The Columbus Free Press


Part 81

Black society in the '30s

by Thomas C. Fleming, Aug 4, 1999

In California in the 1930s, as in the rest of the United States, there was a white society and a black society.

The black women's movement of clubs was in full force. They did the same things that white middle-class people enjoyed -- dances, picnics in summer and fall, and big annual affairs, partly to raise money, but mostly to show off that they were a part of the socially inclined.

Social classes have long existed among blacks, just as they have among whites. It began during slavery days, when blacks were either domestic workers or field hands.

The domestic workers worked in the big house where the owners and his family resided. Owners very cleverly divided blacks in this manner. Many of the house worker slaves were almost white in appearance, since the master and the foreman -- who was always a white male -- used the bodies of the black females liberally to satisfy their own sexual needs. Babies born out of this situation were often more white in appearance than black.

Many times, the slave woman would have a black mate, as they married in ceremonies that the master approved of. That created a system where some children of the same woman had very different shades of pigmentation.

The owners, depending on their wealth, might have a butler, who was provided with several young black males as household assistants, and who might work as coachmen, driving the owner about the country in handsome buggies. Each driver had a young black male assistant who served as footman, and rode up in the driver's seat with the groom. If the owner bred racehorses, black males were used as jockeys.

After emancipation, the onetime house slaves aped their former owners in clumsy attempts to speak like whites, and in their social aspirations they practiced the same type of snobbery that they had closely observed in their masters' families.

Just about everyone who suffered from the disease of social recognition found some organization which suited their needs. A single person with an invitation seldom had a problem finding a guest of the opposite sex. If a women's club had a party or something, I'd go if I were invited, but I regarded all of them as being hen parties.

I thought the black women's social clubs served a very good purpose. They engaged in a lot of activities, trying to make the community a better place to live. That's what their main purpose was. Fashion shows were incidental.

There might be incidents where one white woman would belong to a black club, or one black woman to a white one. It was the same with some of the men's clubs.

Thursday was always the domestics' day off. As far as I know, it was all over the United States. The men used to call it Kitchen Mechanics Day; it was said in a tone of jesting. Some promoters saw that they had a lot of these young single women off on the same night, so they started holding a dance in the dance hall in West Oakland every Thursday night.

The white middle class had private clubs that owned their own clubhouses, bought from dues paid over the years. The country club set in the white world had swimming pools, tennis courts and golf courses.

Then there were even bigger organizations, such as the Olympic Club in San Francisco and the Athens Club in Oakland, where white males of the Chamber of Commerce type had large buildings with dormitories for single male members.

Of course, there was no chance for black males to join such clubs. The best answer that black men had was their fraternal organizations, all national in scope. Some, like the Black Elks, owned their own buildings, but they were never more than about a third the size of buildings owned by white fraternal organizations.

Some black male clubs were organized, it seems, solely for the purpose of holding social events, which were by invitation only. Members invited a select number of guests, and there was a lot of interest by nonmembers, who hoped they would be among the chosen to attend such soirees.

Insignia for the Knights of Pythias, a national fraternal organization
that had black chapters in California during the 1930s. The letters
FCB stand for Friendship, Charity and Benevolence.
The Sanobar in Oakland was one of those types of organizations. The Sanobar held dances several times a year, plus a big annual affair, generally during the Christmas season.

In San Francisco was a club, the Cosmos, that appeared to be more elitist than the Oakland club. It always held its annual dance at the St. Francis, one of the city's most prestigious hotels. The dance was always a formal affair, for which the women bought expensive gowns. Some of the men wore tails, but the majority just wore tuxedos.

I used to wonder why the Cosmos spent a large sum of money every year to rent a ballroom in a hotel that would not rent them a room or serve them a meal in any of its cafes, or permit them to attend the supper clubs where name bands and name singers entertained nightly.

Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Fleming and Max Millard.
Produced exclusively for the Columbus Free Press, this column is edited by Max Millard, who has conducted over 100 hours of interviews with Fleming, and blends Fleming's spoken words with his writings. Born in 1907, Fleming is the founding editor of the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's oldest weekly black newspaper. Fleming's 100-page book, Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, is available for $7 plus $2 postage. Send request to, or write to Max Millard, 1312 Jackson St #21, San Francisco CA 94109.

Fleming Biography
More Fleming articles
Back to Front Page