|July 1, 1997
San Francisco Chronicle
|Newspaper Pioneer Retires At Age 89
Founding editor of Sun-Reporter
|By Maitland Zane, Chronicle Staff Writer|
Thomas C. Fleming, founding editor of the weekly Sun-Reporter newspaper and a strong voice for San Francisco's African American community over the past 54 years, retired yesterday.
Fleming, 89, said he made the decision to step down because he's tired of going to an office and wants to dedicate himself to his memoir about a lifetime covering politics, crime and the struggle for civil rights.
Fleming's politics always have been left wing, and he traveled extensively as a guest of the Soviet Union, including trips to East Berlin, Moscow and Cairo, Egypt, during the Cold War.
"I've had a rich life," he said in an interview at his Fillmore Street apartment where he lives alone surrounded by a jumble of books, magazines and his beloved jazz tapes. "I never made any money, but I had a lot of fun."
"And I never hurt anybody," he added with a chuckle, "because I never got married. I've covered nine national political conventions and shaken hands with Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller."
Rockefeller was particularly relaxed and hospitable with journalists, Fleming said, telling of drinking and partying with the New York billionaire on a rented yacht at the GOP convention in Miami in 1968.
"Black reporters and white reporters were treated just the same," Fleming said. "We had equal access, we had the same facilities. My favorite politician? I'd have to say Pat Brown. He wasn't as bright as Jerry, but he had a lot more heart."
"Tom is one of my favorite people in life," said Belva Davis, a Bay Area television journalist who worked for Fleming more than 30 years ago as the women's editor of the Sun-Reporter.
"I think the reason he never married was because he was married to `The Business.' Tom has a memory I'd give anything for. He can talk about things that happened 60 years ago as if they happened six hours ago. An unique individual."
Retired Chronicle reporter Bob Popp met Fleming in 1947 when they were in the first class of the Coro Foundation, a greenhouse for aspiring public servants whose most famous graduate is U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.
"I loved that booming voice and his laugh," Popp said. "Tom was always very forthright and outspoken; he had absolutely no fear about expressing his thoughts."
Born in Jacksonville, Fla., Fleming moved in 1919 to Chico, where he got his first taste of journalism writing a humor column for his high school paper. He's been hooked on print ever since. He also played the saxophone and remains a big fan of giants like Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford.
In 1944, Fleming became editor of The Reporter, a weekly that two years later merged with another weekly, The Sun, which Dr. Carlton Goodlett, the physician/publisher, won in a poker game.
And now, a half-century later, Fleming is stepping down as executive editor.
|July 23, 1997
San Francisco Bay Guardian
|Say it loud ...
For half a century, the San Francisco Sun-Reporter has enriched black politics and the African American community
|By Ron Curran|
ON A DISTANT morning in the late 1940s, San Francisco Reporter founding editor Thomas C. Fleming and its new publisher, Carlton B. Goodlett Jr., met in the office of their newspaper. The men, who had been best friends for more than a decade, shook hands, sat down, rolled up their sleeves, and set out to keep alive a political and cultural voice for the city's African American community. Over an extraordinary half-century, they would make history -- and forever change San Francisco's future.
Goodlett was a community doctor who, after winning ownership of the rival Sun in a 1948 poker game, merged the papers to create the weekly Sun-Reporter. Fleming was a former steamship bellhop and railroad cook who, in his off hours, had worked his way into journalism at a time when newspapers rarely hired blacks. (One of his first newspaper jobs was a column for the Oakland Tribune titled "Activities among Negroes.") Despite their different backgrounds, Goodlett and Fleming shared a driving concern for social justice.
The Sun-Reporter would dutifully provide the city's black community with the everyday details of births and deaths, weddings and religious services that the Chronicle and Examiner neglected. (Longtime Sun-Reporter columnist Julianne Malveaux recalls that ongoing beat as "the sweet flypaper of life.") The paper also gave black small-business owners a place where they could afford to advertise and black writers a place to work.
But the Sun-Reporter also played a larger role. The paper helped shape the cultural fabric of the local African American community with its coverage of the jazz revolution and its support of black writers. And by boosting the early careers of politicians including Phil and John Burton and Willie Brown, Goodlett and Fleming became power brokers who would influence many of San Francisco's most pivotal issues, from the redevelopment of the Fillmore and discrimination in jobs and housing to City Hall's neglect of Bayview-Hunters Point.
The paper's political influence first became apparent in 1949, when the Sun-Reporter's endorsement of Cecil Poole led to his being named San Francisco's first African American deputy district attorney. In 1968 the paper backed Terry Francois in his successful campaign to become the first African American member of the Board of Supervisors.
Not only is the paper still going strong, but it's making more headlines than ever. Goodlett died in January at age 82, and the city will name the block in front of City Hall in his honor. Fleming, who is 89, retired from everyday work at the paper earlier this month. Politicians and journalists nationwide sent best wishes.
The Sun-Reporter is only part of a century-long tradition of local black-operated media outlets. Before the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco had the Spokesman and Oakland was home to California Voice. Later, editor Bob Maynard would help turn the Oakland Tribune into a national journalistic force, winning the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1989 earthquake. And the legendary KDIA AM has been a radio voice for Bay Area African Americans since the post-World War II years.
The Bay Area's black press has been among the nation's leaders in covering some of the century's greatest stories, including the civil-rights movement, Vietnam War protests, the rise of the Black Panthers, the rebellions at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, and the Watts riots. The Sun-Reporter gained a deserved reputation not only as a standard-bearer for San Francisco's African American readers, but as one of the best community weeklies in the country.
"He was one of the first to hire people right out of school regardless of race," John Burks, San Francisco State journalism professor, said. "Goodlett was absolutely color-blind." KRON TV reporter Belva Davis worked at the Sun-Reporter more than 30 years ago. "This paper has been one of the most influential for more than five decades," she says. "Carlton and Tom made sure African Americans have been able to obtain not just information but justice in San Francisco, whether by being a vehicle for black politicians, by convincing advertisers to hire black models, by pressuring arts groups to issue press credentials to black reporters, or by being the connective tissue that brought African Americans together from the different parts of the city. The Sun-Reporter's importance cannot be overestimated."
Fleming is a little more modest. A couple of days into his retirement he took time to reminisce in his Fillmore Street apartment about the early struggles of the Sun-Reporter, its influence as a political and cultural leader, and the role the paper played in serving the African American community -- and shaping the city of San Francisco.
"We've always had a social vision at the Sun-Reporter," said Fleming, surrounded by piles of awards, books, jazz albums by Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford, and other mementos accumulated during a lifetime in the journalism racket, his trusted Royal typewriter still within arm's reach. "It was a struggle. We had bomb threats and other types of persecution, but we never complained, because we wanted an opportunity to write. That was all. I've always been a person who believed in equality of opportunity, and Goodlett felt the same way. Equality of opportunity, regardless of color, religion, or language differences. That became our editorial theme all along, in all phases of social activity. The Sun-Reporter was the watchdog to see that black people got that equality."
The Sun-Reporter brain trust would have lasting influence on a generation of San Francisco politicians. Current San Francisco district attorney Terence Hallinan marched with the often tempestuous Goodlett in several antiwar demonstrations, including a 1,500-strong protest in May 1970, the day after four students were killed at Kent State by the National Guard.
Goodlett told the crowd that day: "If Nixon will only respond to power, then we must mobilize enough political and physical power -- enough violence -- to win. Never in history has the establishment responded to nonviolent petition. You young people, we've waited a long time for you. Fight on! Black soldiers will not return peacefully to white racist America after fighting for freedom in Vietnam. They're willing to take up any means necessary, including taking up the gun."
Recalls Hallinan, "I was mesmerized by Carlton Goodlett and what he and the Sun-Reporter were able to accomplish. In many ways, reading the paper helped convince me to pursue a career in political life." Goodlett was the local NAACP chapter president in the postwar years, and he began evaluating potential political candidates as future prospects, encouraging the best and brightest to take on the entrenched establishment. One of them was John Burton.
"Carlton was a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners kind of guy, with Tom serving as his right-hand man," says Burton, who served in Congress and the state assembly before joining the state senate. "He consistently supported progressive issues and was a leading reason that first my bjrother Phil was elected, then myself and Willie Brown."
Fleming and Goodlett (who ran for governor in 1966) always knew the power of their bully pulpit and weren't shy about trading political favors, and some progressive organizers say that the Sun-Reporter's close relationship with the Burton machine led to compromises in the paper's otherwise progressive political agenda.
Longtime community activist Calvin Welch, who was on the ramparts of the Fillmore redevelopment wars and numerous other neighborhood battles, recalls the Sun-Reporter as a frequent, if sometimes inconsistent, ally. "Carlton Goodlett was a complex guy and Tom Fleming was the translator who softened his edges," Welch says. "Goodlett was actually three people: the community physician, the 1930s communist, and the black capitalist. The problem was, you never knew which one you'd be talking to at which time. I went to his funeral, and the minimal advances made in the early days of helping the Fillmore were due greatly to Goodlett and the Sun-Reporter. But later the paper lost track of what was wrong with how the city was handling redevelopment in general and it started looking at it on a case-by-case basis, which was the easier way out."
There were other controversies over Sun-Reporter editorial positions through the years. Goodlett remained a staunch supporter of the Rev. Jim Jones (for whom he also served as personal physician), even after Jones led more than 900 of his People's Temple followers to mass suicide in Guyana in 1978. "Until Jim Jones is proven to be something other than an honest, law-abiding citizen, I'll have to reserve judgment," Goodlett said, remaining one of the last city leaders to denounce Jones for his actions in Guyana.
Goodlett also angered the city's Jewish leaders in a 1978 editorial when, in response to criticism of Rep. Ron Dellums's vote against providing more military aid to Israel, he wrote, "The patience of 26 million Black Americans is growing very thin.... We would recommend to our Jewish friends and enemies to tread lightly on the frayed nerves of a people who have been denied the promises of a full freedom."
But for every perceived lapse in judgment, there were cases of journalistic bravery, such as the Sun-Reporter's ongoing defense of the Black Panthers. Goodlett personally convinced attorney Charles Garry to take Huey Newton's case -- and Garry eventually won Newton's acquittal. In other instances the paper went to bat for embattled Panther leaders Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown.
