Reflections on Black History
By Thomas C. Fleming

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Goodbye to New York

From the day I moved to Harlem in 1916 until I left three years later, my father worked all the time. But he didn't want the responsibility of being a parent. He put me in a boarding home where a woman took care of me, and about the only time I'd see him was when he came to pay for my keep. Then the woman would tell him what clothing I needed, and he would give her money to buy it.

My parents had divorced in 1912 when I was 4 years old, and my mother had moved to Chico, California, an agricultural town in the north central part of the state. I had not seen her all those years, but she continued to write to me almost every week, and I answered her letters. I'd forgotten what she looked like, but I always felt my mama was somewhere.

Then my father married again, and brought his new bride up from Florida. So I left the boarding home and moved in with them. That's when the problems began. I was left alone a lot with my stepmother, and maybe I was a little more independent than she thought I should be, because I was accustomed to doing things for myself. Whenever she tried to correct me, it ended in an argument, and my telling her that she was not my mother. She tried to lay the strap on me a couple of times, and I resisted. Later, I realized that she was right and I was very wrong, but that was after I came to California and reflected some on my life.

One day around February of 1919, when I was 11, the old man told me he had decided to send me back to Jacksonville – where I had spent the first eight years of my life – to live with Uncle Bud.

My father acted like he was glad to get rid of me. He got back in touch with his pals in the stewards department on the Clyde Line ships that went up and down the East Coast. So again, I was taken down to the pier and handed over to one of the porters – a stowaway for the second time in my life. After I got down to Florida, I found out my uncle was planning to send me to California, to join my mother.

I stayed in Jacksonville for about two months, until my mother could buy me a train ticket out of her earnings as a domestic. I had a younger sister, Kate, who was also in Chico. My mother told Uncle Bud that she wanted me and Kate to be raised together.

On the day of departure, my uncle and aunt took me to the station and gave me a big wicker basket full of sandwiches for the journey, which was four nights out. My dad came down from New York to see me off, and he started blubbering, "You're going a long way off. I may not see you again." I didn't know what he was talking about.

The first month I got to California, he sent $10, and we never did hear from him any more until 20 years later. We didn't know whether he was living or dead.

When they put me on the train, the conductor pinned a ticket on my lapel to make sure I wouldn't lose it. He said that when I had to change trains, he would see that I got the right one for California.

My ticket was for a chair car. It had a row of seats on each side of the aisle and luggage racks up above. You had to sleep the best way you could. Your feet got very tired, keeping your shoes on all the time.

The cars were segregated. For all railway lines throughout the South, it was company policy to keep the races separate. That segregation was a strange thing. You never knew when the blow was going to fall on you. And you instinctively tried to avoid any conflict, because it could cause something very unpleasant to happen to you. It was discussed among us all the time – what you couldn't do.

You knew you couldn't go to the same schools as whites. You knew that if you went to the theater, you had to sit in the Jim Crow section, in the balcony. You knew that if you were out of the black neighborhoods, the restaurants wouldn't serve you. So you just lived in a black world.

Most blacks had to ride in the chair cars because the Southern railroad companies wouldn't sell sleeping car tickets to black passengers. If you wanted a berth on a Pullman sleeper, you'd have to buy the ticket outside the South and mail it to whoever was going to use it.

When my Uncle Tom in San Francisco decided to marry his childhood sweetheart in Montgomery, Alabama, he bought two tickets on a Pullman coach, then went to Alabama and got married. They had to honor his tickets down there, because the sleepers were not owned by the railroad companies: they were the property of the Pullman Company. But the local railroads owned the dining cars, so no black passengers in the South could enter those cars.

When black people in the chair car wanted hot food, the waiter would bring them a menu, take their order and bring the food to them. They had to eat where they were sitting. Of course, they were charged the same price as the white customers who got full table service. But once the train crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the black passengers could eat in the dining car and sit where they wanted.

Copyright 1997 by Thomas C. Fleming. Born in 1907, Fleming is a writer for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. He is the 1997 winner of the Career Achievement Award for Print from the Society of Professional Journalists of Northern California. Email and photos:

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