In the 1920s, blacks throughout the country were not admitted to any of the white-run fraternal organizations, such as the Masons, the Elks and the Knights of Pythias. So they formed their own chapters, patterned after the white ones.
These fraternal orders were an important social force in areas with a small, widely dispersed black population, such as California's Sacramento Valley, where I lived from 1919 to 1926. Less than 1 percent of the Valley was black, but there were two black-run chapters of the Knights of Pythias -- one in Chico, where I lived, and another in the much larger city of Sacramento.
The biggest black-sponsored event in the history of Chico took place in June 1925, after a janitor named Al French and several other black men in town lobbied successfully for the Knights of Pythias to hold their annual state convention in Chico. I was 17 years old that summer, and worked at a bootblack stand.
The Chicoans realized that they would have to find housing for the delegates, their wives and families, and other people who had no real affiliations but liked to attend conventions.
Several hotels in Chico which did not ordinarily cater to blacks were persuaded to admit the out-of-towners and set aside a number of rooms for the three-day convention. I don't know what Al French did to make this happen. The black organizers also secured the use of a hall owned by whites.
One event on the program was a big dance that would be held outdoors, right in front of the post office. They couldn't find a black band to perform, so they hired a white band -- mostly students from Chico State Normal School, the two-year teacher training college.
On the night of the dance, blacks from all the towns within about 100 miles poured into Chico. There might have been 200 blacks who attended. Hundreds of whites stood around on the street to watch the dancing and hear the music. The Charleston was the dance craze then, and I was pretty good, but my friend Ted Johnson was even better, as people said that all of Ted's brains were in his feet.
I think the whites enjoyed being the spectators at the dance. Some of the bolder whites got out on the street and started doing their versions of the Charleston also.
When the dance ended at 1 a.m., I made my way to Max's Cafe, which was open 24 hours a day, and was generally conceded to be the best eating place in town.
On one side of Max's was a dining room, with white linen table covers, very good silverware and dishes, and waitresses. On the other side was a long counter with stools, which served the farmhands and others who were not dressed to go in the dining room. Instead of waitresses, the cooks served the food directly to the customers. A wall separated the two sides of the restaurant.
Blacks were not served in the dining room, so any black who came in had to sit on a stool at the counter.
When I walked into Max's, I saw several other blacks on the counter side. Sitting down at the counter, I put in my order for a hamburger, and while I was waiting for it to arrive, three male students from Chico State came in. Apparently they had been drinking and were very noisy.
When they passed by, one of them snarled, "There's another one of them black boys." I recognized him as the banjo player who had played in the band that night.
I gave him a hot retort. He said, "What did you say?" and I swore at him again. He rushed at me. I jumped off the stool and faced him with the steak knife. He stopped his movement then, and told me about all he was going to do to me.
I was five feet 7 and weighed about 135 pounds. My opponent was about six feet tall, maybe 180 pounds, and several years older than me.
Many eyes were focused on the tableau, and I could feel the tension in the room, as the black out-of-towners sat eating a late supper.
Al French, one of the spokesmen for Chico blacks, happened to be making his nightly rounds of turning out lights in businesses and making sure the doors were locked. Passing by the cafe, he overheard the argument. He quickly walked inside, grabbed me by the arm and said, "Thomas, Thomas! We don't want no race riot starting while this convention is here. You come along and go home."
I was very riled by now, and somewhat surprised by his ordering me to go home, so I said, "I ordered a steak and I'm going to stay here and eat it." French walked away shaking his head.
At that moment, a black bootblack who was called "Buffalo," a husky 200-pounder, walked in to eat. Seeing what was happening, Buffalo stepped in front of me and confronted the young male adult, challenging him to fight. The bully seemed to sober up quite fast. He told my rescuer that he had no beef with him.
Who knows whether a race riot would have started? I didn't know how many of those rednecks were living in Chico, but I was surprised at this guy, because he was a student at the State Normal School, and I used to see him in town all the time.
Buffalo sat with me at the table, and the bully and his companions walked out. As he was leaving, he growled, "I'll be waiting outside." I snarled back that I would be ready for him, although I must admit that my knees felt so weak that I almost fell down.
We both stayed in there and ate, and when we came out together, the bully and his friends were gone.