A Jack of All Trades
by Thomas C. Fleming, Mar 11, 1998
Annie Powers, my step-grandmother in Chico, California, had sent Mama a train ticket to come and live with her after my parents were divorced in Florida in 1912. When I joined my mother and my sister Kate in Chico in 1919, Mama had remarried. Her new husband, my stepfather, was Moses Mosley, a nephew of Annie Powers.
Kate was calling him Papa by the time I came out, because she didn't get to know her real father; she was too small when she left Florida. Moses seemed to be genuinely fond of her, but he looked at me with suspicious eyes, because I called him Mr. Mosley. Or we both would look directly at one another and just start talking. It was a strange thing. I couldn't call him Dad, because I had just left my father in New York.
Our relationship was always wary toward one another. We had a sort of truce between us. He would tell my mother if he wanted me to do something; he wouldn't tell me directly. He handled me very gingerly, because I guess he recognized the situation the same way I did. He didn't really know what to do about me.
Moses was a jack of all trades, a native of Alabama who had attended about three years of school. No one was too much interested in blacks' receiving an education in the South in the 1880s, particularly in Alabama. Moses had followed his aunt to California, probably under cajoling from her. He was a widower, and was looking for a wife.
Mama told me years later that she married him because she had a child to raise, and needed help. But Moses didn't turn out to be very much help.
My stepfather worked on the Phelan Ranch right outside of Chico, a 12,000-acre spread owned and operated by James Phelan, onetime mayor of San Francisco and at that time a U.S. senator from California. Moses was the foreman of a crew of men who were building the irrigation ditches on the ranch. He was a master in mixing and laying cement.
Other times he would go in the timber sections of the ranch and cut enormous amounts of firewood. When he wasn't working at the ranch, he cleaned houses, washed windows in a few stores, and did other janitorial work. He was a very handy man; he could do carpentry work, and was a good mechanic who knew how to work on motors. But he was totally unsophisticated, and could barely read and write.
Moses and Mama had started to purchase a home after their marriage. They probably could have bought one for $600 at that time. But Moses would always forget that he had to make the payments, and would default, so he and Mama and Katie had to find new lodgings. Mama may as well not have been married, as far as contributions he was making in her home. Most of the time she had to pay for the rent and food.
By the time I got to high school, automobiles were becoming very popular, and one seldom saw horse-drawn vehicles in town, although they were still widely used on the ranches for specific chores.
My stepfather had an obsession for automobiles, and we were always moving because he would use his money just to buy a car.
Moses first bought a secondhand open-top Model T Ford, and became the first black in Chico to own a car. In the 1920s, you could get a new Ford for $600. That Model T was a damn good car for those times, because it was simple to operate and it would take you anywhere other cars would. And you could use it for so many other things besides conveying people. In those small towns, they'd jack up the wheel on one side, put a belt on there, and attach it to a power saw.
Moses had the aspirations to do things that he was incapable of doing. The first new car he bought was a Cleveland sports model -- a soft type, with the spare tire on the rear of the car. He only kept it for about 10 months. Then he traded it in and bought a Chandler sedan. The Chandler was up in the league of a Cadillac then. The payments were big. That's when Moses got in trouble.
The car cost $2200, which was a lot of money in 1924 to pay for an automobile, particularly for a black man whose income was largely derived from the janitor's jobs he was able to get.
When he bought that car, it irritated the white folks whom he worked for, because that was a better car than they had, and they thought he was trying to be bigger than they were.
They decided to punish him, and he began to lose some of his work in town. He couldn't make the payments, and he finally lost the car. I couldn't understand his weakness for cars; I never owned one and I never wanted one, and the last time I drove was in 1926.
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. Send mailing address.
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