The Columbus Free Press


Part 61

Senator Billy Knowland

by Thomas C. Fleming, Nov 18, 1998

Around 1930, my mother and my sister Kate both started working for the family of William F. Knowland in Alameda, California, next to Oakland. Bill was the youngest son of Joseph Knowland, the publisher of the Oakland Tribune and one of the three newspaper moguls in the state. The other two were Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, and George Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle. They were the undisputed rulers of the state's Republican Party, and the saying was that no Republican could get elected to office without their endorsement.

"Old Joe" Knowland had served six terms in Congress himself, before losing a race for the Senate in 1914, which ended his political career. The next year, he got control of the Tribune, and his family owned it for more than 60 years.

Bill Knowland was seven months younger than me. Everybody called him Billy. He had a very booming voice; even in conversation, he sounded like he was giving a speech. My mother was his cook and Kate was his maid. They lived in his home, in a room with twin beds, right off the kitchen. Billy and his wife had two kids. The older one, Emelyn, was a little brat, but Kate kept her straight. She used to warm her tail every once in a while.

The Knowlands kept a well-stocked cabinet after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and I used to go out there and drink some of their liquor, and get a meal there too. I don't know whether they knew it; I just visited my sister in the kitchen and didn't go to any other parts of the house.

Kate worked for him for three or four years. I used to see him when I'd go out there to his house. I don't think he had any color bias at all: he met people real nice. A typical politician -- he knew how to give you a glad hand. And that great big grin.

Today, Oakland is more than 40 percent black, but in the 1930s, it had only about 6,000 blacks out of a population of more than 200,000. The Knowlands showed a sort of benign paternalism toward the black community. I think that's why Old Joe gave a job to a black woman named Delilah Beasley to write a column, "Activities Among Negroes," which came out every Sunday. In 1919, Beasley had published a book titled

The Negro Trail Blazers of California, which was probably the first black history book about the state.

Her column in the Tribune ran from the early 1920s until her death in 1934. She was the only black person in Northern California to write for a daily paper. There were four dailies in San Francisco then, two in Oakland and one in Berkeley, but it wasn't until 1962 that a full-time black reporter was hired by any of them.

I knew Delilah, and used to see her all the time. But I never read her column; all she wrote about was churches, social events and women's clubs.

Billy worked at the Tribune with his father, but he wanted to go into politics. Old Joe advised him: "Stay out of it." But Bill was determined. He ran for the state Assembly in 1932 and won, then was elected to the state Senate. In 1945, when he was serving in the Army, U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson died, and Billy was appointed by Governor Earl Warren to fill out his term.

He won election to the Senate in 1946, and was re-elected in 1952. He became the Senate majority leader for the Republicans, and could have been re-elected easily in 1958. But he had aspirations to run for president. He decided to seek the governorship in 1958, because he thought that would be a better launching platform for him to get the presidential nomination in 1960.

Senator William F. Knowland (r.) with President Dwight
D. Eisenhower. (Photo, courtesy of United Press International.)
His Democratic opponent was Pat Brown, the attorney general for the state of California. Billy thought Pat was a pushover, and I think the greatest amazement he ever received in his life was when this bumbling guy defeated him. It wasn't even close. After that, Billy quit elective politics and devoted all of his time to the newspaper.

He never did forget who I was; I saw him and his wife Helen at the Republican National Convention in 1952. When he ran the Oakland Tribune, if I wanted assistance for our paper, like photographs or newsprint, I could call him and they would give it to us. I liked him as a person, but we were poles apart in our social views. He only had one view, and that was the conservative view. I never voted for him or any other Republican candidate.

After he left Washington in 1958 and came back to Alameda, Helen was advertising for a cook. Kate had gotten a good job when World War II started, and was a member of the warehouseman's union. She got the same hourly pay as the longshoremen did. But at that time, there was a shortage of work, so she was laid off for a while. Kate saw the ad in the paper and called them up, and Helen said, "Oh Katherine, I'm so glad to hear from you." So Kate went out there. Billy went back in the kitchen, grabbed my sister and kissed her, and he said, "Katherine, how do you vote?"

She said, "When I got this job, Mr. Knowland, the Republicans controlled the country, and you paid me $25 a month and my mother another $25 a month. We had to stay on the place. You gave each of us a day off. Then the war came along, I got a job in private industry, and I started making twice as much in a week as I made in a month when I was working for you. That all came under the Democrats." And she said, "that's the reason I always vote Democratic."

Kate said he turned beet red in the face. But I doubt if it struck him real hard, because I don't think the Knowlands ever thought too seriously about people who were below their level in society.

Billy divorced Helen in 1972 and married a much younger woman. His second marriage was a failure, and I think it did a lot of things to Billy's mind. In 1974, at his family's resort on the Russian River north of San Francisco, he took his own life.

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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