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