At a May 1994 celebration of his 80th birthday and the Reporter's 50th anniversary at the Fairmont Hotel, Goodlett said, "We've tried to provide a voice to a community often left out of City Hall, the White House, and the state house. We have had an opportunity to make a difference for people." Toward the end of his life, Goodlett was considerably slowed by Parkinson's disease, relying on a walker for mobility and an artificial voice box for communication.
And even in death Goodlett became the center of controversy, when Supervisor Amos Brown began a campaign to rename Fillmore Street in his honor. Ironically, Mayor Brown refused to support the proposal and the city ultimately agreed upon a compromise, under which the block in front of City Hall will be renamed Carlton Goodlett Way.
Meanwhile, Tom Fleming is getting used to not being in the Sun-Reporter office as much after 53 years. He'll still write columns and editorials, he says, because he can't get newspaper ink out of his blood and there are many battles left to be fought. One of the most important is over the 49ers stadium-mall deal. "We're still skeptical about that," he says. "Their promises are ridiculous. I've thought all along that it's a lot of bullshit. I look at the DeBartolos, who've made an immense fortune building shopping malls all over the United States, and ask why in the hell Eddie doesn't use his own goddamn money if he wants to build all that stuff out there? The blacks in Bayview-Hunters Point are going to be very disappointed.
Fleming looks back at a career he says was time very well spent. "I never made any money, but I had a lot of fun and traveled all over the world," he says, leaning back in his chair behind his Royal. "I met a lot of interesting people, and maybe the most satisfying thing is a little selfish -- I was able to help people by living my life as a newspaperman."
|August 9, 1998
San Francisco Examiner
|Half a century chronicling a changing city||By Edvins Beitiks of the Examiner staff|
HE'S COVERED STRIKES, VIGILANTISM, MCCARTHYISM AND RIOTS. THOMAS C. FLEMING SAYS THINGS HAVE GOTTEN BETTER.
Plaques and certificates fill Thomas C. Fleming's apartment on Fillmore. There's a Certificate of Honor from the City of San Francisco, another from the Board of Supervisors, another from the California State Assembly on the occasion of his 90th birthday, honoring him as the Bay Area's "oldest, longest-running continuously active journalist."
A clock from the Human Rights Commission, marking Fleming as a Human Rights Pioneer, sits by his chair, and a copy of the Sun-Reporter from last December rests atop the bookshelf that runs the length of the living room, the front page featuring a picture of Fleming with Mayor Brown and Sen. John Burton next to the headline, "Several Hundred Pay Tribute to Thomas Fleming on 90th Birthday." Holding one of the certificates in his hands, Fleming said, "I didn't know so many people thought well of me."
Fleming, co-founder and editor of the weekly Reporter in 1944, which merged with the Sun to become San Francisco's premiere African American newspaper, worked for the paper right up to his retirement in June. He has watched the city change, the times change, fought off racial attacks, crossed swords with mayors and presidents, stood in the center of race riots, and followed the course of the civil rights battle to see, gradually, a change in everyday prejudice.
Saturday at 2 p.m., Fleming will plumb his memories as a newspaperman in a dialogue sponsored by the African American Center and Friends of the Library in the Latino / Hispanic Community Meeting Room of the Main Library. "Fifty-four years," he said with a smile. "Almost as many years as Herb Caen had."
Fleming, who grew up in Florida and Harlem and came West to attend Chico State and UC-Berkeley, got his first newspaper job with the Oakland Tribune in 1934, writing a column for $10 a week ("10 a week was good money back then" ). The same year, he worked in San Francisco for the weekly four-page paper, The Statesman, which supported longshoremen in the '34 dock strike.
"Vigilantes were very active on the streets around that time -- searching for communists, all that -- and one night they busted the plate-glass window of the newspaper, messed up the Linotype, left a sign that said, "You niggers, go back to Africa!' " Remembering that, Fleming suddenly laughed out loud, covering his face for a second. Prejudice was so much a part of everything back then, he said -- then, and for years to come. "When the civil rights movement started, all those kids leaving to go down South, willing to get beat up and arrested, I thought, "I think we're going to make it,' " said Fleming. "But it didn't work out the way I wanted it to.
"Blacks are still on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. There's no doubt about that. That holds us down, a great deal. To me, affirmative action is just an affirmation of the 14th Amendment, the right to an equal opportunity. Affirmative action is nothing extraordinary in my mind."
Fleming remembered that in the early 1930s there was only one black teacher in the Oakland schools, one black policeman, three deputy sheriffs and a segregated fire company. Only two blacks worked in top jobs for The City -- one in the Mayor's office, one at S.F. General. But things have gotten better, said Fleming, bit by bit. "We've got a black man as mayor. I see that as a good sign. Bill Clinton put more blacks in the cabinet, from the start, than any president ever has. And there are more job opportunities, opportunities blacks never had in the past. Look at daily newspapers -- there were no black reporters when I started out."
Fleming's career hit its stride after the Reporter merged with The Sun, which was won by Dr. Carlton Goodlett in a poker game. Over the years, his job found him talking with Paul Robeson about Russia, about baseball with Jackie Robinson, riding Nelson Rockefeller's presidential campaign bus, telling Richard Nixon to his face that he was "a traitor to the people of California," and following Goodlett into the office of Mayor George Christopher to hear him shout, "George Christopher, you're a horse's ass!" He watched a riot spread from Hunters Point not long after the Watts Riot in Los Angeles -- "The cops shot a kid who'd stolen a car, and you could see the tempers were rising . . . I thought at the time that this was somehow inevitable."
Fleming still has strong memories of the prejudice in Jacksonville, Fla., where he grew up. In his memoirs, "Reflections on Black History," he writes about the segregated schools, the segregated eateries, having to move farther and farther back on the bus as more white people got on, "and you'd better not talk back to any white person. Every black in the South knew that."
Those years in Florida left such scars, said Fleming, that "I have always held a strong resentment toward any state where Jim Crow was a way of life. After leaving Florida for the last time in 1919, I never set foot there again until 1968, when I covered the Republican National Convention in Miami."
Fleming moved to Harlem, and by the age of eight was regularly reading newspapers in the 135th Street library. "Except for some crime stories, and some outstanding blacks who could hardly be ignored, the daily papers paid slight heed to the black community," he writes in his memoirs. "I didn't expect to see it then, for the same reason I don't expect it now, although it's slowly changing."
When he moved West, before working for newspapers, Fleming was a cook on trains, local and cross-country. They took him to Los Angeles, "which had a lot more night life along Central Avenue than anything up here. All the big-name entertainers. You could stay up all night if you thought you could stand it, knowing you had to be back at Union Station at 6:30 in the morning, getting breakfast ready."
He remembered the first time his train passed the Great Salt Lake, tossing a piece of coal and watching it bob on the salty water. He talked of his first Duke Ellington concert at the Oriental Theater in Chicago, telling his friends, "I have seen the master at last." Fleming reads four newspapers a day, including the New York Times -- "That's mandatory. I have to see what's going on in the world." He subscribes to the New Yorker, Atlantic and Harpers and regularly turns to H.L. Mencken's books -- "I thought he was a great man in American letters. He was a great influence on me. He could really write it down."
Which is what they have said, for so many years, about Thomas C. Fleming.
|Write on! A life involved
Thomas Fleming is comfortable rubbing elbows with history
|By Gil Griffin, Staff Writer|
SAN FRANCISCO -- "You see there?"
The aged man's booming voice intones, as he gestures toward the television with his walking stick, his deep-set, copper eyes glowing.
On this brisk fall afternoon, as he sits at a table inside a Fillmore District cafe, Thomas Fleming passionately reacts to the look on independent counsel Kenneth Starr's face, while being quizzed by a Democrat, during the presidential impeachment hearings.
He can't help but react emotionally to breaking news. Never could, really. Fleming is a journalist who has a fire in his robust belly. It has burned bright for seven decades and shows no sign of flickering.
At 91, Fleming writes weekly editorials and columns for The Sun-Reporter -- the San Francisco-based newspaper he founded in 1944 and edited until 1997. He is America's senior black journalist.
He has a hearty voice you're compelled -- no, obligated -- to listen to, yet he reveals his encyclopedic knowledge gently and eloquently.
But you won't hear him tomorrow night, when PBS airs a documentary, "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," which traces the origins of African-American journalism, from the 1820s. It pays homage to men and women who fought to inform black communities and give them voices.
The documentary omits Fleming. Maybe not a national icon, but a man whose contributions to journalism and society -- and his opinions, which he's never shy about sharing -- can't be ignored.
And at Fillmore Fine Foods, over lunch, with the impeachment hearings blaring from the TV, Fleming is in rare form.
"The Republicans look like they're out of their minds.
"I've never seen a man under such a furious attack ever since he took the oath of office. ... Clinton has done more than anyone else for blacks. That's one reason the Republicans are trying to get him out."
When Fleming founded The Sun-Reporter in 1944, he defined it as "A News Journal Dedicated to the Cause of the People."
But Fleming's life is broader than his mission to advocate an African-American agenda of achieving equality, inclusion and fairness in America.
"People are all one and the same," Fleming said.
"I don't recognize differences in human beings. That's a goal we all have to work toward. I love all people."
Fleming's range of experiences -- from his world travels, to his writings -- make him the embodiment of all that is 20th century America.
The characteristics that define him -- standing firm for his principles, persevering against hardships, breaking barriers, creating opportunities for others and living a life of perpetual learning and great adventure -- give him universal appeal.
His writing is straightforward, and his style is distinctive.
He dresses today the way many journalists of his generation always have -- a gray, plaid hat covering close-cropped gray hair, and a matching sport jacket are his trademarks.
Fleming has always dared to be different, and he learned self-sufficiency at a very early age. He was born in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1907, and he survived the lean years of the Great Depression, lived through two World Wars and met some of this century's brightest luminaries.
All that living gives him stories to tell. And he does so with a sense of gentility and humor.
And when Fleming laughs, he laughs. The rollicking, joyful thunder that emanates from his diaphragm sends tremors through his portly frame, so strong it forces him to shut his eyes.
Whether young or old, his listeners are spellbound.
Holding court last fall, on a park bench outside the senior apartment building where he lives, Fleming told the tale closest to his heart.
It was 1918. He was 11.
