The Columbus Free Press


Part 63

A lynching in San Jose

by Thomas C. Fleming, Dec 2, 1998

When I returned to my boyhood hometown of Chico, California to attend Chico State College in 1932, I had one advantage in my favor: a lot of folks knew me from my adolescent years, which helped me in securing odd jobs, like washing windows in homes, polishing hardwood floors and working in yards. I did everything I could to earn, because I had to eat. I couldn't ask my grandmother to feed me.

Main Street, Chico, California, circa 1928. Thomas Fleming lived in the town
from 1919-26, then returned to attend Chico State College from 1932-34.
One time when I was passing a supermarket, the manager stopped me and congratulated me on my return. He asked what was I doing for money, and told me that when one of the big supply trucks arrived, he would give me a job unloading. He gave me and my companions each 50 cents an hour.

That was a lot, with the price of food being down. Ribs were 20 cents a pound, a loaf of bread 12 cents, a pound of red beans 10 cents. The beans became a very steady diet. Once we ate beans for 30 days. On Sundays we had raisins and bread, and I would make a bread pudding. Then there were always fresh vegetables, some donated by people who had gardens at home, and some from my friend at the supermarket -- frayed vegetables, but still unspoiled and edible.

At that time, everyone who entered college had to write an essay to show whether you could compose a coherent description of any given subject. Those who failed had to take English X; in the student world, it was known as Dumbbell English. My composition was very poor; in the six years since I had been out of school, I had retained only a vague memory of how to use a noun, verb and adjective. All you did in that class was to write a composition every week, and the teacher pointed out your mistakes. Time has erased her name from my memory, but she helped me a lot.

An event occurred in November 1933, when "Sunny Jim" Rolph was governor of California. In San Jose, the son of a wealthy department store owner was seized by two kidnappers, who demanded a heavy ransom, which the distraught family paid. But when the money drop was made, the victim was murdered by the kidnappers.

The police found the suspects, and they were placed in the San Jose County Jail. But the brutality of the crime inflamed the so-called law-abiding people in the city. Vigilantes stormed the jail, took the prisoners out and hanged them. Governor Rolph gave a public speech, in which he called the mob "fine, patriotic citizens" with pioneer blood in their veins, and said that California should be proud. Of course, I was shocked, along with many others, because this appeared to be an encouragement to hoodlums to take whatever action they deemed necessary.

As I walked to school that morning, I read of the incident in the big bold black headlines of the Chico morning paper. Although the kidnappers were white, I was aware that this type of mob rule was common in some Southern states, where the victim was always a black person. By the time I reached the campus, I was very angry, and my anger centered on the lawless white world of the South that used mob violence to uphold white supremacy.

Groups of students, primarily males, were standing in small groups discussing the lynching. I brushed aside students and walked into the center of the largest group, stating very loudly that I hated lawlessness no matter who committed the acts, and that if I had been sheriff in San Jose the night before, there would have been some dead members of the mob blocking the jail doorway.

There was some hooting and jeering directed at me, and some keeping their mouths shut. Only Glenn Smith, a big, burly fullback on the varsity football team, stood beside me and said, "Fleming is right."

I was very much surprised at Smith, since he was a senior and still taking Dumbbell English, which he had failed every year. I thought he was attending college simply to play football.

Glenn and I started shouting back at the crowd, when Dr. Taylor, who was head of the geography department, walked up and told me that he thought I should come inside before I got myself into trouble. I left with Taylor, who shook his head in disbelief that such a thing as a lynching had taken place downtown in a large California city.

I dropped out of Chico State in the spring of 1934. I guess I got tired of it all -- wondering how you were going to pay your bills and how you were going to eat. There were other things: the social activities were very limited for me. I never sought to become involved in socializing with whites per se, and after being down in the Bay Area for six years, then going back there, with nothing to do but study all the time, I didn't want to be bothered with it any more.

I should have stayed up there and graduated. No need of crying over that now, because during the Depression, there weren't many job opportunities, especially for a black man. But Chico State was all good for me, as far as I could see. I have not been back there too often over the last 64 years, but a lot of Chico will always stay with me.

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. Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, a 100-page book co-authored with Michele Shover, is available for $7. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5. All prices include postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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