Reflections on Black History
By Thomas C. Fleming

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The Day President Harding Died

In the 1920s, when I was living in Chico, California, the town had two daily papers, morning and evening. I had been reading newspapers ever since I learned to read, and felt at a loss without them. Even today, I feel very uncomfortable until I get a newspaper in my hand every day.

In August 1923, I read that President Warren G. Harding was visiting the West Coast. His train was coming down from Portland to San Francisco, and we learned it would pass through Chico about 1:00 in the morning. So all of us went down to the depot that night.

There must have been a hundred or so standing there lined up, hoping the president would show up, so they could say they saw him. The train arrived; it slowed down, but it didn't stop. Of course, Harding was asleep then. He got into San Francisco early the next morning, and I think he died that evening.

I was home that night, and the next thing I knew, the circulation manager for the morning paper, the Chico Record, was pounding on my door. "Thomas! Do you want to sell some papers? We're putting out an extra. The president died."

I was in my clothes in no time, and ran over to the Record office. They had assembled about 20 kids out there, and as the papers came off, they were giving them bundles. So we fanned out all over the town, yelling, "Extra! Extra! President dies! Extra! Extra!"

Lights were turning on; people were running out there to buy a paper. Everybody wanted to see it, because there weren't any radios in the homes then. I had to go back twice to get more papers. I sold all that I got, and I made about $6 that night, which was good for a teenager.

Harding was a Republican, and it was Republican country up there, but I didn't see any grief over his death. With President Kennedy, it was different. Kennedy was butchered. Harding died in bed, from illness. And then Kennedy was far more popular than Warren Harding was. Harding was just a political hack, who went along with everything the party's leaders told him to do and didn't make any ripples. All he liked to do was play poker and drink bourbon whisky. He was a figurehead for the Republicans, because nobody knew whether he was intelligent or not. He never said anything.

Another news event I remember was the World Series of 1921, when the New York Giants played the New York Yankees. I favored the Giants because my father had taken me to see them play at the Polo Ground in Harlem, which was their home park.

I was going by the office of the Chico Enterprise, the evening paper, when I noticed a crowd standing outside. I stopped to see, and a person was putting the score up in the window as soon it came over the wire from Associated Press. The sportswriter would describe it very graphically, just like you'd read it in the paper -- every ball thrown or fielded. He made it so realistic, it was almost like you were there.

They posted it twice per inning, every time a team came up to bat. Those who were closest and could read the story passed the word back, and there would be discussions about the game. Many people stayed there for the whole nine innings, which was about three hours.

I didn't start hearing radio in Chico until about 1925. We didn't get one until 1927, when I was working for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Then I became well acquainted with Red Skelton, Jack Benny and the two black crows -- Amos and Andy.

I knew they weren't black then, because there was a lot of talk going on. Some blacks felt quite ashamed for it, but I always looked at it this way: I knew they were white men, and they sounded funny to me. I was laughing just like whites did, because Amos and Andy were being much quoted, both in the black and white communities, for the type of English they used. It was so ridiculous, all you could do was laugh, because I couldn't imagine anyone being that stupid.

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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