He'd been living with his father and stepmother in Harlem. But he returned to his birthplace to live with an uncle.
He would go again soon -- alone -- across the country, to California.
"My mother sent me a train ticket to come to live with her in Chico," Fleming said.
"I had no idea of the distance. My aunts came down from Detroit to see me off. They didn't know if they'd ever see me again in life. They packed a wicker basket of ham sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs. When I got to the station, the conductor pinned the ticket on the lapel of my jacket."
The young boy changed trains in Alabama and in New Orleans, in Los Angeles and Sacramento, before finally arriving in Chico.
Along the way, he spent the $5 his father had given him. On candy.
When he got off the last train, his eyes met those of a medium-brown-complexioned woman, a shade under 5-feet-tall. The boy was apprehensive.
"Tommy?" Mary Goulee, called to the son she hadn't seen in seven years.
"It was Mama," Fleming said wistfully, pausing, as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Fleming's mother, who worked as a maid, raised him and his sister, Kate. He graduated from Chico High School in 1926 but couldn't afford college, so he left home again. He worked first as a bellhop on a passenger steamship, then as a cook for the Southern Pacific Railroad as so many young, black men did in those days.
His work on the rails took him everywhere: to Chicago in 1930, where he saw Duke Ellington, still his favorite musician; and on routine trips to Oakland, which led to frequent visits to a newsstand. There, Fleming discovered the work of master American satirist H.L. Mencken and also started reading prominent African-American weekly newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, California Voice and The Messenger.
"I loved Mencken," Fleming said. "He gave the nation hell for the hypocrisy over prohibition. I used to laugh out loud reading him."
In 1932, in the throes of the Great Depression, Fleming got off the rails and began writing.
At the time, none of San Francisco's four daily newspapers would hire black reporters, so Fleming, who was registered as a Socialist, wrote for one that would -- a black-owned weekly called The Statesman, published by John Pittman, a Marxist.
Fleming didn't get paid for his work. Still, he wanted to go to college. So in 1932, after he had saved enough money from his railroad job to pay the $12 tuition per semester, he registered at Chico State College.
He was one of only four black students on the campus of 1,400, but he stood among his peers more for his convictions than his color at a campus incident in 1933.
A man suspected of kidnapping and killing a man had been dragged from the San Jose County jail by vigilantes and lynched. Then-governor Jim "Sunny" Rolph praised this mob, as did Chico's daily newspaper.
Fleming saw large groups of classmates standing around on campus, celebrating the incident.
It was then that the fire in Fleming's belly officially ignited.
He burst into the largest group of students he could find.
"I hate lawlessness, no matter who committed the acts!" Fleming shouted.
"If I had been the sheriff of San Jose County the night before, there would've been some dead members of the mob blocking the jail doorway!"
Mob lynchings of black men during this era were common in the South, which horrified Fleming. So when a white man in San Jose suffered the same tragic fate, Fleming couldn't be silent.
"He's one of the most forthright guys I've ever met," said Bob Popp, 73, who was a San Francisco Chronicle reporter for 44 years. He met Fleming in 1947, and their paths crossed often in the rough-and-tumble press room at the San Francisco Hall of Justice.
"Tom is a totally honest man," Popp continued. "He's a no-nonsense, straightforward kind of guy who got respect from just about everyone."
The incident at Chico State, the pressures of trying to balance study with earning a living and a lack of a social life caused Fleming to decide to drop out of the school in 1934.
He got more politically active, though, working on Billy Knowland's campaign for state senator. Fleming's sister, Kate, was working as a maid for the Knowland family.
After Knowland's victory, Fleming then convinced Knowland's father, Joe, who published the Oakland Tribune to hire him to take over a free-lance column that a black woman had written until she died. It was called, "Activities Among Negroes."
Ten years later, on June 12, 1944, Fleming helped launch the first issue of a weekly newspaper called The Reporter.
The publisher of The Reporter, Dr. Carlton Goodlett, won ownership of another newspaper, the Sun, by winning a poker game.
The two papers merged, and Goodlett named Fleming the founding and executive editor.
"We were all fighting for integration," he said. "And my whole aim was to get us treated as first-class citizens."
The Sun-Reporter newsroom was multiracial. Those who worked for Fleming said he tempered his activism with kindness.
"He supported me and created an atmosphere of joy and laughter," said Amelia Ashley-Ward, who first worked for Fleming in 1978 as an intern.
Ashley-Ward is now the editor and publisher of the newspaper, which has a circulation of about 160,000.
"He used to bake sweet-potato pies and roasts and bring them in to share with people. He would protect me from the wolves outside the newsroom. He didn't let the stress of this job get to him."
Former Sun-Reporter writers such as columnist Julianne Malveaux, reporter Chauncey Bailey and others, now work at mainstream newspapers. But out of appreciation for Fleming, they continue to contribute stories to The Sun-Reporter.
In the mid-1960s, after riots erupted in black communities across the country from Watts to Harlem, mainstream newspapers began recruiting black reporters out of necessity.
Fleming helped his writers take advantage of these opportunities. But he stayed put.
If a journalist is fortunate, a career will include a story that touches the soul more than any other -- one that tests character, challenges long-held beliefs and defines their individuality.
For Fleming, that story was a racially charged uprising in 1966 in Hunters Point, a low-income black community in southern San Francisco.
The head of San Francisco's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called Fleming and said the community was in an uproar after hearing that a white police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old black youth accused of stealing a car.
"(The NAACP head) said the teen-agers had gathered there and were throwing rocks, looting and turning over cars," Fleming recalled. "He asked me to go out there with him and talk to the kids."
When they arrived, they found a crowd demanding a meeting with the mayor and the chief of police.
"The mayor got on stage at an opera house in Hunters Point," Fleming recalled, "and the kids threw eggs and tomatoes at him."
As tension threatened to boil over, then-California governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown called in the National Guard.
Fleming watched the armed Guardsmen arrive.
The unwritten mandate for journalists says: Report the news, don't get personally involved.
"We drove around Hunters Point and Sunnydale and Haight-Ashbury and told the kids, 'Get off the street!'
"We told them the Guard was coming, and they had machine guns, and would shoot them. I wasn't thinking about conflict of interest. I was thinking about the lives of those kids and keeping them from getting slaughtered."
Dave Nelson, 78, a former Chronicle reporter and another of Fleming's longtime friends, wasn't surprised.
"He's always stood up for what he believed in, and he's never taken any (guff) from anyone," Nelson said.
"He's a direct guy. What you see is what you get. That's very unusual. In my life, I've met only about a half dozen people who live that way."
Fleming said under the same circumstances, he'd take the same action.
"Being a human being is the most important thing," Fleming said.
"And my concern is human beings."
Fleming never married, but admits, with a wink and hearty laugh, "I've had lady friends."
He has a special reverence for one of them, Berneice Bair.
Fleming first met her in Chico when the two were in grade school. More than 60 years later, their intercultural relationship wasn't so difficult, and they dated for four years.
"She said, 'People our age get married.'
"But I couldn't match her financially, so we didn't."
She passed away several years ago, and Fleming remains close with members of her family.
On the TV inside Fillmore Fine Foods, the presidential impeachment hearings continue.
A small crowd has gathered with their sandwiches and coffee to catch the latest developments.
After an hour or so, Fleming had his fill.
He rises from the table, walking stick in hand, and heads to the corner of Fillmore and Sutter Streets, then two more blocks to his third-floor bachelor pad.
Fleming sits down near his desk, home to his old, black Underwood typewriter. It's as essential to who he is as that stationary bicycle over by the couch that he rides every morning. So are those framed awards and plaques -- including the 1997 Career Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists of Northern California -- and photographs of him surrounded by friends and dignitaries, including current San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.
Bookshelves -- supported by cinder blocks -- hold a small library, including six volumes on Duke Ellington. Scattered around are back issues of National Geographic, Atlantic Monthly and copies of the four newspapers he reads each morning.
As the horns of Ellington's big band blew from Fleming's stereo, he reflects once more. "I love what I do," he said.
"I feel great to have worked as long as I have and to have made a contribution. I'll continue writing as long as I'm able."
Then, Thomas Fleming slipped his gray, plaid sport coat over his argyle-patterned sweater and clutched his walking stick.
Time to take his daily walk to the neighborhood drugstore.
Time to buy his afternoon newspaper.
Time to check on the latest news.
Thomas Fleming's self-published books, "Reflections on Black History: Jacksonville and Harlem, 1907-1919" and "Black Life in the Sacramento Valley, 1850-1934," (co-authored by Michele Shover) are available from Max Millard, 1312 Jackson St., Apt. 21, San Francisco, CA 94109. Fleming's weekly column, "Reflections on Black History" can be read on the Internet web site, www.freepress.org/fleming/fleming.html.
SAN FRANCISCO -- During a distinguished career that began in the 1930s, Thomas Fleming -- the oldest, practicing African-American journalist, has met some well-known 20th-century figures and traveled the world.
The following are a few of Fleming's recollections of the people he met and the places he went.
Early 1950s: Watching the greatest baseball player he's ever seen, Willie Mays, play his first game in San Francisco, in an exhibition between his New York Giants and the minor league San Francisco Seals.
Late 1960s-early '70s: Traveling to East Germany, Cuba and the Soviet Union for international journalistic and peace conferences.
1970: Making his only trip to Africa, when he visited Egypt. He walked barefoot along the muddy banks of the Nile River and shouted, "Mama, I'm back home!"
1996: Watching San Francisco complete a transformation from openly discriminating against blacks to electing an African-American, Willie Brown, as mayor.
On Bill Robinson (a.k.a. "Mr. Bojangles," star of stage and screen with Shirley Temple): "I met him at a pool hall in Oakland, and he had one of the foulest mouths I've ever heard. He had no class."
On Fidel Castro: "I met him in Cuba and thought he was a marvelous person. He seized all the property from Americans and nationalized it, which is why our government's so mad at him. When I was in Cuba, in 1970, I stayed in Havana and looked out at the harbor and saw the boats with all the flags in the world except the stars and stripes. I thought, 'How can this little island pose any threat to us?' "
On Black Panther Party member Bobby Seale: "Those guys were young and didn't really know what they were doing. They had big mouths. They had all those guns and had all those press conferences. He told me they were going to retreat to the mountains and fight a guerrilla war. I said, 'Fight what?' They had good programs, with clinics and free breakfast programs for children, but they didn't have to resort to carrying firearms."
