Back to the City
by Thomas C. Fleming, Apr 8, 1998
My mother's oldest brother, Tom Jackson, was the first of our family to come to California. He settled in San Francisco after returning from combat in the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898. He received his discharge from the US Army following the peace treaty that ended the war.
Uncle Tom, who originally came from Montgomery, Alabama, made the firm decision that he was not going back to the land of Jim Crow, with all the unpleasantness of a society where racial discrimination is practiced.
My mother and sister arrived in the town of Chico, California in 1912, and I followed them in 1919, after spending my first 11 years in Jacksonville, Florida and New York City.
In 1926, when my mother, my sister and I moved from Chico to the big city of Oakland, about 180 miles away, I had never met my Uncle Tom or his family. He had never been to Chico to see us. I guess he regarded us as his poor relatives. He worked as a clerk in the post office, and owned two houses -- one in San Francisco, which he rented, and another in Berkeley to live in. He and his wife had a son, also named Tom.
My mother and sister had left for Oakland first, while I continued working at a shoeshine stand for about a month longer, so that I would not have to go down with no money at all. I did not realize how much I would miss them. I saved about $50 after they left and bought one of those white linen suits which were very popular in the hot summers. I also bought a cheap suitcase for my clothes.
The day finally arrived when I boarded a Sacramento Northern train, the interurban fast electric train that ran between Chico and Oakland. I had the address where Mama and Kate were renting a room in North Oakland.
I had heard for years that North Oakland and Berkeley were the places where the more polite blacks lived, and that West Oakland was populated by hustlers and the more rowdy types of blacks.
When I arrived at the address, it was dark. Mama was working as a domestic at one of those jobs where she lived on the place, and my sister Kate had gone to a big dance with some friends. I left my bag with the landlady, who told me how to get there on the streetcar.
I had never seen such a huge crowd in a dance before in my life. It was sponsored by a black fraternal organization. At this time, the dance halls had some nights that were allocated for blacks. This was the policy at Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland, where the famous big bands played, such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Lunceford and Lionel Hampton. The two races never attended dances on the same night.
After searching for about half an hour, I encountered my sister. She took me in hand and we began a search together for my cousin Tom Jackson.
We finally ran into Tom, and I stuck out my hand and said, "I am glad to meet you." He said, "What do you mean, glad to meet you? We should have known one another all of our lives," and gave me a great big bear hug.
Tom asked me, when did I get in town, and where was I staying? I told him I had no lodging and he said, "You are coming home with me. That is where you belong."
Tom was about 9 months younger than me. He very proudly introduced me to some of his friends as we walked around the huge ballroom. He seemed to know a lot of people there.
The dance ended about 1:00 in the morning, and one of Tom's friends took us in his car out to the Jackson home in Berkeley. I looked forward to meeting an uncle whom I had heard a great deal about. When we arrived at the house, we both went into Tom's bedroom and went to bed.
Early the next morning, both my uncle and his wife Ida wanted to see me. When I walked into the kitchen, they both gave me a sort of curious look, and since Ida was light-skinned, the first thought that went through my mind was that I was a little too dark for their tastes. Tom was as light-skinned as his mother. Uncle Tom was a rich mahogany brown like Mama.
They began to question me as to why I had left Chico. I said I had come down to the Bay Area in search of a job. My uncle remarked that I should have remained in Chico. He predicted I would end up marrying some girl in the Bay Area and never amount to very much.
My uncle hated segregation in all forms. He had his family tree traced by a reputable firm that does such things for a fee, and he received some papers which traced his ancestry back to a well-to-do family in England.
He proudly showed off the family coat of arms which he received, and I always wondered whether he had mentioned to the firm that he was a black man. I never asked him, as I thought it rather ridiculous, and he was a man who seldom smiled.
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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