On the S.S. Emma Alexander
by Thomas C. Fleming, Apr 29, 1998
On my first day as a bellhop on the S.S. Emma Alexander in the summer of 1926, the ship sailed from San Francisco at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and started on its voyage north to Victoria, Canada, then to Seattle and Tacoma. The trip to Victoria took about 27 hours.
We had just cleared the harbor when the bell captain told me to go to the three decks on the ship, sound the chime and yell, "Dinner is ready!" The chime was sort of like a xylophone; we would strike it with a stick. I made the circuit a number of times, and the dining room slowly began to fill up.
The bellhops all wore a blue suit with a white shirt, black bow tie and a round blue cap, and our shoes were always shined. People were usually patronizing, but the black and white crew were treated the same by the passengers -- like any servants.
I found myself taking numerous things to the cabins which the passengers ordered, and the first night I was delighted when I counted out six dollars in tips. That was a lot of money then. You could ride the streetcar in San Francisco for a nickel, or rent a nice clean room for $2 a week.
We had to stay on watch until 11. Then the bell captain would designate at least one of us for the midnight watch, to work until 8 the next morning. It was rotated among all of us. The bellhop who had the midnight watch could sleep until the late afternoon.
I spent my first night sleeping in the crew quarters for the stewards department. Except for the chief steward and his assistant, the whole department was black men. We all shared one big sleeping quarters, which was equipped with tiered bunks, one upper and one lower.
We ate everything that the passengers got, which was excellent. I often passed through the kitchen, where I saw the huge amount of food that was prepared. There was a separate bakery where all of the bread, pastry and other desserts were made. The ship even made its own ice cream. I discovered that I could get a lot of goodies directly from the cooks.
The next afternoon, a fire drill was called by the captain -- a routine order on all passenger ships. The passengers all came out on the deck, and the crew members were told which lifeboat they must rush to when the signal was given.
There was one bellhop named Rene, who was a pain in the neck to everyone. He could have passed for white, but was more stuck on his color than interested in attaining any educational improvements, as he was about 20 and had dropped out of high school. His older brother was head of the hiring hall that procured the black workers for the stewards departments on all Admiral Line ships.
Rene walked up to me and sneered, "It is customary for one of you black boys to jump overboard when a fire drill is held."
At that time, I was very sensitive about anyone calling me black. I threw one punch, knocking him up against a lifeboat, and was swarming all over him when the second steward, who was black, grabbed me and whispered that I would be placed in irons if the captain knew that I was fighting. I struggled to get away from the bear hold the steward had on me, shouting, "Let me at him! Let me at him!" The steward cooled me down, and I told Rene I would meet him off the ship when the ship reached Seattle.
First stop was at Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, where I added to my knowledge of what the crews do on ships. We tied up at the pier, and the waiters and bellhops and porters went ashore. All had pooled their money to buy whisky. With the money I had earned in tips, I purchased three fifths of whisky, which I brought back to my locker.
In 1926, Prohibition was the law of the land in the U.S., and the only way any imbiber could purchase good booze was to get a prescription issued by his physician, which allowed him to buy it at a drugstore, for strictly medicinal purposes.
A bottle that cost about two and a half dollars in Victoria could be sold for about $15 while sailing south, because so many people looked like their thirst increased when they went out to sea. They would ask, "Could you get me a drink?"
I learned at San Francisco that I could bring one bottle ashore past customs if I gave the guard one bottle. I just opened my suitcase and handed it to him; he put it away somewhere. My one remaining bottle I brought back to Oakland to give to friends.
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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