Job Discrimination in the '20s
by Thomas C. Fleming, Mar 18, 1998
In 1926, when I graduated from Chico High School in California's Sacramento Valley, I knew that there were no job opportunities for me in the town. None of the native-born blacks went to college, but even with a college degree, they would have had to leave Chico.
I think most black people in the Valley were quite contented with their lot in life, even if they had to work at jobs that whites did not want. Many of them owned their own homes, and some blacks had successful careers in the Valley, in spite of discrimination in the job market.
Hadwick Thompson, the only black to farm rice in Northern California, lived in the town of Willows, west of Chico. He had attended the University of California's College of Agriculture at Davis, and was a veteran of World War I, who had served overseas in France. When he came back, everybody in that little town loved him. He was invited to join the Willows chapter of the American Legion, and they named an athletic field after him. Some white people never let him know that he was black. He owned a lot of acreage up there, and stayed there until he died.
In Marysville, about 45 miles south of Chico, I saw Hindus for the first time. When white farmers found out that rice could be cultivated in California, the Hindus had been brought to the United States to do the work, until the whites learned to do it themselves. Then dead Hindus began to be found in the rice fields. Law enforcement officials always said other Hindus, of a different religious sect, had perhaps killed the victim. But we suspected that whites had performed the murders, as they found the Hindus no longer useful.
In Red Bluff, to the north, I watched the performance of two magnificent black cowboys, Jesse Stahl and Ty Stokes. They competed throughout the West, wherever rodeos were held, because there weren't separate rodeos for blacks and whites.
Stahl was so good that none of the white competitors wanted him to enter any events, and he was paid just to give exhibitions of his skills.
Stokes became the comedian of the rodeo. Like Stahl, he could probably do anything better than the other bronco busters, but he wanted to make sure that he made some money. He would try to antagonize the bulls; they would come charging at him, and he'd do all sorts of funny flip-flops to get out of the way. He was entertaining, and he knew what he was doing all the time.
Hydie Davies, who had the city contract to collect all of the trash and debris that households no longer had use for, was probably the richest black man in Chico. Hydie had two horse-drawn wagons, and with the money he made, he bought a lot of land in the area, some of which had houses, which he rented.
While a teenager, I used to shine shoes on Saturdays for two black men in Chico, George Daly and Arthur Williams. Daly, who had a bootblack stand at McClellan's smoke shop in downtown Chico, was a very pompous man whom the white hangers-on at the smoke shop humorously called "Lord George." He took it all in a manner which disgusted one as a young as I, for he was looking for the small tip plus the 25 cents he received for shining the shoes. George thought he was black society in a town that had only 65 black residents. He bought a home which he let everyone know had hardwood floors, and was a much better place than any other black owned. But Hydie Davies could perhaps have bought George out many times.
Arthur Williams, the other bootblack, was a sort of celebrity, as he was the only Chico-born black who had been drafted into the Army in World War I. Arthur had gone to France with the American Expeditionary Army under General Pershing.
The white folks had welcomed Arthur back, and he had attended high school, but the best he could do in employment was a bootblack stand, and it was not on a very good street where a lot of people were walking.
Arthur was very bitter, and used to talk to me about his Army stint and the manner in which he was ignored when he came back home. He said that a black man was appreciated in France far more than at home in the United States.
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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