On Muhammad Ali: "He is one of the funniest guys I ever met. He used to come by the paper when he was the heavyweight champion. He was warmhearted. He told things the way they were and a lot of people didn't like that. I don't know who would've won, though, if he and Joe Louis fought."
On actor Paul Robeson: "He and I used to stand on the corner of Fillmore and Post and talk. A lot of blacks didn't support him because they thought he was radical. I admired him. He was honest enough to say he was a Communist."
On Richard Nixon: "I met him briefly at the Black Publishers convention in New York in 1968. I never thought really highly of him. I didn't like the way he won the senate seat in California, with his 'red-baiting.' I asked him why he left California to go to New York, and he said he left to go and make a living there as a lawyer. I thought he was dishonest, and I didn't think he was a man of high principle."
|August 16, 2000
San Jose Mercury News
|Journalist's stories cast new light on black history||By L.A. Chung|
THE Democratic convention is throttling up in Los Angeles, and journalist Tom Fleming is glad he's not going to be there.
There'll be plenty of fodder for an old convention hand like Fleming, sure enough. But at age 92, you gotta draw the line.
In his long career, Fleming has seen nine political conventions (six Democratic, three GOP), endorsed local candidates and met with presidents and politicians from Nelson Rockefeller to the Kennedys (Jack and Bobby).
But since he's retired, he'll be watching the limited television coverage and following reports in the four newspapers he reads each day. He still has a column and an editorial to write, and deadlines don't take a holiday.
That's retirement in Tom Fleming's book.
"He's probably the oldest active African American journalist living," said Amelia Ashley-Ward, publisher of the Sun-Reporter, the paper that Fleming co-founded 55 years ago with the late Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett.
Make that oldest journalist, period. There can't be that many journalists kicking around who are still writing regularly and keeping on top of current events in their ninth decade of life.
"I'm pleased and surprised that I'm still around," he said in his characteristically sunny manner, as he sat in his book-lined Fillmore district apartment. That outlook is probably what keeps Fleming going as strongly as he is. As does his writing.
He took Republicans to task last week for trotting out prominent black Republicans such as Gen. Colin Powell and former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice at their national convention, while a Republican-controlled Senate has failed to act on any black appointments to the federal judicial bench. And he noted that neither Republican nominee George W. Bush nor vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney has ever indicated support for affirmative action.
"There is no reason for blacks, and Latinos to a lesser degree, to hold any views that George W. Bush and his vice president-elect, Richard Cheney, both of whom have no track record for being integrationist, will become any different from any other Republicans," he wrote in last week's editorial.
It's just an example of the type of opinions he's served up for the past half century while working as editor, beat reporter and sometime-political confidant for the region's oldest black newspaper -- and knowing, seemingly, everybody who was anybody in the city.
"When you needed Tom's help, you could say, `I have to do a story on such-and-such, I need to get hold of so-and-so, who do I call?' " said Belva Davis, the longtime doyenne of Bay Area political reporters who got her start at the Sun-Reporter. "A lot had to do with who you knew, the bigwigs."
His apartment -- festooned with pictures and awards plaques, with his reel-to-reel tape deck on which he plays his beloved Duke Ellington recordings, with his CD player that friends gave him -- is a cluttered road map of his interests and life. There are pictures of him and his friend Dick Hongisto, former San Francisco supervisor, sheriff and police chief, and his family at the time. Family photos abound, including those who have "adopted" him and take him places.
A lawyer for the Giants takes him to Giants games. He dines sometimes with Elizabeth Colton, now divorced from Hongisto, and her children. Former Supervisor Bill Maher comes by from time to time.
It was no small feat to get to that place.
The lifelong bachelor doesn't talk about it, but it comes out in his storytelling. He was born in Jacksonville, Fla., was raised and went to school in Chico, and came of age during a time when blacks had a place in American society -- second-class -- and the righteous struggle was "to the cause of the people," as the Sun-Reporter's motto says.
He's worked as a cook on the Southern Pacific Railroad, as a bail-bondsman -- as many things during his efforts to get started as a newspaperman. One small break, writing a column about black churches called "Activities Among Negroes," came at the height of the Depression, in part because his mother was a cook and his sister Katie worked as a maid and nursemaid . . . to William F. Knowland, publisher of the Oakland Tribune. It paid $10 a week, and he pestered Billy Knowland for the job, he said.
But Fleming had bigger goals in mind. He worked as an unpaid writer for the Spokesman, a black newspaper that supported the general strike of 1934 that shut down all the waterfronts on the West Coast. Then he met a black businessman who wanted to launch the Reporter, and needed an editor. He never looked back. He persuaded his friend, Goodlett, to invest in the paper. When Goodlett got control of the Sun, he combined the two papers. It became the largest and most influential black newspaper in Northern California. Before the paper made any money, however, Fleming sometimes had to support himself with other jobs.
"When I think about what Tom had to do to break into the newspaper game," marveled Davis, who was the second black reporter at KPIX-TV (Ch. 5) in 1967. "Tom is a phenomenon."
All of his columns are pecked out of his old manual typewriter, a Royal, jammed on his kitchen table with tins of food and books and whatnot. Fleming has never written on a computer -- for one, black newspapers couldn't afford them for a long time -- and he prefers to type them, in the two-finger, hunt-and-peck manner of most old-time reporters.
Fleming's a stalwart Democrat and a strong Clinton (both Hillary and Bill) supporter, but don't look to Fleming to be automatically sending bouquets to Gore this week.
In fact, this week's editorial says Gore "should have shown some real courage and chosen a black" for his running mate, Fleming said. "I dealt a raw nut to him there," he admitted. "But I don't think he has the ability that Bill Clinton has."
Despite his chief writing tool being a Royal, you'll find Fleming in cyberspace, too. By dint of his good friends and his prodigious output, Fleming's "Reflections of Black History," an 85-part series he wrote over the past two years, has been posted on the Web site of the Columbus Free Press, an alternative newspaper that was born out of the anti-war movement at Ohio State University in the 1970s.
His observations of many of the most influential African Americans of his time -- he went to school with Fats Waller, met Jesse Owens and was friends with Paul Robeson -- provide a distinctive and personal prism on black history you won't find in history books.
"What I really admired about him is he started so long ago," said Ashley-Ward. "He didn't require a lot of money, never made a big salary, but he was happy in what he was doing. He has a very rich life, with pride and character.
"How many of us can live our lives knowing that?"
To see Thomas C. Fleming's "Reflections on Black History," go to http://freepress.org/Backup/UnixBackup/pubhtml/fleming/fleming.html
|April 11, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
|A titan of Bay Area newspapers
At 96, Thomas Fleming still making deadlines and fighting racism
|By Carl Nolte, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer|
Thomas C. Fleming remembers the first time he had an encounter with a mayor of San Francisco.
It was 60 years ago this summer and World War II was raging. Fleming was the editor of the Reporter, a new black newspaper that had grown out of the big migration of African Americans into the Bay Area to work in war industries.
Mayor Roger D. Lapham, a businessman with silvery hair, took questions from reporters at a press conference and then had a question of his own: "Mr. Fleming," the mayor asked him, "how long do you think these colored people are going to be here?"
"Mr. Mayor," Fleming said, "do you know the Golden Gate? It's permanent. Well, the black people here are just as permanent. They are here to stay, and the city better find jobs and housing for them, because they are not going back down South." The mayor said nothing. "But his face turned red as a beet, " Fleming recalled the other day.
Now, after all these years, Fleming himself is a landmark, like the Golden Gate. He will be 97 this fall; still writes the editorials and a weekly column for the newspaper, now called the Sun Reporter; and still meets a deadline -- "Every week," he is sure to say, proud of the distinction that marks a professional. The paper counts on him for 1,000 words a week, and he produces.
Fleming doesn't keep office hours anymore, but he is the lion in winter, still the dean of the country's black journalists, and he's been writing longer than any other newspaper person in the Bay Area, or maybe the West. He wrote an 86-part series on black history that ran for five years, and he's not done yet. "I just enjoy what I do," he said.
He lives in both the past and the present -- he has strong opinions and doesn't hesitate to share them. "That man in the White House is a complete idiot," he said. "That Condoleezza Rice is the personification of evil. ... The governor we have now ... electing him was the dumbest thing I've ever seen. "
On the other hand, the present mayor of San Francisco gets high marks: "I like this Newsom kid," Fleming said. "He's impressive."
Fleming likes to say what he thinks: "I'm too damn old to tell lies," he said.
He likes to look forward, particularly to the 60th anniversary of the first issue of the Sun Reporter next month. He can't help looking backward -- the African American history of the 20th century is his history.
He was born in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1907, in the days of the Jim Crow South, was sent north to Harlem to live with his father, went to grammar school with Fats Waller, went south again, and then, at the age of 11, took a trip by train all the way across the country to Chico, in the northern Sacramento Valley, to live with his mother.
When Fleming was 16, President Warren Harding passed through town on his way to San Francisco. A couple of nights later, the circulation manager of the Chico Record knocked on his door in the middle of the night. "Thomas," he said, "do you want to make some money selling papers? We're putting out an extra. The president has died."
Fleming remembers running through the streets in the dark of night with other boys selling papers: "Extra! Extra! President dies!" they yelled. It was his first brush with a big story.
He wrote a humor column for the high school paper, but then left town. "There were not very many opportunities for a young black male there," he said.
He went to sea as a bellhop on a coastal steamship, then got a job as a waiter on the old Sacramento Northern railroad ferry across Suisun Bay, one day off a week, $60 a month. He then signed on as a cook on a Southern Pacific railroad dining car. "I thought I'd be a cook for the rest of my life," he said. But then the Depression hit, and he was laid off.
Fleming was a reader: newspapers, magazines, books. "Thomas, you have a good mind," a friend told him. So he went to Chico State College in the early 1930s, thinking of being a newspaperman.
There were no jobs. Lots of daily papers in those days -- four in San Francisco, two in Oakland, two in San Jose, two papers even in Vallejo. But nobody hired black reporters.
