By Thomas C. Fleming


Column 23: The Color Line


Mrs. Johnson, the mulatto landlady at the first house where I lived in Chico, California in 1919, would always ask about other people: what was their color? She didn't ask me about myself. I answered her questions, but I understood this sort of pathology, even at 11 years old. I felt sorry for her, because she was totally blind, and depended upon other people to do just about everything for her.

Back then, people who were light-skinned would sometimes talk about my being "black," but I never let it irritate me too much, because they were treated by the white world the same way I was.

I don't know what younger people are encountering now, but most of my life I've noticed that it's been particularly hard for dark-skinned females. At Howard University in Washington, D.C., the best of the black institutions of higher learning, they formed the first sorority on campus, Alpha Kappa Alpha, in 1908. But they wouldn't pledge any brown-skinned or blacker girls: it was all very fair-skinned. That's the way these people were geared.

It started with slavery. When the masters slept with the slave women, the offspring would come out fair. They'd work as house servants, within the mansion itself. In the big estates, they would be the coachmen.

The people of my color were the field hands, who picked the cotton and did all the work outside the house. The master quickly created the social distinction, and it continued after slavery. Light-skinned babies were constantly reminded of their color.

The same thing happened in South Africa. They had three signs: white, colored and black. And the colored thought they were above the blacks in South Africa, because they had some white blood in their veins.

Black entertainers of the early century, such as the comedy team of Miller and Lyles, turned the color complex into a subject of humor. I saw them on vaudeville in New York around 1917. They conducted a ridiculous dialogue on the subject, that was designed for black audiences. They had heard whites making remarks about color, and I think they were answering the whites.

In the 1920s, you saw whites and blacks married to one another in California. Even in some small towns, you'd see white men living with black women. It happened all over the country.

On the West Coast, the races could always mix in the state of Washington. If two people from different racial groups wanted to get married, they went up to

Washington, where it was legal. California did not repeal its law against interracial marriages until 1948. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that all such laws were unconstitutional.

The Sacramento Valley, a rich agricultural area of north central California that is fed by the Sacramento River and its tributaries, is about 160 miles long from north to south. In 1848, gold was discovered in one of those tributaries, the American River, which set off the California Gold Rush. Many of the towns date back to that time, and have had a black presence for nearly 150 years. Chico's black residents have been documented back to the 1850s.

In Los Molinos, a small town located midway between Chico and Red Bluff, there was a black businessman named Ross, who operated one of the early gas stations which was a combination grocery store. Ross was well liked, and the people of the community did not seem to resent that he was married to a white woman.

Another source of pride for Chico blacks was the George Martin family in Red Bluff. Every time we visited the town, we would go by Martin's department store, which was owned and operated by a black man, although Red Bluff had a smaller black population than Chico. Martin prospered there; the whites patronized his store, and he and his family were listed among the leading families in Red Bluff.

But apart from the blacks who owned their own businesses, I never saw a black person in the Sacramento Valley who was hired as a sales clerk at a white-owned store. Blacks were restricted to certain jobs, such as janitorial work, and domestic work for females.

Blacks in most small towns in the Valley knew one another quite well, as there was frequent traveling for social gatherings. Generally, whatever blacks were doing in high school in any of those towns, you'd eventually hear about it. In Chico, Oroville, Marysville, Sacramento, Red Bluff and Redding, black youths on athletic teams in the high schools played against one another at track, baseball and basketball. And there were the band meets, which were held annually in the small town of Princeton. The bands competed against one another, and included blacks from many towns throughout the Valley.

Marysville had a number of very attractive black females in our age group. Marysville also fielded a black semi-pro baseball team, the Marysville Giants, who played ball every Sunday, and blacks within a radius of about 100 miles would come to the games. They were great social gatherings. Sacramento had a black baseball team also, and there were Japanese teams in Marysville and Sacramento that played against the black teams.

I didn't date anyone during my four years at Chico High School, because there was no one for me to date. There were five black girls in Chico in my age group -- all sisters of my friends. But I wasn't looking at them because I saw them too often, I suppose. I don't know whether there was any taboo against interracial dating at the high school, but it just never happened.


Copyright 1998 by Thomas C. Fleming

Column 22

Column 24


Posted 2/23/98 9:46 PM