Senator Billy Knowland
by Thomas C. Fleming, Nov 18, 1998
Around 1930, my mother and my sister Kate both started working for the family of William F. Knowland in Alameda, California, next to Oakland. Bill was the youngest son of Joseph Knowland, the publisher of the Oakland Tribune and one of the three newspaper moguls in the state. The other two were Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, and George Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle. They were the undisputed rulers of the state's Republican Party, and the saying was that no Republican could get elected to office without their endorsement.
"Old Joe" Knowland had served six terms in Congress himself, before losing a race for the Senate in 1914, which ended his political career. The next year, he got control of the Tribune, and his family owned it for more than 60 years.
Bill Knowland was seven months younger than me. Everybody called him Billy. He had a very booming voice; even in conversation, he sounded like he was giving a speech. My mother was his cook and Kate was his maid. They lived in his home, in a room with twin beds, right off the kitchen. Billy and his wife had two kids. The older one, Emelyn, was a little brat, but Kate kept her straight. She used to warm her tail every once in a while.
The Knowlands kept a well-stocked cabinet after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and I used to go out there and drink some of their liquor, and get a meal there too. I don't know whether they knew it; I just visited my sister in the kitchen and didn't go to any other parts of the house.
Kate worked for him for three or four years. I used to see him when I'd go out there to his house. I don't think he had any color bias at all: he met people real nice. A typical politician -- he knew how to give you a glad hand. And that great big grin.
Today, Oakland is more than 40 percent black, but in the 1930s, it had only about 6,000 blacks out of a population of more than 200,000. The Knowlands showed a sort of benign paternalism toward the black community. I think that's why Old Joe gave a job to a black woman named Delilah Beasley to write a column, "Activities Among Negroes," which came out every Sunday. In 1919, Beasley had published a book titled
The Negro Trail Blazers of California, which was probably the first black history book about the state.
Her column in the Tribune ran from the early 1920s until her death in 1934. She was the only black person in Northern California to write for a daily paper. There were four dailies in San Francisco then, two in Oakland and one in Berkeley, but it wasn't until 1962 that a full-time black reporter was hired by any of them.
I knew Delilah, and used to see her all the time. But I never read her column; all she wrote about was churches, social events and women's clubs.
Billy worked at the Tribune with his father, but he wanted to go into politics. Old Joe advised him: "Stay out of it." But Bill was determined. He ran for the state Assembly in 1932 and won, then was elected to the state Senate. In 1945, when he was serving in the Army, U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson died, and Billy was appointed by Governor Earl Warren to fill out his term.
He won election to the Senate in 1946, and was re-elected in 1952. He became the Senate majority leader for the Republicans, and could have been re-elected easily in 1958. But he had aspirations to run for president. He decided to seek the governorship in 1958, because he thought that would be a better launching platform for him to get the presidential nomination in 1960.
Senator William F. Knowland (r.) with President Dwight