He wrote for the Spokesman, a San Francisco black paper run by a man named John Pittman. "We called it "The little People's World" after the Communist daily, Fleming said. "I didn't get paid, but I was excited about writing for a paper. That was my ambition," he said.
One night, thugs broke into the Spokesman office and busted up the place. They left a note, "You niggers go back to Africa," it said. The paper folded soon afterward.
Fleming got a job writing a column for the Oakland Tribune "Activities Among Negroes," a social and church column that ran Sundays, but women in the black community thought one of them should write the column and raised hell with the paper. The Tribune wasn't that interested anyway, and the feature was dropped.
Fleming went on to other things, but newspapers were always in the back of his mind. He was a good writer, too. He has a direct style, deceptively simple, with a good eye for detail. Fleming learned to improve his style, he said, by reading H.L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine. "The best magazine ever."
Fleming is a voracious reader, even now, when reading is harder for him. His small Fillmore Street apartment is filled with books stacked high, and he reads three newspapers on most days.
Fleming sits in his easy chair and talks about how World War II changed the Bay Area, how more black people moved to the region to get work in the shipyards that sprang up, and how, by 1944, he got his lucky break.
He ran into a friend on the street, who knew a man named Frank Logan who wanted to start a black weekly. He needed an editor who knew the territory. Fleming was his man. He also wrote for the paper. The pay wasn't much, but Fleming's needs were simple.
Fleming also knew Carleton Goodlett, a black physician. They were old friends. Fleming speaks of Goodlett as a friend would, with respect but not reverence.
"Dr. Goodlett was one of the brightest guys I ever met. He could think very fast on his feet," Fleming said.
He also had a big ego; he'd gotten a doctorate from UC Berkeley when he was 23 and a medical degree a couple of years later. "He had a big mouth, and when people asked him what he was trying to do with his pushes for civil rights, he said, 'I make a damn good living, and all I want is that other black people get a chance in the system.' "
Goodlett became a financial backer of the Reporter, won the rival Sun in a poker game, combined the two and became publisher.
They didn't like him very much downtown, Fleming said. Goodlett, who took no guff from anybody, got run in by the cops once for refusing to get out of his car when an officer made a traffic stop.
He allied himself with Phillip Burton, his brother John and a rising young politician named Willie Brown. They built an organization their enemies called a machine, and Goodlett was right there, a power in the city, and Fleming was his editor.
It was a good match: Where Goodlett could be tough and acerbic, Fleming knew and got along with everybody. He'd been around forever: He met Duke Ellington, he met Bill Robinson -- Mister Bojangles -- he knew the gamblers in Oakland, and he knew Bill Knowland, the Oakland publisher who was the majority leader of the U.S. Senate. He knew judges and cops, and Walter Gordon, who was Cal's first black football star.
Paul Robeson, the singer, used to drop by at the Sun Reporter office when he was in town. "We'd talk about the situation," Fleming said. The situation? "Racism," he said.
He never could get a full-time job on a daily paper. Once, he asked Paul Smith, the editor of The Chronicle, for a job. "I couldn't afford to pay you what you're worth," Fleming remembers Smith saying. Fleming said he'd work for whatever they paid reporters, but he never heard back.
"I guess they never hired black people because they never had any," Fleming said.
Ben Williams was the first African American on any daily Bay Area paper. He was hired by the San Francisco Examiner in 1962. By that time, Fleming was 55 years old.
Fleming played the hand he was dealt. The Sun Reporter was small, but it sent him to Berlin, to Moscow, to Cairo, to Cuba, even to Tashkent; he said he would never go back to the segregated South, but changed his mind when the paper sent him to cover a political convention in Miami.
"I've had a good life," he said. "I've traveled all over and met people I never would have met if it weren't for my career."
Are things different now? "Well, there is still racism," he said. "I don't like what's happening in Hunters Point and the Bayview and the homicides in Oakland, but there is poverty and joblessness there.
"I think black people can do anything anybody else does, so it's racism."
Fleming never married. Maybe he was too busy, he said. Maybe no woman would have him. "When I tell women that, they just say, 'Oh Thomas, Thomas.' " He smiled an old man's wistful smile.
If he had to live his life over again, would he do it over the same way? "I sure would," he said. "I loved every minute of it."
Here are some excerpts from "Reflections on Black History," Thomas Fleming's series on his life and times.
Fleming, whose father and mother were divorced, was sent from Florida to California to live with his mother when he was 11. He describes the last leg of the trip:
"I boarded the Southern Pacific, which ran on its own tracks all the way to the West Coast. We reached Los Angeles two mornings later. I had to take another train to Sacramento, about 90 miles from Chico, where the Travelers' Aid woman asked me my mother's name. She looked up her number in the phone book and called to tell her I would be arriving in Chico at 11:30 that night.
"When the train stopped at the station, the conductor said, 'Well, sonny, this is the end of the line.' He got my bag for me, and when I reached the door, I saw a woman standing there, and a man with her. She said, 'Tommy?'
"I said yes. As soon as my feet hit the ground, she started hugging me so close. She was crying, too. I pulled back from shyness, but she said, 'What's the matter with you? I'm your mother.'
"She made me feel at ease very quickly, and it seemed like I had been with her all my life. I never felt any anxiety from that moment on. Her children came first with her: That's what she lived for ..."
Fleming lived in Chico and left town for better opportunities. In 1927, he was hired as a dining car cook on the Southern Pacific Railroad.
"As the fourth cook on a dining car, I was primarily the dishwasher, but I had to peel potatoes, clean vegetables, and help with whatever the chef or second cook asked me to do. They'd put me on the frying pan sometimes; they were supposed to be teaching you how to become a cook. Then you got promoted to third cook, second cook, and eventually chef.
"When I entered the dining car for the first time, the chef gave me a white jacket, checkered trousers and white cap that cooks wear...The food on the trains was much better and more plentiful, and with more variety of menus than you have now. The Southern Pacific had everything the public would get in luxury hotels -- fresh green vegetables, milk in 10-gallon cans, cases of eggs, three kinds of fish, shrimp and sometimes lobsters and oysters. ...
"Most cooks had their own personal kitchen knives and huge forks. They were very professional, and were capable of working in any fine restaurant in the country. But most fine restaurants wouldn't hire black chefs."
He described black social clubs in San Francisco and Oakland.
"In California in the 1930s, as in the rest of the United States, there was a white society and a black society," Fleming wrote.
"Some black male clubs were organized, it seems, solely for the purpose of holding social events, which were by invitation only. ...The Sanobar in Oakland was one of those types of organizations. The Sanobar held dances several times a year, plus a big annual affair, generally during the Christmas season.
"In San Francisco was a club, the Cosmos, that appeared to be more elitist than the Oakland club. It always held its annual dance at the St. Francis, one of the city's most prestigious hotels. The dance was always a formal affair, for which the women bought expensive gowns. Some of the men wore tails, but the majority just wore tuxedoes.
"I used to wonder why the Cosmos spent a large sum of money every year to rent a ballroom in a hotel that would not rent them a room, serve them a meal in any cafe, or permit them to attend supper clubs where name bands and name singers entertained nightly."
His face is smooth and unlined, and his conversation is punctuated by a hearty, rollicking laugh. Few people meeting him for the first time would suspect that Thomas Fleming is 96 years old. Fewer still would realize from his unpretentious manner that he is regarded by black journalists as a living legend.
The founding editor of the Reporter, a black newspaper that debuted in the Fillmore District in June 1944 and later merged with the Sun to become the Sun-Reporter, Fleming has been on the staff continuously for 60 years, beating Herb Caen's record by two years. His apartment is filled with books, newspapers, magazines and jazz recordings, while a small table holds his most important tool -- an old Royal typewriter, on which he pounds out an editorial and a political column each week. The winner of many journalism awards, he receives frequent emails and letters from all over the country, mainly in response to his Web site of black history columns (www.freepress.org/fleming/fleming.html).
Fleming will be one of the guests of honor at the Sun-Reporter's 60th anniversary dinner, to be held on Friday, May 7 starting at 6 p.m. at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel, 333 O'Farrell Street (at Mason). Others on the program are entertainer/activists Dick Gregory and Danny Glover, former Mayor Willie Brown, and singer Peabo Bryson.
Following is an interview with Thomas Fleming by free-lance writer Max Millard, who worked with Fleming at the Sun-Reporter and later collaborated with him in a lengthy oral history project.
Fleming: It was 1933. I was living in Berkeley then, but I used to come over here just about every weekend. I had a very close friend here named Kline Wilson, and then I became involved with some young woman over here at the same time.
Q: Were there many black people in the neighborhood then?
Fleming: There were very few blacks living in any part of San Francisco. You could walk up and down Market Street all day, and the only black face you'd see was by looking in the big plate glass windows and seeing your own reflection. Even Berkeley had more blacks than San Francisco did. And Oakland had many more. Before the war there were more blacks hanging around the 3rd and Townsend depot than in this part of town because the train station was down there, and a lot of those guys were Pullman porters.
Q: What brought them to the Fillmore District?
Fleming: After Pearl Harbor they opened up the Hunters Point Navy Yard, and they needed a lot of defense workers. Blacks moved where they could find housing available. [The government] moved all the Japanese out of this part of town and put them in concentration camps. Those who owned property out here sold it for what they could get because they had to leave. Then there were a lot of vacant buildings here, although housing was tight then. Landlords had property that was all run down, where the plaster was falling off the walls, and they were charging $200 a damn month. You worked three shifts, and they were renting the rooms out to three different people.
Q: How did the Reporter newspaper start? Fleming: It started in this part of town, on Post Street near Buchanan. A man named H.T. Shepherd had a real estate office up there, and he let us have a desk in there. He didn't charge us anything. We had to put our own phone in. Frank Logan, who operated a gambling club, wanted to get in on something legitimate, and he financed the whole deal. Well, Frank dropped out after about six weeks because he didn't realize how much he'd have to be paying every week for that product. And then Shepherd got three other men to subsidize it. When it started there wasn't a black paper in San Francisco. That's why I became involved. My hope was that we could keep it going.
Q: When did you move to the neighborhood?
Fleming: 1945. Ever since then I've been living in what you call the Fillmore District.
Q: The Sun-Reporter was published for almost 50 years by Dr. Carlton Goodlett. Do you think he was an important figure in San Francisco history?
