In 1919, at the age of 11, I found myself on the train from Jacksonville, Florida to Chico, California, to rejoin my mother and younger sister, whom I hadn't seen for seven years. All through the South, I sat in the Jim Crow car with the other black passengers, my ticket pinned to my coat.
My old man had given me $7 for the trip, which I promptly spent. They had vendors going through the train all day, selling candy, peanuts, soft drinks and magazines, and renting pillows for the night, since all the cars were segregated and blacks in the South could not buy tickets for the sleepers.
I slept in snatches as the train rolled along, and when we got into New Orleans the next morning, the conductor took me into the station and turned me over to the Travelers' Aid Society. I didn't have any money left, so a woman from Travelers' Aid fed me, then gave me another dollar to spend. She saw that I got on the evening train to Los Angeles.
I boarded the Southern Pacific, which ran on its own tracks all the way to the West Coast. We reached Los Angeles two mornings later. I had to take another train to Sacramento, about 90 miles from Chico, where the Travelers' Aid woman asked me my mother's name. She looked up her number in the phone book and called to tell her I would be arriving in Chico at 11:30 that night.
When the train stopped at the station, the conductor said, "Well, sonny, this is the end of the line." He got my bag for me, and when I reached the door, I saw a woman standing there, and a man with her. She said, "Tommy?" I said yes. As soon as my feet hit the ground, she started hugging me so close. She was crying, too. I pulled back from shyness, but she said, "What's the matter with you? I'm your mother."
She made me feel at ease very quickly, and it seemed like I had been with her all my life. I never felt any anxiety from that moment on. Her children came first with her: that's what she lived for. And she had to work practically all her life, without any support, to bring us up, which I never forgot. She was the best friend I ever had.
There was no separation of the races in California. I think most white people in Chico were quite open-minded about race -- more so than in the San Francisco Bay Area -- because any neighborhood you lived in, there would be nothing but whites all around you, and you became acquainted with everybody. It was a very gossipy little town, and whatever gossip there was about the white families, we heard it too.
The story of my family's migration to California from the Deep South was a typical one.
Thomas M. Jackson, one of my mother's brothers, volunteered in the Spanish-American War in 1898, probably as a way to get out of Montgomery, Alabama. They shipped him to the Philippines, and he fought in one of the all-black infantry units. After the Americans defeated the Spanish forces, the U.S. Army stayed over there for occupation purposes for a while, and my uncle came back around 1901.
San Francisco was a point of embarkation, and after the war, like a number of black soldiers, he decided to stay. This pattern would be repeated on a much bigger scale following World War II.
He got a job as a clerk in the post office right away, and made San Francisco his home.
The next to arrive was my step-grandmother, Granny Powers, who always regarded us as family, even though she wasn't blood kin. She became a maid for a wealthy white family in Montgomery, and when they went on a trip to New York, they took her along. She had never been out of the South before. Then she went with them on a cross-country trip by train to San Francisco, then to Hawaii. When they returned to San Francisco, Granny met with Uncle Tom, and he told her she'd be a fool to go back to Alabama. So she left the white family and stayed behind.
In San Francisco, she met a black man who was much older, who owned quite a bit of land in Chico and was looking for a wife. She married him and moved up there. When my mother got divorced in Florida, Granny invited her to come to Chico, and sent her a train ticket, because my mother had no money.
Although there were segregated hotels and restaurants throughout California, it was still a big improvement over the South. Blacks and whites got to know each other because they went to school together. California had never had segregated schools since it became a state, with the exception of one district in the Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border. They segregated the schools down there primarily to set the Mexican students apart. And because blacks have dark skins, they were automatically placed in those schools, which employed a few black teachers.