Reflections on Black History
By Thomas C. Fleming

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Good Times in Chico

So far in my writings about Chico, California, the agricultural town where I lived from the age of 11 in 1919 until my graduation from high school in 1926, I have told mainly about the difficulties of being part of a small black minority in a white-dominated population.

But most of my memories of Chico are happy ones, and my story would not be complete without telling about the good times I had, in a place where the kids of all races had a lot of freedom to do what they wanted.

I met Henry Heriford, another young black boy, the day after I got off the train in Chico. Mom brought me to the house of Granny Powers, who had invited a number of people over to meet the new arrival to the tiny black community. Henry and I struck it off right away, and were together every day from then on.

Henry was a natural outdoorsman. He didn't care anything about school -- he dropped out after fourth or fifth grade -- but he was a superb student of nature. He knew plant and animal life better than anyone I had ever met, and we formed a tight friendship that lasted until we both left Chico.

Henry began to teach me things like fishing, hunting and going to the creeks to watch tadpoles develop. He taught me about blue gills -- an excellent pan fish -- plus carp, suckers and catfish. When it became warm, Henry and I would go swimming, along with some other adolescent youths, mostly white. I could not swim at all, but Henry furnished me some water wings, and I lost my fear of the water. When I saw him dive in, I dove in right behind him, using the dog paddle style at first, then doing the overhand stroke, as he did.

On occasion, Henry and I climbed to the foothills in search of Indian arrowheads, which we usually found. In early spring, poppies turned all open space in the California countryside into gold, as far as the eye could see.

Henry knew everyone in town, and one of his close friends was a white boy named Tommy Stewart, whose father owned a spread of land in which he had built a slaughterhouse. Henry and I frequently went out to their ranch, where we could ride a donkey or horse, or a goat if we wished. Of course, we attempted to bulldog calves, as we saw the cowboys do. We always had a meal at the home with the family and with some of the young males who worked in the slaughterhouse.

The senior Stewart used to let Henry and me clean up after the livestock was killed. Our job was to hose down the cement floor and sweep it of all entrails except the liver, heart and other edible portions. This experience turned me against eating pork, for we swept everything to the hogs in the yard, and I noted that they ate everything, including fetuses which tumbled out of the stomach of a sow as she was gutted.

Henry and I used to fish in a backwater of the Sacramento River that was named after Sam Chilsom, a black man who had lived in the area years before. People called it Big Nigger Sam's Slough.

Henry showed me a lot of tricks he had learned from the Indian village outside Chico. For example, when we wanted to cook some fish, we would cover them with mud, dig a little pit and make a good fire, and put the fish on those live coals. The steam from the mud would poach the fish. We always brought a loaf of bread to eat with the fish.

Henry had a way to guarantee that whenever he went out fishing, he would not come home empty-handed. The first time I witnessed his emergency fishing strategy was a day after three hours of trying, when none of our gang had attracted even a nibble. Henry took a metal can -- the kind used for Crisco vegetable oil or Karo syrup -- and wrapped bailing wire tightly it, then attached a piece of heavy metal, like the lead sinker on a fishing line.

Inside the can, Henry had placed some carbide, a white powder chemical used in the headlamps of automobiles. He sprinkled a small amount of water on the carbide; it started fizzing, and a mist began to rise. He quickly replaced the top, then dropped the can into the slough. In about five minutes, when the gas had built up, the can exploded under water. Large numbers of stunned fish floated to the surface, so we rowed out to the middle of the slough, picked them up and put them into a gunny sack.

We all got enough -- in fact, more than our families could use -- so we took the rest to Chinatown and sold them.

Many of the things we did were illegal, but fishing and hunting licenses were unknown to us, and we never saw a game warden. We all looked at hunting and fishing as a means of supplying food for the table.

Another time I remember was in 7th or 8th grade, when one of the boys at school learned about the workings of the electric bell that rang to start the school day. One Saturday night, when we were playing near the school, he brought some pliers and cut the wire. About a dozen of us were in on it.

On Monday morning, 8 o'clock came, and no bell. Kids were standing around looking at one another. So one of the teachers came out and said, "Children, children, come inside. Classes are starting." And we told her, "We didn't hear no bell, we ain't going in."

They got the bell fixed afterwards and we didn't do it again. But we had a lot of fun times like that. I never had any regrets about growing up in Chico.

Copyright 1998 by Thomas C. Fleming. At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3 including postage. Send mailing address to

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