The Columbus Free Press


Part 68

Surviving the Depression

by Thomas C. Fleming, Jan 20, 1999

The decade of the 1930s was one of the most memorable in my life. The Great Depression had the entire industrialized world bogged down in a state of economic doubt, so that many questioned just what the world would be like in the near future.

When the Depression started, my mother and sister were living in a rented house in Berkeley, California. They both worked full-time as domestics, but I was paying most of the rent, because with my job as a dining car cook, I was making more than both of them together.

Then the freights began carrying more people than the passenger trains, and the railroad no longer had a place for me. I was bringing nothing in. I didn't even try to find work anyplace else. I went down to the unemployment office -- everybody did that -- but there were no jobs.

When you're in that kind of situation, your wits sharpen. If you're going to survive, you have to think about how you're going to feed yourself and where you're going to sleep.

In Oakland in the fall of 1932, they were putting in a new sewage system near the Auditorium. The cement pipes were laying there, and they were high enough that you could stand up in them. Quite a few people were sleeping in them at night. They were shelter, and people didn't have anyplace else to sleep. They called it Pipe City. It lasted until they put the new piping in the ground, early the next year.

I don't know what others did, but I managed to exist. I had friends in Oakland and Berkeley who I knew real well, who might still have a job or something. I managed to get by their house about an hour before dinnertime. And naturally when they sat down to eat, they'd ask me, would I have dinner? I never refused.

In 1932, we got out of our house and I moved into the home of the Baker family in Berkeley. I ran around with the three sons, and Mrs. Baker had a heart as big as that house. She made everybody welcome. She fed so many people there every day. Charles Baker, and later his brother Robinson, came with me to attend Chico State College, where we were among just three or four black students out of a student population of about 1400.

A series of great droughts and dust storms occurred in 1934 and '35, and people began fleeing from Oklahoma and Arkansas. Those Okies and Arkies, as they called them, got into their jalopies and poured into California. So many of them headed for Los Angeles that in 1936, the city's chief of police sent members of the Los Angeles Police Department to the state line, and when people tried to enter from Arizona, Nevada or Oregon, they'd ask them how much money they had. Very few of them had anything much. And if they didn't have $10, the policemen would say, "You can't come into California." That continued for several years, until the governor stopped it.

In San Francisco, some homeless people didn't want to sleep out in the weather, so they would go into the Hall of Justice on Kearny Street and fall asleep in the corridors. Most of the time, the cops would take them upstairs and put them in cells. I had one black friend who did that a few times.

A black churchman who named himself Father Divine was very active then. His congregation started in New York, and spread to Philadelphia, Washington, and then Chicago. It was a sort of phenomenon. Whites gave him most of the money he was getting. He married a young white woman, who was called Mother Divine.

Father Divine (1880?-1965), born George Baker in Hutchinson's Island, Georgia, moved to the New York City area about 1915, where he became one of the best-known religious leaders in America. His followers lived in communal-style housing and advocated the complete integration of the races.
When the Depression came, he had churches all over the country, including Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco. Almost as many whites joined those churches as blacks. And they opened up eating places, where you could come in and get all you could eat for 25 cents. If you didn't have 25 cents, they would still feed you.

I went into the dining hall on 8th Street in Oakland -- more out of curiosity than anything else, because I had heard about the meals you could get there real cheap. The food was very good. The main entree could have been chicken or beef stew or lamb stew, and they served vegetables, rice and potatoes, dessert, and a small bowl of salad.

They could probably seat 100 at one time, at long tables. People were dressed in their Sunday best, because lots of them attended the religious service before the mealtime.

If you had the quarter, you'd put it in and say, "Thank you Father." And if you didn't have money, you would say it anyway. He fed a lot of hungry people in those days. Of course they would try to convert you, to become a Christian, but they didn't bother you too much. I went down there about three times for Sunday dinner. I never attended their meetings, because it was still a church to me, and I didn't go to church.

The Father Divine movement was so big that the national press had to pay attention to it. He got as much publicity as any well-known person, black or white.

The dining hall in Oakland closed when World War II broke on the scene. But Father Divine continued to have a large following until he died in 1965.

Mother Divine is still living, and heads the organization today, which is based in Philadelphia and known as the Universal Peace Mission Movement.

Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Fleming.
At 91, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African-American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. His new 100-page book, Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, is available for $7 plus $2 postage. Write to Max Millard, 1312 Jackson St #21, San Francisco CA 94109, or send request to

Fleming Biography
More Fleming articles
Back to Front Page