Journalist Thomas Fleming Reflects on Black History and His Early Years in Chico

Thomas Fleming, journalist/alumnus (photo BF)
Last Wednesday's talk by the renowned journalist and CSU, Chico alumnus Thomas Fleming was an especially high point of Black History Month as well as a very special homecoming.Mr. Fleming, ninety years old last November, has been a journalist and executive editor for over fifty years with San Francisco's Sun-Reporter. His highly distinguished career began with editorials on discrimination within the Oakland Public Transportation System's hiring practices in 1944. He still writes weekly columns from his home.

Fleming was introduced by Byron Jackson, associate dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. Jackson said, "African American newspapers always gave a different angle on the local and national news. They reported on the progress and success of African Americans locally and nationally. African American newspapers were important in our communities because in many ways they gave us sustenance and assurance that we were making strides in the face of discrimination and incessant degradation."

During his long career, Fleming has met some of the most outstanding cultural figures of mid-twentieth century America, including Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B.Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, and legendary artists such as Fats Waller, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes.

Asked to recall his early years and how he arrived in Chico, Fleming launched into a highly entertaining and often humorously poignant monologue that lasted nearly forty-five minutes. In a truly outstanding display of memory and infectious love for detail, Fleming recounted coming to Chico at eleven years of age with a bucket of sandwiches, ten dollars in his pocket, and a train ticket pinned to his shirt. Entertaining were his memories of swimming at what is now One-Mile pool and playing saxophone for dances in Willows. Fleming finished Chico High in 1926 and then moved to Oakland to work first for tour ships and later as a passenger train cook. As he put it, "I didn't see many opportunities for a young black man in Chico at that time."

In 1932 Fleming's job with the railroad ended, and he decided to return to Chico where his grandmother still lived. "At least I had a bed to stay in if I came back up here!" he said. "As all you students know, having a bed to sleep in is the most important thing to have." Fleming and two of his buddies arrived in Chico by a freight train, which stopped more than once so passengers could eat as many fresh peaches as they wanted on the way up the valley.

One particularly vivid memory of his first semester at Chico State included a dramatic confrontation over a mob lynching that took place in San Jose. Several accused kidnappers were in jail for a brutal murder when then Governor Rolph implied that the accused deserved whatever the people might decide to do with them. Soon after, they were lynched, and Fleming became outraged. Coming across a group of students verbally supporting the San Jose lynching, Fleming did what he had done all of his life—said what he felt. "You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves!" he shouted.

"I didn't care if the victim was black or white—a lynching just reminded me too much of the horrible mob violence of the Klan in the South. He explained, "Fisticuffs nearly broke out before a professor, Dr. Taylor, persuaded me to leave with him."

Fleming's energy was astonishing. At the end of the talk, Fleming's personal assistant for the evening, Max Millard, opened the floor for questions, which covered such areas as his thoughts on Willie Brown to early African American businesses in Chico. His words of advice for young African American students dealing with racism in Chico were passionate, "Fight it wherever you encounter it!"

This exceptional occasion concluded with a series of awards presented to Fleming including certificates from the Alumni Association and Black Faculty, Staff, and Students at Chico State. The Pan-African Union also announced a scholarship in Mr. Fleming's honor. Most touching was his heartfelt thank-you to the audience and CSU, Chico. "I never expected anything like this to happen to me at Chico State. I can't say how pleased I am and how grateful I am that you people have recognized me this way—I never expected such a magnificent homecoming!"

As Professor Jackson said in his introduction, "Our ancestors must be beaming this evening because they have given us a son of the race, a son of America, a scribe, an observer, and a distinguished journalist."


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