Fleming: I think he was the only real black leader that's ever been in this city. Blacks didn't have any political power here until the Sun-Reporter came into being. Because it was Carlton Goodlett who used to go downtown and argue with the politicians. He didn't go down looking for a job himself, because as he told the whole world, 'I practice medicine, and I make a good living. I don't need no job from the city.'
Q: Was Dr. Goodlett more important than Willie Brown?
Fleming: Hell, he helped to make Willie Brown. He and [Congressman] Phil Burton. Who would have heard of Willie Brown if it had not been for Goodlett and Burton?
Q: Are you impressed by Gavin Newsom so far?
Fleming: I am. The position that he took on same-sex marriages: it surprised me, knowing that he's a Catholic too. And appointing a woman as fire chief and police chief: I ain't ever seen anybody as liberal as this young man is.
Q: What do you think has been the Sun-Reporter's biggest contribution to the city?
Fleming: Having a black newspaper here to express black editorial opinion. Blacks needed an editorial voice. They didn't have it.
Q: Are newspapers today as truthful now as they were in the past? Or do you think they're too much controlled by big corporations? Fleming: It's always, or most of the time, been men of great wealth who have controlled the media in the United States, whether it's the printed media or the electronic media. So if they want to withhold stuff, they do it, that's all.
Q: How have race relations improved since you arrived in San Francisco?
Fleming: It's a lot better than it was before the civil rights demonstrations started. You've got blacks holding jobs in different areas where they never held jobs before. Cause when I first came down to the Bay Area in 1926, Oakland had one black policeman, one black schoolteacher and one segregated fire company. In San Francisco, there weren't any blacks working for the city and county but two people. One was a psychiatric social worker at San Francisco General Hospital, and the other one was the receptionist in the Mayor's Office in City Hall.
Q: Are you disappointed that racial discrimination still exists? Fleming: No, because it's been here ever since I came into the world. I know there have been some changes, but not full equality yet.
Q: Do you think that will ever happen?
Fleming: I don't know. That's up to white America, how much they want to yield.
Q: How do you view the disparity in prison sentences for people of different races who commit similar crimes?
Fleming: It's always been that way. I asked Tom Lynch one time when he was a chief assistant district attorney here in San Francisco, 'Why are there more blacks in the state prison than there are whites?' He says, 'Tom, it's economics. They don't have money to hire a lawyer. The public defender defends them, and the public defender does not have the resources to gather the evidence to keep them out of jail, like whites do.'"
Q: What needs to happen? Does this country need another civil rights leader of the caliber of Martin Luther King? Fleming: Well the reason why Martin Luther King gets all that publicity is because television was available, and the whole world was informed when Bull Connor had those blacks water-hosed by the fire department and turned the police dogs on them. And I would say Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and many others did just as much as Martin Luther King did.
Q: What do you think of Secretary of State Colin Powell? Fleming: He disappointed me. I would have resigned rather than be humiliated like he's been by Condoleezza Rice. He surely don't need the money because he's assured of a pension of about $190,000 a year, being a five-star general. She's running foreign policy. Her office is right outside the Oval Office. Powell's office is down in the Department of State building. And she don't know any more about foreign policy than you and I do.
Q: How do you like John Kerry?
Fleming: I haven't spotted any faults with him as a public office holder. I think he's the only one who can really defeat George Bush.
Q: Do you think Bush will lose this time?
Fleming: I don't see how he can win. George Bush to me has absolutely no brains at all. He acts like a little kid, the way he talks. His father paid for everything for him. Yale wouldn't admit him. His father had to go back there and beg them to let that dumb son of his into Yale University. And how he got into Harvard's business school, I don't understand that. Maybe his father intervened there too. But he sure didn't learn a thing. If the American people send that cat back for a second term, there's something wrong with their intelligence. Cause his popularity is going down every day. I think the whole world can see how helpless he is. He doesn't know what to do about anything.
Sixty years ago the Sun-Reporter was born. With the massive migration of blacks to the Bay Area to work in the wartime shipyards, the sudden change in population made it clear that if blacks were to have a voice they had to have a newspaper, and the Sun-Reporter became that paper.
First came The Reporter in 1944, founded and edited by Thomas C. Fleming, which soon merged with the Sun-Reporter, a paper acquired in a poker game by Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, Fleming's longtime friend, and thus the Sun-Reporter took birth, with Goodlett as Editor/Publisher, Dr. Dan Collins as Co-Publisher, and Fleming as Managing Editor. In 1951 Goodlett became sole publisher, and in 1971 Dr. Goodlett added the seven Metro-Reporters and the California Voice to his publications.
Dr. Goodlett was born July 23, 1914 in Chipley, Florida and educated in the public schools of Omaha, Nebraska after which he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Howard University in 1935, a Ph.D. in Psychology from UC Berkeley in 1938, and a Medical degree from Meharry Medical College, Tennessee in 1944. When he settled in the Bay Area he opened his medical offices in San Francisco, where his diagnostic skills and commitment to family practice made him an important addition to the medical profession and the emerging black community. Throughout his career he administered to hundreds of patients, many of whom he served without charge. He was one of the few doctors who still made home visits.
Besides being an outstanding physician, Dr. Goodlett capitalized on his early interest in journalism (as editor of the Hilltop, Howard University's student newspaper) by becoming publisher of The Sun-Reporter, a fighting, crusading newspaper designed to take on all the social and political battles raging in post-war America and proudly carrying the motto" That no good cause shall lack a champion, and that evil shall not thrive unopposed."
From its inception, and it holds true today, the Sun-Reporter has taken a strong editorial stand against racism, segregation, war and inequality while actively fighting for civil rights, fair employment and housing laws, and world peace; early on, it challenged school segregation; it denounced Senator Joseph McCarthy's assault on civil liberties in the days of the Cold War; Dr. Goodlett was in constant touch with Paul and Eslanda Robeson and was largely responsible for bringing Paul for a concert to Third Baptist Church when all other venues were prohibited to him.
In 1963 the Sun-Reporter office was moved to Dr. Goodlett's new building on Turk Street, where he could more efficiently pursue both his medical practice and the business of running a newspaper. The Sun-Reporter, with its upstairs Community Room, became a focal point for the community. Many events took place there, including a visit from Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Dick Gregory, and the Black Panthers. Some young and talented journalists started their careers at the Sun-Reporter and moved on, including Lance Gilmore, Edith Austin, Belva Davis, Valerie Coleman and many more. Phil Burton, Art Agnos, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, George Moscone, Cecil Poole, Ron Dellums, Barbara Lee, Mervyn Dymally, Aileen Hernandez, Dolores Huerta and many other prominent political figures dropped by the /Sun-Reporter/ for advice and counsel.
In 1951 Dr. Goodlett joined the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the Black Press of America, and served three terms as its president. He also served as chair of the California Black Leadership Council, and as president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP and led a protest against the Municipal Railway for discrimination of African Americans.
He became an active mover in the Democratic Party and in 1966 ran for Governor of California in the Democratic primaries, with Sy Cassidy, Dick Gregory and Rev. A. Cecil Williams as sidekicks in the Goodlett for Governor campaign, running under the motto." The people are wise -- wiser than the politician thinks!" and with a platform demanding "an economic floor below which no one can fall!" He came in third in a field of six.
Dr. Goodlett was on the Presidium of the World Peace Council and traveled extensively to every continent during the days of the Cold War, heading American delegations to conferences in Stockholm, Moscow, East Berlin, Accra, Helsinki, Prague, Sofia, Budapest and Copenhagen. He formulated a world disarmament plan that is to be found to this day in the Congressional Record. He was vehemently against the war in Vietnam, and urged his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to take on this cause, stating "It is our urgent responsibility to address ourselves to the critical needs at home, so long neglected during our preoccupation with the arms race, with a government whose instruments have been geared to serve only the rich and the powerful of the land." He actively opposed nuclear weapons, and in a speech before the National Medical Association said, "No nuclear war can be won; neither can a nuclear war be limited to regions of the world. There is no medical treatment of those persons surviving a nuclear holocaust -- in fact, the living would envy the dead." Dr. Goodlett died of Parkinson's disease in l997 at the age of 82, but the Sun-Reporter, now published in Bayview/Hunter's Point with Amelia Ashley-Ward its Publisher, at the helm, is very much alive and is continuing in his footsteps.
Ashley-Ward, an award-winning journalist and photojournalist, is now celebrating her 25th year with the publishing company. Under her leadership the paper continues to win many awards and is also sought after by politicians seeking the African-American community's support. She is now taking the paper to another level and has added full color to the company's printing press, enabling the Sun-Reporter to now be published in color. The printing press is also housed at the companies Bayview location.
Ashley-Ward, 46, has received numerous awards, including "Publisher of the Year" in 1998 from the National Newspapers Publishers Association (The Black Press of America). On May 3, this year, Ashley-Ward returned to San Jose State University, where she graduated with a B.A. degree in journalism in 1979, to receive the prestigious "Alumnus of the Year" award.
At 98, black journalist Thomas Fleming still entertains and enrages
|By Max Millard|
With that sign-off, one of the most distinguished careers in Bay Area journalism came to an end. It began at the Spokesman, a radical black newspaper published on Sutter Street from 1931-5, continued through Fleming's hiring in 1934 as a columnist on black society for the Oakland Tribune, and culminated in his appointment as founding editor of the Reporter, a black newspaper in the Fillmore district that later merged with the rival Sun to form the Sun-Reporter.
Except for a six-month hitch in the U.S. Army during World War II, Fleming wrote for the Sun-Reporter on a weekly basis for more than 61 years, a record unmatched even by Herb Caen. Fleming had little choice: no Bay Area newspaper hired a full-time black reporter until 1962, when Ben Williams made the jump from the Sun-Reporter to the San Francisco Examiner -- thanks to a recommendation from Fleming.
The black press has been a powerful force in American journalism since 1827, and today there are hundreds of black-owned newspapers nationwide, mostly weeklies that belong to the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) a wire service that provides columns and news items with an African-American focus. For the /i>Sun-Reporter, Fleming covered nine national political conventions, met two presidents, and got the inside story on everything from the student strike at SF State University (which led to the nation's first ethnic studies department) to the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, which claimed more than 900 lives.
