Oakland, Where the Trains Stopped
by Thomas C. Fleming, Jun 10, 1998
From January to June 1927, I worked as a waiter on a ferry owned by the Sacramento Northern Railroad, at the Carquinez Strait in the upper part of San Francisco Bay. The cooks, waiters and stewards were all black men, and we slept in a shack on the shore, without running water, and infested with swamp mice. We worked six days, with one day off.
The ferry crew consisted of a captain and four deck hands, all white men. Their sleeping quarters was on the ferry. They worked for several days, then another crew would take their place. All of them had homes in nearby communities, such as Pittsburg, California, which you could see from the ferry. It was the home port for a number of commercial fishing boats, all owned by Italians. Sometimes one of the friendly fishing boats would pull up to the ferry slip and give us a big bass or some other species of fish. It made a welcome change in our diets.
I was very lonesome most of the time, the monotony being relieved when the passenger trains crossed over and the train crewmen would give us the daily papers from Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco.
The biggest thing that caused a lot of conversation among us exiles on the ferry was Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic Ocean in May 1927. It was an astounding feat, and we talked about it for days as the newspapers kept their pages filled with news of Lindy.
The steward on the ferry was a strict black nationalist, who revered Garvey as though he were a saint, and argued with us frequently about the movement. He often lost his cool and berated us because none of us showed any enthusiasm about Garvey. He hated James Weldon Johnson and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, because they did not bring the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People into the Garvey movement.
In June 1927, when I got my day off, I stayed two days instead of one. When I did come back, George Dunlap, the black businessman who operated the lunch counter on the ferry and the dining cars on the Sacramento Northern, was there. He curtly asked, where did I wish to go, to Chico or Oakland? I knew I was fired. I told him Oakland, so he paid me off and I left on the next train.
The city of Oakland, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, had a much larger black population than San Francisco in 1927, and still does. Today about 10 percent of San Francisco is black, compared to more than 40 percent of Oakland.
I always thought Oakland had more blacks because it was a railroad terminal. Blacks went where they could get jobs, and a lot of blacks worked for the railroads then -- not only on the trains but in the maintenance department, for the Southern Pacific, the Western Pacific and the Santa Fe, which all had terminals in Oakland. The Pullman Company was another big employer of blacks. It had no terminals because it wasn't a railroad company, but it had maintenance yards in the nearby city of Richmond, where it serviced the sleeping cars.
San Francisco is located at the top of a peninsula, and there weren't any bridges across the bay until the 1930s. The trains couldn't cross that water, and in 1927, the only train coming into San Francisco from out of state was the Sunset Limited from New Orleans. Most trains stopped in Oakland, and people took the ferry over to San Francisco.
Oakland is a much smaller city than San Francisco, but even when my mother came to California in 1912, there were more blacks in Oakland. Some people say that after the big San Francisco earthquake in 1906, a lot of blacks moved over there and didn't come back.
In Oakland, I saw the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier every week. Those were the largest black papers in circulation nationally. They were sold at certain newsstands, usually in black neighborhoods. One would also find them in barbershops, restaurants and other small black-owned enterprises.
In San Francisco in 1927, no blacks were hired by the city for public service jobs, such as policemen, firemen and teachers. In Oakland there was one black teacher and one policeman. I don't think too many people were complaining about it.
In the post office, Oakland had maybe about 10 black workers, whereas San Francisco might have had as many as a hundred. A lot of them lived in Oakland or Berkeley and commuted every day.
Blacks were hired by the post office even in the Deep South, because it was United States government service. People took the civil service examination all over the country. You didn't have to be well educated; if you got through high school, you could probably pass it.
You'd find a lot of blacks with some college exposure working for the post office, because they couldn't get jobs in other areas. The federal government didn't discriminate as much as private industry, but it was only in the postal service where blacks were very visible.
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, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279. .
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