Thomas C. Fleming was proud, like so many others. When his money ran out around the beginning of 1936 and he first confronted the need to apply for relief and get a WPA job, he disdained the idea as just another form of welfare. Then he didn’t have a choice.
Fleming was a college student in Berkeley, California, at the time. He was stocky, bright, talkative, and black. The depression had crept up on him gradually, as it did many. He was working on the Southern Pacific Railroad as a third cook, making $72 a month, when the market crashed in 1929. He was twenty-two at the time, and his personal odyssey already had carried him from Jacksonville, Florida, where he was born, to New York City as a stowaway on a White Lines steamship, back to Jacksonville, and then west by train to Chico, California, where his mother lived after she and his father were divorced. He graduated from high school in Chico in 1926, went to San Francisco, and worked as a steward on the train ferries across San Francisco Bay. Then he got hired by the railroad.
The effects of the crash took some time to ripple down to the Southern Pacific and its business travelers, so at first life went on as if nothing had happened. In January 1930, Fleming signed up for a trip to Chicago, where on his layover, on a snowy night, he saw Duke Ellington perform. But after that, trips got harder to come by. The younger men kept getting bumped by those with more seniority. “That’s the way it was,” he said in an interview years later. He shifted from the Chicago run to the Cascade, which ran between San Francisco and Portland, but by 1931, there were no runs left for a man with only four years on the job. Fleming left the railroad.
People he knew told him to go back to school. The two-year college in Chico had converted to a four-year school in the California university system since he’d been away. His grandmother still lived there, so he knew he’d have a place to sleep. He enrolled, earned money doing odd jobs, and lasted three semesters before the city lights drew him back to San Francisco, where he attended San Francisco State. Then he moved across the bay and entered the University of California at Berkeley.
But with each move, Fleming found it harder and harder to find the part-time jobs he needed to pay tuition and his bills. In the fall of 1935, he was living with other black male students in a rooming house at the corner of Harper and Russell Streets in Berkeley, halfway between the bay and the hills that rose behind the campus. Mama Williams, the landlady, was famously tolerant about late rent payments, but she, too, had bills to pay.
The men in the house followed politics. They talked a lot about the Problem, by which they meant the problem of race in the United States, and how blacks were the group hardest hit by the depression. They talked about the riots that had torn apart Harlem in New York that spring: two days of looting, triggered by a minor incident at a white-owned department store, that focused national attention on job discrimination, wretched housing, intolerable disease and infant death rates, and mistreatment and neglect by New York’s almost all-white police force. They liked Eleanor Roosevelt for her progressive racial views and for inviting blacks regularly to the White House. They listened to the president’s fireside chats. Fleming recalled that he sounded “so cozy, like he was in your own home” he felt he was being talked to by a friend. After Roosevelt announced the works program, he and his housemates debated it. Fleming argued that it was make-work, no different from welfare. His friend George Townes, an economics major, disagreed; it was real work, and there was no shame in working for the government. When Fleming reached the point where he had to drop out of school, was eating surplus beans and bread and butter from the relief food banks, and literally did not have two dimes to rub together, he decided Townes was right.
On a winter morning, he caught a Key System trolley car to Oakland. The ride cost 7 cents. He got off in downtown Oakland and went to the main WPA office for Alameda County. There, he found a room full of men—black, white, and a smattering of Asians—milling about in line in a large room with scattered desks. He was shocked to realize that his sweater and corduroy trousers set him apart as better dressed than most. Some were in coveralls and scuffed work boots; others wore threadbare business suits under their sagging overcoats. Fleming joined a line that was inching toward an interviewer’s desk.
When it was his turn, Fleming told the interviewer he had been a railroad cook. There were no jobs for cooks, the man said, but he could put Fleming to work the next day if he’d do labor. Fleming said he’d do anything to put some money in his pocket.
He returned to Oakland again the next morning, using money he had borrowed against his first paycheck, and got off where the streets sloped down from the business district toward Lake Merritt. A block or so above the lake, men and machines were erecting steel framing for a building. Signs said it was a new Alameda County courthouse funded by grants from the Public Works Administration. Nearby, more men swarmed around an open trench. Somebody handed him a shovel. The WPA was installing new sewer lines in downtown Oakland. Fleming’s job, like that of scores of other men who were collecting shovels and climbing down into the trench, was to dig the routes the mains would follow.
Fleming dug for two days, deep in a wide trench braced with heavy timbers to keep the sides from caving in. On the third day, talking to the job foreman during a lunch break that Fleming passed without eating—he was under the impression that he wouldn’t get his $15 a week laborer’s pay until he had worked a month—Fleming mentioned that he’d had two years of college. The foreman told Fleming he didn’t need to be there in that case; he should go back and get himself a white-collar job.
Fleming stacked his shovel and returned to the WPA office. An interviewer found his file, asked him some questions about his college work, and reclassified him to work in the WPA’s professional division. His wage jumped to the $23.86 a week accorded “senior research workers,” and his new duties could not have been more different. He was told to report to the Bancroft Library on the Berkeley campus, within walking distance of his rooming house. There, a supervisor handed him an assignment to research an episode of California history. He was to boil down what he’d learned into a few paragraphs and hand it in at the end of the day. Fleming found the books he needed, sat down, and started taking notes.
He had not been working long when he saw the flare-ups that frustrated some administrators in the Writers’ Project. “There was one guy with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Michigan. I don’t know what the hell he was doing there,” Fleming said. “Another had graduated from Yale. There was one guy who had worked on a daily paper. Some of the guys had worked on the People’s World [the San Francisco Communist paper], which I read. You could see the attitude. The first thing they did was form a union. The first thing the union did was demand a wage increase. They raised more hell over that than anything else. They were always arguing with somebody about something.”
Nonetheless, Fleming admitted that his work was the closest thing to heaven that a broke young college dropout was likely to find during the depression, especially when the alternative was digging a sewer ditch in Oakland. Each morning, he rose at Mama Williams’s house in Berkeley, ate a bowl of cereal in the common kitchen, and walked to campus. At that time, the Bancroft was a library within a library, the larger Doe Library, where Fleming signed in and picked up his day’s assignment. Then he went to the fourth floor, which housed the rich holdings of California history donated by Hubert Howe Bancroft. In the stacks under the eaves, Fleming was learning the details of California’s past. At the end of each day, he turned in his handwritten paragraphs at the desk he had checked in at in the morning. Even years later, Fleming said he did not know what had been done with the material he handed in, but it seems clear that his paragraphs, and thousands like them, were being fed into the editorial process that would create the California guide.