by Thomas C. Fleming, Dec 15, 1999
After returning from Chico State College in 1934, I stayed in Berkeley most of the time. I used to hang around the campus at the University of California at Berkeley to use the library, and I attended some classes there, although I wasn't a regular student. I really didn't know what I intended to do.
Students could live at International House, located just off Bancroft Way, next to the football stadium, for about $85 a month, which included three meals a day. It's a big place -- about eight stories high -- and it's still there today. It was intended for students of diverse ethnic and cultural groups to live together and probably learn something about one another -- sort of a League of Nations idea. Everybody ate the same meals. Students who worked at I-House waited on you.
International House, 2299 Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley, California, opened in 1930 following the success of the first "I-House" in New York City in 1924. Berkeley was chosen because the San Francisco Bay Area then had the largest number of foreign students on the West Coast. There was considerable local resistance to several aspects: men and women living under one roof; foreigners; and the integrated setting in which whites would live with nonwhites as equals. Today it houses about 600 students, half from the U.S. And half from 60 to 70 nations abroad. (Courtesy of International House Berkeley)
I-House was just a residence hall; the faculty had nothing to do with it. They didn't limit who could reside there, if you were able to pay. Carlton Goodlett, who would later become publisher of the Sun-Reporter newspaper, lived at I-House for one semester in 1936-37, in his second year as a graduate student from Howard University. Goodlett was my best friend, and after he moved into I-House, I spent a lot of time there.
Among the residents of I-House were three African students from the Gold Coast, as Ghana was called then. The Africans were eager to learn something about U.S. Blacks and the American way of living, and I became their tutor. One of them, Andrew, bought me a ticket to get two free meals a day in the big dining room. I didn't eat breakfast there because I didn't live there.
Andrew once asked me, could I get some alcohol for him? He gave me about $20, and I brought up two quarts of whisky, and got everybody drunk on that floor. He could have bought it himself, but he didn't know where to go.
The Gold Coast was a British colony, and the British government was picking up the tab for these three guys. It paid their tuition and gave them about $125 a month spending money. That was a lot of dough in those days.
Unlike other European powers, the British were training the native people in their overseas empire -- giving them enough education so they could serve as civil service workers, to administer the colonies. They did the same thing in India. The French were rather slow about it, and so were the Portuguese and Spanish.
There wasn't as much racial tolerance at I-House as some students would have liked, because everybody tended to stay together with whatever racial identity they had. Naturally, when students first entered, they found people who spoke their language. The Africans didn't mingle with whites socially in their own country; we might have done a bit more here than they did there.
Carlton Goodlett was a member of the student council that worked with the director of International House, Allan Blaisdell.
Blaisdell, a white man, was out of place at a residence for students of all colors, languages and cultures. He had to have an excellent background to get that job, but I didn't think he was sophisticated enough. He seemed to be very provincial for a man who worked for such a diverse group. He didn't ever seem to relax when he was talking to anyone.
Whenever Blaisdell saw any black male engaged in conversation with a white female, he would come over to the pair and start asking questions of nothing in particular, even though he well knew that most of the people he saw in I-House were student residents.
Interracial dating was not forbidden then, but Goodlett was the only black man I knew who had a white girlfriend. They were both graduate students in the Psychology Department. She was from Los Angeles.
I don't think anybody on campus gave them problems, because she didn't act like she was ashamed -- like she was sneaking around -- and neither did he. There might have been some eyebrow-lifting, because they went out together quite a number of times, and he used to bring her everywhere. She always looked like she was comfortable.
After she graduated, she went back to L.A., and he went to West Virginia to teach for a year. I think they kept up a correspondence through the years, because after he became a physician, she came by the office in San Francisco.
Of course, at I-House, blacks realized that Allan Blaisdell was not free of racism, and to a man, all agreed that the job as director of an interracial residence hall was simply too big for him.
Blaisdell knew the Africans, and he would go by our table and other tables, greeting students. I was annoyed by the way he tried to talk down to us.
Once he looked at me and asked if I was an African student also, and to excite him, I answered that no, I was a native of a U.S. Possession.
He asked where. I answered, "Florida."
He said, "What do you mean?"
I followed up with, "You see, I'm not recognized as a citizen down there, even though I was born in this country. Neither my parents nor any other blacks have enjoyed their citizenship there because of Jim Crow."
Blaisdell knew what I was talking about. He turned beet red in the face, which gave me a peculiar sort of satisfaction.
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. Thomas Fleming's 48-page book of stories and photos about his boyhood in Harlem is available for $3 plus $1 postage. Write to Max Millard, 1312 Jackson St., #21, San Francisco, CA 94109.
More Fleming articles
Back to Front Page