The Columbus Free Press


Part 62

Enrolling in college

by Thomas C. Fleming, Nov 25, 1998

From 1926 to 1932, I held a series of jobs on the ships and railroads on the West Coast. First I worked as a bellhop for an intercoastal passenger shipping company that stopped at ports from Victoria, British Columbia, to Ensenada, Mexico. Then I was a waiter on a train ferry in the upper part of San Francisco Bay. In 1927 I was hired as a cook by the Southern Pacific Railroad, and worked there until the Depression came along. That's when I got a chance to go back to school.

In Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, I had become acquainted with "Ma" Francis, whose son, Robert Coleman Francis, had earned a doctorate in economics at the University of California at Berkeley. He did this in the 1920s. UC Berkeley was founded in 1868, and he was the first black to get a Ph.D. there, in any field. Robert went on to teach at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, a state-supported segregated school.

Joe Francis, Ma's late husband, had been the editor of the Pacific Outlook, one of the few black weekly newspapers published in San Francisco at the turn of the century. It was founded in 1894, and continued until World War I or later.

After I met Ma, I would stop by quite frequently when I passed their home. There was always a lively bunch gathered there. On one such occasion, Ma said, "You've got a good head on you. You ought to go to college." I told her I hadn't given it a thought. My mother and sister needed my support, and the only job Mom could find was a domestic, where the pay was almost nothing.

Ma asked me that question every time, but I always answered that I did not know how I could do it without some source of income. One day she said there was a four-year college in Chico, California, and that since I had been raised there, I should explore the possibilities of going back.

California's state colleges had not been defined as universities then, although they offered some graduate courses. When I attended high school in the 1920s, there were eight of those schools located in the state. They were then two-year teacher training colleges, called normal schools. In 1930, they were made into four-year liberal arts schools, but remained heavily oriented towards education and the turning out of teachers.

Main building on the campus of Chico State Normal School during Thomas Fleming's
boyhood years in Chico, California. It was destroyed by fire in 1927. (Photo, courtesy
of Special Collections, Meriam Library, California State University, Chico.)
The first black student to attend Chico State Normal School was a girl from the nearby town of Red Bluff named Irma Williams, who enrolled there in 1921. I never heard of any other blacks who attended until I enrolled myself in the fall of 1932, when it was Chico State College. Out of a student population of about 1400, there would be four black students on campus, and two were friends I brought with me.

I was very close to the Baker family, whose best-known member was Charles Baker, one of the two black morticians doing business in Oakland. The other was a company called Hudson and Butler. Butler, people said, got all of the "society blacks" and Baker the working-class blacks.

Baker's nephew, also named Charles Baker, had just graduated from high school in Oakland. I mentioned to him my idea of attending Chico State, which interested him, as well as my friend Kenneth Levy, who had attended the University of California at Los Angeles for a year.

I convinced both Ken and Charles that we would have a bed to sleep in, since I knew that my grandmother would be glad to see me come back to further my education. Our only problem, I informed them, was how we could feed our- selves, since Granny was then in her seventies, and was receiving a very meager assistance from the state.

In July 1932, Charles, Ken and I made the trip up north to Chico to scout the layout before registering at Chico State. When we arrived, we got a big welcome from Granny. She was very proud that I was going to college. I was 24 years old and had traveled all over the nation quite a bit, but I saw no future as a cook, even if I'd had enough seniority to keep my job.

The campus was much larger than it had been when I was in grammar and high school. I enrolled and took 12 units, and hoped that I would find some means of earning some money. In 1932, tuition was $10 a semester at all the state colleges, and an additional $2 a semester for student body fees, which admitted you to athletic events and other social activities. There was no cafeteria, and only one dormitory, which was just for women. I didn't join the student body because I had to do everything I could to find work.

It always struck me as odd that when I came back to become the first black male raised in Chico to enter college, the white people appeared more delighted than the blacks. I think the blacks were a little bit envious, because very few of them had even gone as far as high school before my time. They'd usually get to about the 5th grade, and then start working. When I returned, some of them told me to my face that I would not last long as a student.

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. Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, a 100-page book co-authored with Michele Shover, is available for $7. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5. All prices include postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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