An Incident in Reno
by Thomas C. Fleming, Sep 30, 1998
During my five years as a cook with the Southern Pacific, which ended because of the Great Depression, I worked on long runs and didn't have much contact with the passengers. But the waiters and porters did.
There was the famed daily train from San Francisco into the Monterey Peninsula, about 120 miles south. It was equipped with a club car, with one black porter for serving drinks and performing other services. Such attendants became well acquainted with the passengers who commuted every day to their jobs in San Francisco.
Many passengers showed how well pleased they were, by handing out cash gifts to the porters at Christmas. They made handsome donations if they learned about a birthday or wedding in the attendant's family. Some attendants bought their own homes, and sent their sons and daughters to college.
One of the chefs I worked for was Ollie McClelland, a striking, six-foot four-inch black man, very fair of complexion, and the father of four sons. He was a first-class chef, but like the majority of blacks working on the railroads then, he had little exposure to education beyond grammar school.
He was unable to read; I discovered his illiteracy when I saw him holding a newspaper upside down, and acting as though he were reading it. He'd say, "I don't see too well, Tom. Could you read something to me?" And I would.
Ollie recognized his own limitations, so he pushed his kids to attend school. One son, Ollie Jr., graduated from the University of California and became a principal in a high school in Los Angeles, then a superintendent at a school district there. Another son, Alden, earned a law degree, and practiced law in the San Francisco Bay Area.
There were always a few black travelers on the trains, but if they didn't have relatives or acquaintances in cities they might visit, they would find difficulty in receiving the same public services that whites accepted as their rights.
The same problems faced all blacks, even some big shots in the NAACP. They would go all over the nation, recruiting members, and in most cities they'd have to stay in somebody's home. Some cities had what you'd call third-class hotels that would accommodate them, and one sure place you could always stay was the YMCA, or the YWCA for black women.
In Los Angeles, Chicago and Portland, the Southern Pacific made arrangements for the black workers to stay in hotels that catered only to blacks. I didn't generally get off the trains between terminals, but one place I did was Reno, Nevada.
At that time, Las Vegas was still unheard of, even in Nevada. Reno was the biggest town in the state, probably because it was near Lake Tahoe, which even then was one of the primary resort areas in that part of the West Coast. Reno already had the famous arcade on its main street that announced, "The biggest little city in the world."
Residents of other states wishing to slice their marriage vows could come to Reno, establish a short residence, then file for divorce. Most were persons of great wealth, including famous actors. Few persons of modest means came, unless they lived in neighboring California. There were chapels all over town where the newly separated parties could quickly apply for a license and marry a new partner. Of course, there were gambling clubs then, but not on the scale that one finds now. Nevada was, and still is, the only state where prostitutes can operate legally.
Segregation against nonwhites was strict in Reno. The nonwhite schools had American Indians, a smattering of blacks, and a few Mexican Americans. The blacks in Reno had to live in a segregated area across the railroad tracks.
Around 1930, we stopped in Sparks, a suburb of Reno, where the diners on some eastbound trains were cut out and detached from the train. The crew had to wait until early the next morning, when the westbound train for Oakland would arrive. It would pick up our dining car so that we could prepare breakfast for the passengers. We had about five hours of layover, so I caught a bus into town with Kenneth Levy, one of the waiters.
Ken and I had heard of the Jim Crow reputation of Reno, but we boarded the bus anyway, to look the town over. We got off near the depot and began to walk around the neon-lit street, gawking like any other tourists. We traveled about three blocks from the depot and found an area that was a solid block of the two-room shacks known as cribs, that prostitutes occupied.
As we were walking along, a police cruiser rolled up and stopped. One of the cops got out, walked over to us, and asked, why were we in that part of town? We explained that we worked on the train, and were simply sightseeing.
He said, "Your kind of people stay down there at the depot. You don't come to this part of town." He ordered us back to the slum area, where the blacks, Chinese, Mexicans and Indians lived.
I was surprised -- just walking the street, not bothering anyone. I had heard about that kind of stuff in Nevada, but when I experienced it, I made my mind up that I wasn't going to ever go to Nevada for a damn thing from then on. After that, I just went through the state.
I've kept that vow to myself. I have avoided going to Nevada since then, and have yet to visit it since Las Vegas became one of the major tourist attractions in the nation -- where, I hope, blacks are accepted like others.
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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