP came to Oakland every year, to speak in meetings.

The Crisis led to my reading Opportunity, the monthly periodical published by the National Urban League, plus the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, the largest of the black national weekly papers.

George Schuyler, a black man who wrote a column for the Courier, excited my attention. He was a critic who wrote very strongly in the style of H.L. Mencken, editor of the American Mercury and one of the great satirists in the history of America.

The contributors to the Mercury included Schuyler, plus Eugene Gordon, a young black reporter who worked on the staff of the Boston Globe, one of the major newspapers in the nation.

Plain Talk, edited by George Seldes, was just a step behind the Mercury. Its contents always included serious presentations of social problems, and it was bitterly opposed to that act of national lunacy, Prohibition, that made it illegal to sell good alcohol to the public.

McFarlane got me buying Harper's, The Nation, the New Republic, Colliers and the Atlantic, all of which had a large intellectual following. I liked the way these guys were writing, and after that, I started spending what little money I had on these magazines.

This changed my views about society a great deal, for before this period, although I hated racial discrimination, I could not articulate my views to anyone about it, or on the varied social problems that confronted all of us.

At about this time, I got to meet many young male and female students from Los Angeles, who came up to Northern California for various reasons. Some were attending the University of California at Berkeley, and others simply followed the football games between UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

Blacks were going to a lot of small colleges in Southern California in the 1920s. Their grades and their college entrance exam scores had to equal those of the white students. I never heard of any college on the West Coast or the Northeast that excluded black students because of race.

The only thing that barred blacks from getting into schools like Harvard and Yale and Cornell was a lack of money. I don't think there was ever very much prejudice shown by college presidents and faculty, because you were dealing with people who had a lot of education themselves.

The South was another thing altogether from the rest of the country, because there was strict segregation down there. A lot of faculty people might not have opposed blacks coming in, but it was state policy there -- separate but equal. They couldn't go against that. Some of them spoke out against it, but they didn't have the courage to continue fighting.

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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