In 1997, when the Sun-Reporter moved from its longtime building at Turk and Fillmore streets to its current offices in the Bayview district, Fleming retired from his day-to-day duties as executive editor, but continued writing two columns a week for the paper until 2005. With his extra time, he wrote an 86-part nationally syndicated column on black history (www.freepress.org/fleming/fleming.html), published two books, and became an much-in-demand lecturer at universities and historical societies. He appeared in the public television documentary The Great Depression, and in 2007 his writings will be included in an elementary school textbook from McGraw-Hill.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1907, Thomas was initially raised by his grandmother, whom he believes was a former slave. He moved to California in 1919 and to the Fillmore district in 1945. The following interview took place at his Fillmore Street apartment on December 28, 2005.
Nearly a century of memories were on display in his living room, including journalism and citizenship awards spanning four decades. Dominating the room was a large cinder-block bookshelf weighed down with volumes of history, jazz and travel. The opposite wall held a reel-to-reel tape recorder devoted to recordings of his favorite musician, Duke Ellington. Tables were littered with newspapers, magazines and letters, and a desk bore a massive Royal manual typewriter.
In January, Fleming finally succumbed to the necessities of age and decided to move to the Marymount Villa Retirement Center in San Leandro, where he has his own small apartment and receives visits from friends each day. Short, rotund, and always immaculately dressed, he has a clear, high-pitched voice that often breaks into cackles of delight.
A: I think he's a big horse's ass. He knows as much about politics as a 5-year-old kid. He thinks that big grin will get him through. A lot of people are talking about running him for president. I said, this is one of the dumbest things I've heard of in my life -- to change the Constitution to make that possible. If he was an American he couldn't go over and run for president in Austria. I don't think he's been tested enough to be elected governor even. It's apparent to me and a lot of other people that this guy just doesn't have it. He's an entertainer. He still thinks he's in front of a camera all the time.
What did you think about the execution of Tookie Williams?
I didn't become too much interested in that because to me he was a f****** criminal, and I don't have any sympathy for no damn criminals because they will f*** me just as well as they will you. So I say f*** them: they got in that trouble themselves. And I don't get excited over those kind of issues, because he didn't have to violate the laws like he did. Nobody forced him to do it.
They say there was some doubt that he committed the murders.
I'm not unconvinced that he didn't commit the murders. At least they got his goddam ass in some way.
He was writing books for children about how to stay out of gangs. Don't you think he was performing a benefit to society?
He wanted to get out of jail. They don't think about those things when they're committing those crimes. You ain't been out and killed anybody or held up anything, and neither have I. I don't think anybody has to. That's the way I look at it. They got into that s***. I don't have any sympathy for them.
What about the death penalty?
I'm opposed to it. If you're going to put them in for life, keep their asses in there. That's more punishment than taking their lives. It gives them a long time to think about what they did. What makes me so mad, if they get caught and arrested, they sentence them to death, then after a few years you have those woolly heads who want to put them out on the street again.
What's a woolly head?
It's a problem of all society, man. You know why it's worse for blacks? I talked with Tom Lynch -- he used to be the district attorney here, and he was the attorney general for the state of California. He said, "Tom, you and I both know that far more blacks receive the death penalty for the crimes they commit." So I asked him, "Why is that, Tom?" He said, "They don't have no money to hire expensive lawyers." And that's really the way it is. They ought to do something about that damn thing, because there's a great deal of inequity there. All of the poor jerks, black or white, who ain't got any money, go to the death chamber.
What are some other problems of the black community that haven't changed?
Racial discrimination. That's the only one that we have.
What about the laws that say that you can't exclude someone from an apartment building or job because of their race or ethnic group?
You believe that bull****? Ha ha! Even you don't believe that. Blacks get screwed all the time because they don't have any money. Race discrimination will always be around. I expect it. You and I would like to see a society where there's no discrimination based on religion, race, or sex. But I don't think it ever will. I don't see too much weakening.
It's a lie. There wasn't anything here like that. I ain't never heard anyone call it Harlem of the West. If there had been a Harlem of the West it would have been in Los Angeles, or Oakland. Not over here.
There weren't dozens of clubs?
Hell, no. Just one -- Jack's Tavern on Sutter Street. I don't know where those guys get that stuff about all the jazz out here. It just wasn't here.
What about Jimbo's Bop City on Post Street?
That was an after-hours spot: it had no liquor license. And some of the musicians from the famous bands like Ella [Fitzgerald] and [Count] Basie and Ellington, they'd come out there and jam. They weren't hired to play in those places. They just didn't want to go to bed after they got through working downtown somewheres. Jimbo's didn't open up till 2 o'clock, when everything else had closed up. But the whole band didn't play there -- just individual musicians.
Did you come out and hear them?
Oh, a couple of times. I didn't hang out there because I was working at the district attorney's office; the paper couldn't pay me enough money, and I was the bond and warrant clerk. Old Bill Atkinson -- he was one of the deputy district attorneys -- wanted me to come down there and get evidence that they were selling liquor at Jimbo's. And I said, "You gonna give me a badge and a gun?" He said, "Well we can't do that." I said, "I ain't your man then. I live out there. You think I'm gonna be a goddam stool pigeon for you?"
What about the Club Alabam on Post Street?
It was right here in this block, behind the bank. They had local musicians there. I knew most of them.
But there have been so many other clubs mentioned in documentaries about the Fillmore -- the New Orleans Swing Club, the Havana Club, Cafe Society, the Long Bar, the Blue Mirror, the Ebony Plaza Hotel ...
The guy who wrote that must have been on marijuana. There was no clubs here. These were bars. They didn't have no music in those places but jukeboxes. If they'd had live music, I certainly would have heard of it, because even before I moved here, I lived across the Bay and I used to come over here just about every weekend.
Here are some of the people who reportedly hung out at Jimbo's: Joe Louis, Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr., Clint Eastwood ...
They came out to Jimbo's maybe to drink after hours -- that's all -- and these idiots gonna make it a big nightclub, which it wasn't.
Do you think people are exaggerating the Fillmore's jazz heritage because they want to create a jazz district here?
That's the way it looks to me.
Let's talk about Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, who was your best friend and the publisher of your newspaper for more than 50 years. Are you glad he was honored by having a street named after him?
Well, he earned it. It's just a strip of land in front of the City Hall.
What did you think when Willie Brown renamed City Hall's address after Dr. Goodlett in 1997?
That didn't impress me any at all, 'cause it was all for show. Willie is strictly a politician. He just happens to be black. He's in it to make as much money as he can get. Willie's a good showman. He's very wealthy now. You know that law firm of his has been nothing but money ever since he was elected to the state Assembly. Cause the lobbyists took care of him: you know that. But Willie's no fool. He ain't gonna get caught in anything. He covers his tracks too well.
I don't know. He seems kind of lightweight to me. I knew his grandfather, Bill Newsom Sr. He was a moneybags for [SF district Attorney and later California Governor] Pat Brown's political campaigns. I used to see Bill up there all the time when I worked in the district attorney's office. Bill was a contractor here in The City, putting up high-rise buildings and everything. He was close to Pat, and that put him in a position where he was getting these big contracts from The City and other places too.
You co-founded San Francisco's oldest black newspaper, the Sun-Reporter, almost 62 years ago. What is the purpose of the paper?
Same thing as when we started. You had to have an editorial voice here. That's the reason why I went into the business. Without an editorial opinion in the community, you ain't nowheres. And of course it was another way to earn a living too.
You recently wrote your farewell column in the Sun-Reporter. Why don't you keep writing?
I don't feel the urge to any more. I don't think the same way now, because it's sort of becoming a task to me. I did it out of sheer joy before. But I can't keep the unity of my thinking together the way I used to.
What was your highlight as a journalist for the Sun-Reporter?
It's taken me all over the globe practically, 'cause I've been to Africa, I've been in central Asia, I've been in Egypt a couple of times, and I've made two trips down to Latin America. I've had a lot of fun doing this. A lot of fun.
I expressed interest. White took me right in and introduced me to Logan at his club on Buchanan Street. Logan couldn't pay me anything, but I was rewarded with a quarter ownership.
White, Logan and I decided to give the name Reporter to our paper, and set a publishing date of every Wednesday. The editorial staff was me: I was the only person who knew how to write, among all those connected to the paper.
The first issue was published in June 1944. The office was centrally located, and almost immediately, people began to come by for all of the reasons that they still come by today -- people from the churches primarily, and some to make complaints about things they felt should be publicized. The Reporter became a place where every black professional person came, and I met them all.
In 1945, during my enforced stay as a dependent of Uncle Sam [in the U.S. Army], another black paper, the Sun, was founded in San Francisco by Frank Laurent, a white man. His father owned the Packard automobile agency in San Francisco.
Frank was quite charmed when he finally met Dan Collins and Carlton Goodlett, the Reporter's publishers. He started hanging around with us, and was at Goodlett's house almost every night playing poker. Frank was born in San Francisco, but said he had never met "any colored guys like you all." He was particularly fascinated that most of these people were far better educated than he was.
Carlton and Collins liked him, but they didn't like the idea of a white publisher controlling a black editorial opinion. One night around 1948, Frank got into a big poker game that ran till about 5 o'clock in the morning. He got in the hole with Goodlett for $4500, so Frank said, "I'll tell you what I'll do, Carl. You give me $1,500 and you can have the Sun." That's how we acquired the Sun. We decided to merge them into one paper and name it the Sun-Reporter. That sounded better than Reporter-Sun, even though the Reporter was the original paper.
Goodlett and Collins supplied the money that made them joint publishers of the struggling paper, with me retaining my post as editor. In the early 1950s, Dan got out because he had two sons to raise, and Carlton didn't have anyone except his wife. So Goodlett became the sole publisher. I couldn't match the money he was putting in, so I just told him he could have my 25 percent ownership.
With his acquisition of a newspaper, Goodlett launched a steady assault on racism in whatever form it took. His political activities grew ever larger. He succeeded Berlinda Davison Mabson as president of the San Francisco NAACP, serving from 1947-49. His name became identified as a solver of social problems.
Goodlett was an able and very articulate person, and everybody looked to him because he led the fight in everything. The little people worshiped him in this town. His waiting room was always full because people would come in and complain about things besides health care, and he would take some time to talk to them. They'd even come to ask how to make out their income tax. Dorcas Taylor, his nurse, used to get mad as hell.
