by Thomas C. Fleming, Apr 15, 1998
In the summer of 1926, when I woke up at the home of my Uncle Tom Jackson and his family in Berkeley, on my first morning in the San Francisco Bay Area, I did not stop to eat breakfast, but went to look for a job right away. I had just graduated from high school in Chico, California, and wanted to help support my mother and my sister Kate. Mama was working as a domestic; Kate was only 16 or 17. Domestics were paid very badly, and I thought I could make a lot more money than Mama did.
I went back to Mrs. Wall's house, where they were staying, and got my bag. She permitted me to take a bath, and I asked directions to the railroad yards in West Oakland. I had learned that the Pullman Company, which operated the sleeping cars, and the Southern Pacific commissary, which hired cooks and waiters for the dining cars, were located there.
I went to the Pullman porters' hiring hall first, and was told that I was too short. The company did not want you unless you were a minimum of five feet 10. The reason given me was that porters had to make up upper berths on the cars. I did not believe them, for I saw some men my height dressed in the traditional blue uniform.
I went to the commissary next, and was told that they were not hiring that day. I was 18 and looked younger.
I came back to the Jacksons that night, and early the next morning my Aunt Ida called me out and told me that they were expecting a woman house guest from Boston or someplace, and that they would need the bed for their guest. I caught on very quick that I was not wanted, for my cousin Tom and I were both sleeping in his room, and I knew the house guest was not going to sleep with my cousin.
Ida was a member of the Logan family, which she thought had a higher social standing in Montgomery, Alabama than the Jacksons. She had gone to an all-black teachers training school in Montgomery, and on completion of the brief course that was offered then, she applied for and received a job to teach in her hometown.
Ida's father was a barber in Montgomery, which probably served both black and white males. Blacks in the later years of the 19th century had a monopoly of the barbershops, as most whites felt it was below their dignity to cut hair. Blacks operated some barbershops for only white clientele, and others where they served only blacks.
Ida's father had a better income than most blacks in Montgomery. He owned his own home, and sent all of his children to the schools which were provided for black youngsters.
Uncle Tom had been courting Ida before he enlisted in the Army during the Spanish-American War. When he was discharged in San Francisco after the war, he returned to Montgomery, married her and brought her back to the West Coast.
Aunt Ida always referred to my sister and me as her husband's niece and nephew, and we always called her my uncle's wife. There was no love lost between us. She and Uncle Tom had just one child, my cousin Tom, who died of a heart attack in 1945, when he was 36. Uncle Tom stayed in that house in Berkeley and lived to be 100. Ida just died about six years ago. She was 102.
Getting back to my story: I had heard that blacks were hired on the Admiral Line, an intercoastal shipping line hauling passengers and some freight. It docked in San Francisco and all the other principal ports on the West Coast for passenger ships. So I decided to go there next.
The Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge had not yet been built, and the only way to get across San Francisco Bay was by ferry. The bay was full of ferry boats to carry cars and passengers. All were steamships. Some were paddle wheelers or side wheelers burning oil or coal, and some were powered by diesel engines.
They all had a long counter where you could get hot food, staffed with waiters and cooks, all black. The officers, deck hands and engine room crews were all white. You had time enough to eat short-order stuff, because the trip took about 20 minutes.
I found the hiring hall for the Admiral Line and asked for a job. The black man who operated the office for the shipping line said there was a vacancy for a bellhop on the Emma Alexander, which would be sailing that day.
He asked me, had I ever worked on ships before? I told him no, and he didn't say anything. They needed hands, because there were always changes in personnel; some people got to a port and decided to stay there, and then the job would need somebody else.
I signed on, then went straight to the ship. The bell captain gave me a uniform and a locker to put my things in, and I was on duty right away, because the ship was already loading passengers.
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.
More Fleming articles
Back to Front Page