The Columbus Free Press


Part 72

"Raincoat" Jones, black businessman extraordinaire

by Thomas C. Fleming, Mar 17, 1999

From 1926 until 1945, I was based in the East Bay cities of Berkeley and Oakland, across from San Francisco. Before World War II, West Oakland had the biggest black community in the Bay Area. The yards of both the Southern Pacific and the Western Pacific were in the area, as well as 7th Street, where many black professionals had their offices.

The famous "Big Red" electric ferry trains roared down 7th Street. It was like Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Central Avenue in Los Angeles or State Street on Chicago's South Side -- the center of most black business or social gatherings.

Although I lived in Berkeley, I became a part of the North Oakland young blacks. We all got together and formed a club called the North Oakland Boys, which we shortened to Nobs. We paid dues every month, and when we got enough money, we gave a dance, sending out invitations to all of those people who, in our misguided state, we thought were the upper-class blacks. The dance was a big success, and the members began to think they were indeed very important people.

North Oakland was considered to be on a higher level than West Oakland, and Berkeley on a higher level still. Most of the rough class blacks, the hustlers, lived in West Oakland. There was a lot of vice down there. That's where the gambling clubs and prostitutes were. People lived by their wits.

San Francisco was two times the size of Oakland, but Oakland had the largest black population in the Bay Area, because it was a railway terminal and San Francisco wasn't. There were more jobs for blacks in Oakland, and they went where the jobs were. Even Berkeley had a larger black population than San Francisco.

When I came down to the Bay Area in 1926, San Francisco had no black teachers, policemen or firemen. Oakland had one black teacher, Ida Jackson. I knew her quite well. Oakland had one segregated company of black firemen, maybe 30 or 40 people. It had two shifts; I think they worked 12 hours and were off 12.

There was one black cop in Oakland, Hop Sanderson. He was a detective. He dressed in plain clothes, not in uniform. One also found black deputy sheriffs at Oakland City Hall. The Oakland Police Department hired about 10 blacks as temporary cops during the general strike in 1934. They put them in uniform because the other ones were working 24 hours a day and needed some help. I don't think the city hired any more permanent black cops until World War II. They had manpower shortage in so many things then.

Charles "Raincoat" Jones was one of the solid citizens of West Oakland whom I met in 1926. "Coat," as he was called, had the most successful of a number of gambling clubs along 7th Street.

He was a veteran of the Spanish-American War of 1898, who was in one of the black infantry regiments sent to Cuba. After the war, Jones mustered out and made his way to the Klondike, when gold was found in that snowbound land, and thousands of men went north in search of their fortunes. Jones did little digging, but operated a gambling club in a tent, where he made far more money than the diggers of gold. He also loaned money at 10 percent interest. When he came back to the States, he landed in Oakland and remained for the rest of his life.

I never found anyone who could give me a clear answer as to how he was called Raincoat. Some said because he wore an all-weather coat every day, and some said he earned the name in the Klondike. Raincoat had good relations with the Oakland Police Department, as one had to have in order to operate illegal activities -- that is, gambling. All of the gambling clubs must have paid the police to operate, since gambling was illegal in California. As a matter of fact, horse racing was illegal in the state then, but dog tracks flourished.

"Coat" made more money than any of the other black operators, because he paid protection money. I know this, for he brought a brown manila envelope by Leonard Richardson's law office every Friday. Richardson was the most successful black attorney practicing law in Northern California. He opened his office on 7th Street, on the second floor of a bank, American Trust.

Len would give the envelope to me, and I would take it down to the Oakland City Hall, where police headquarters were then, and give it to a captain. I never knew the amount, but I knew it was money.

Raincoat was very successful, for he bought that whole square block of houses and commercial edifices, between 7th and 8th streets, bounded by Willow and Wood streets. He was an unusual person, strongly interested in creating other business ventures. He especially wanted to operate a pharmacy, if he could find some young black with a degree in pharmacy, whom he would finance. I thought he had found one when Florence Chandler came to Berkeley with a degree from Ohio State University. Charles thought so too. But though Florence had the knowledge, she lacked the backbone to operate a place on her own.

He opened a pawnshop on 7th Street, around the corner from the gambling room on Wood Street, where I presume some losers went to pawn watches or rings or whatever was pawnable, in order to secure funds so they could return to the gaming operations in an attempt to retrieve their losses.

In the late 1940s, Raincoat helped us at the Sun-Reporter. The publisher, Dr. Carlton Goodlett, decided that he could no longer continue to subsidize the paper, so he wrote an editorial on the front page announcing that it would be the final edition. I told him that I knew a man over in Oakland who helped young blacks financially in business ventures, and that I would go over and see if he could do something to help us.

Thomas Fleming during his younger days,
as editor of the Sun-Reporter newspaper in San Francisco.
I went over alone, found Jones and told him of our problem. He was aware that I was involved in the paper, and he answered that he would like to meet the doctor, because he had never met him. He added that he would call Slim Jenkins and some other black businessmen in West Oakland to meet me and Goodlett on the following Sunday. When we arrived, I immediately saw that I knew all of the 10 black men gathered in Slim Jenkins' place.

After I introduced Goodlett to all, Goodlett explained our position. Most of the men were owners of liquor or other stores, or eating places, in West Oakland. They had formed a sort of booster organization, on the order of the larger Oakland Chamber of Commerce, which was run by white businessmen.

Two of the men got up and said to Goodlett, "I know Tom, but I know nothing about you." Charlie Jones and I explained to them that Goodlett had attended school at Berkeley, received a doctorate in psychology, then had graduated from medical school at Meharry, and had returned to the Bay Area to practice medicine.

Raincoat broke the impasse by saying that he would advance a certain sum of money, about $1000. Then in quick succession the nine others stated that they would put a similar amount in the loan. They raised a total of $10,000, which they loaned to us.

The West Oakland businessmen saved the paper that time. At the same time, we secured a $10,000 loan from Edward Heller, the millionaire businessman, and the same amount from Sue Lilienthal, an heiress to the S&W food-packing empire. With this $30,000 from the three sources, the paper remained in business. We paid back every penny of the loans.

Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Fleming and Max Millard.
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.

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