Goodlett thought like I did editorially. There was no difference at all between us. He wrote most of the editorials and I wrote the opinion column.
Dan's wife had a sister, Gussie James, a public schoolteacher from Charleston, West Virginia. I had met and dated her when she was visiting her relatives in San Francisco. We began a correspondence immediately after she left. She was anxious to leave West Virginia, and I helped her apply for a job here through the Urban League. She was informed that she met the qualifications, and was offered the job.
Soon after Gussie arrived, I met her downtown and invited her out to eat. Dr. Legrande Coleman, a young black doctor, had told me so much about a fancy place on Bush Street called the Russian Tea Room. Apparently they had served him for some reason; maybe he had come with a group of white doctors.
When we went in, the maitre d' came up and said, "Do you have reservations?" I said, "No. How do you make them?" He said by telephone or in person. So I said, "Well, we'd like to get a reservation now." He said, "I'm sorry, we don't serve your people in here." So I told Gussie, "We'll go in there and sit down. I'm not going to take this crap." But she had just come from West Virginia, and was afraid.
I told Carlton about it that night, and he voiced a lot of surprise and indignation. He said, "We're going to go down there." We went a few days later, at about 7:30 in the evening. And that same maitre d' came up and asked, "Do you have reservations?" "No." Then he said, "My kitchen is closed." I said, "It don't look like it's closed to me." He continued to debate with Goodlett. So I said, "Man, let's go in there and sit down. We're going to eat in this damn place tonight."
The Russian Tea Room had a black male attendant in the men's restroom who knew who Goodlett was. He told the maitre d' that he was a doctor and the president of the NAACP here too. "What's the NAACP?" said the maitre d'. The attendant said, "You don't know now. You're going to find out soon." That guy's demeanor changed completely. He said: "Gentlemen, we have a table right here."
|November 23, 2006
San Francisco Chronicle
|Thomas Fleming -- columnist, editor||By Carl T. Hall, Staff Writer|
Thomas Courtney Fleming, a journalist and prominent voice for civil rights in San Francisco's African-American community since the 1940s, died Tuesday in San Leandro of congestive heart failure four days before he would have celebrated his 99th birthday.
Mr. Fleming traveled the world, covered nine national political conventions and became a cornerstone of progressive Bay Area politics as a reporter, columnist and editor for the Sun-Reporter, the African American newspaper he helped found in 1944.
The paper was owned for many years by the late Dr. Carlton Goodlett, a community leader who was Mr. Fleming's longtime friend and editorial collaborator.
By 1997, when Mr. Fleming retired, he held the title of executive editor of Reporter Publishing Co., which owns the Sun-Reporter and other African American publications including the California Voice in Oakland and seven weekly Metro Reporter newspapers.
He was a renowned storyteller who seemed to have been everywhere, and met everyone. Although he left no known blood relatives, and never married, he never lacked for friends, and several families had virtually adopted him as an honored patriarch.
His deep, lifelong hatred of racism never soured his sense of humor. Friends said his short-term memory faded toward the end, but he could still recall in crystalline detail one of his favorite trips to Cuba in the 1960s, or the route of a train in Russia, or how he and his friends would use explosives to catch fish near Chico, his boyhood home, selling whatever they couldn't eat to merchants in Chinatown.
He was born in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1907. After his mother left for California, he stayed behind for a time, living with his paternal grandmother. "Her name was Phoebe," he recalled in the first of his long-running series of columns, "Reflections on Black History."
"I don't know what her maiden name was. I'm pretty sure she was born a slave," he wrote.
His columns were full of the great people and events of his era, Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson, the Depression and San Francisco's General Strike of 1934. But they seem most remarkable for the texture of his own richly recalled life: the "awfully smelly yellow soap" his grandmother made of tallow and lye; the flash of a diamond in the upper teeth of Bert Williams, a vaudeville comedian he saw as a boy around 1915; his father's drunken carousing when they were living in New York City, where Mr. Fleming went to school with Fats Waller.
He got into the habit early on of finding his own way. He read books and newspapers. He took a train to California at age 11, where he joined his mother in Chico, and felt the shock of adjusting to small-town life in the Sacramento Valley.
He made a point to describe the oppression of people denied all but the most menial jobs on account of their skin color, but also never forgot the joys of Emancipation Day, celebrated January 1 in the dusty farm towns with a big community dance.
"Everybody came -- all black people," he wrote. "They'd get a band of black musicians from Sacramento, of about eight pieces -- piano, two trumpets, a trombone, two saxophones, a drum, and a tuba for the bass line, because the string bass hadn't come in style yet."
He graduated from high school in 1926 and moved to the Bay Area, where he found work as a bellhop, waiter and cook for the Admiral Line steamship, the Sacramento Northern and Southern Pacific.
"I thought I'd be a cook for the rest of my life," he told The Chronicle in 2004.
But he was laid off in the Depression, when the idea of becoming a newspaperman began to take root. He had an unpaid post on the Spokesman, a leftwing black paper in San Francisco, until the paper folded, and had a Sunday column for the Oakland Tribune, "Activities Among Negroes," until the column was dropped.
He went back to Chico to study political science at Chico State, where he was one of only three or four black students out of a student body of about 1,400. After three semesters he returned to the Bay Area, to join his mother and sister in a rented house in Berkeley. Those were hard days, leading up the war years, so difficult he tried to find work as a scab during the 1934 waterfront strike.
"I had been a member of the Cooks and Waiters Union," he wrote in one of his history pieces, "and supported the strikers, but shame leaves you when you're hungry. When you have nothing, you'll take anything."
He was drafted during World War II, which he attributed to unhappiness on the part of draft board members with something he had written, but fell ill and spent most of his service time in the infirmary. Toward the end of the war, he took on the job that made his career, when in 1944 he became founding editor of the Reporter, which later merged with the Sun, another black paper.
Goodlett was the power broker, Mr. Fleming the crusading editor, allied with such political figures as Phillip and John Burton and Willie Brown.
"He was a bit of curmudgeon," recalled Max Millard, who was a copy editor for the Sun-Reporter and editor of Mr. Fleming's history columns, which were nationally syndicated. "He always liked to be treated with dignity."
Mr. Fleming would station himself near the paper's front door, Millard said, and greet people as they entered. He had a ready and loud laugh but could be prickly, too. On one occasion, an unfamiliar woman showed up in the office, and after introductions, inquired whether she should call the veteran editor "Tom" or "Thomas."
"It's Mister Fleming to you," he told her.
He wasn't always an easy edit. Millard said he had to persevere through several squabbles over style and details of columns, which Millard would sometimes alter after fact-checking.
But Mr. Fleming also had the newsman's talent of being able to write fast, and he always delivered what was expected on deadline. If there was space to fill in the paper, the staff could always count on Mr. Fleming to come up with something that fit.
He hoped to live to 100. His friends had planned to celebrate his 99th birthday, which is next week, on Saturday at his retirement home, where he died. Now, that event will be a celebration of his life, from 2 to 5 pm, at the Marymount Villa Retirement Center, 345 Davis St., San Leandro.
A memorial service will be held Dec. 12 in the North Light Court of City Hall in San Francisco from 5:30 to 8 pm.
Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Thomas C. Fleming Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Jack Bair, San Francisco Giants, 24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA 94107.
To call someone's death the end of an era is one of the most overused cliches in journalism. But few San Franciscans of recent times have deserved the phrase more than Thomas C. Fleming, the pioneer black journalist who died on November 21, the week before his 99th birthday. He was fittingly honored with a memorial service at City Hall, whose address was renamed in 1999 for his best friend, Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett. Together, for almost 50 years, they ran the Sun-Reporter, the city's oldest and largest black-owned newspaper. Fleming co-founded it in 1944 and wrote for it weekly for 61 years, beating Herb Caen's record by three years.
It was Fleming who persuaded Goodlett, a brilliant young black physician and psychologist, to return to the Bay Area in 1945 and establish his medical practice in San Francisco's Fillmore district. Fleming introduced him to the struggling black newspaper and soon brought him on board as publisher. With the forum that the Sun-Reporter provided, Goodlett became one of Northern California's leading civil rights activists. Fleming worked in his shadow, but was a highly respected figure in his own right for his intolerance for racism, uncanny memory, storytelling ability, and personal acquaintance with many of the greatest black Americans of the century.
Until the day he died of heart failure, Fleming could vividly recall his grandmother, whom he believed was a former slave, Marcus Garvey riding in a parade through Harlem during World War I, and the San Francisco general strike of 1934, when he was almost killed while trying to work as a scab. He told of running from the police while covering the student strike at San Francisco State University in 1968, and the aftermath of the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, when he was the only reporter allowed inside the People's Temple following the mass suicide/murders.
Tom Fleming was history walking among us. If you asked him about the last two mayors, he would tell about Gavin Newsom's grandfather Bill Newsom Sr. and Willie Brown's uncle Itsie Collins, both of whom he first met in the 1940s. His favorite stories were about famous black Americans he had met. Among them were Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, A. Philip Randolph, Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali.
Fleming often said he would have liked to work for the daily press. But no daily newspaper in Northern California hired a black reporter until 1962, when Fleming was already in his mid-50s and considered too old to be given a chance. So he labored on for the black press, eventually becoming an elder statesman and role model for those who followed him in print journalism, radio and TV.
Until 1997 he held court at the old Sun-Reporter office on Turk Street, where he spent the day reading newspapers, greeting visitors, and writing his three weekly columns -- an editorial, the Police Blotter, and the Weekly Report, a commentary on national and world events. He had a loud, high-pitched voice, punctuated by raucous laughter which rang throughout the rambling two-story building. And he could be prickly. If a stranger came in, got his name, then asked, "Is it Thomas or Tom?," he might bellow back: "It's Mister Fleming to you!"
A lifelong bachelor who lived alone in the Fillmore district until he was 98, Tom Fleming cooked for himself, typed all his columns on an old manual typewriter, and did not receive Social Security until his mid-70s, when it began arriving unsolicited.
Above all, he was a writer who understood the power of the printed word. When he first arrived in California in 1919, he remembered seeing signs that read: "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." Fleming said: "We understood what they meant." He thought the best way to fight such words was to get his own words into print, any way he could. And he did: millions of them. "To me, affirmative action is just an affirmation of the 14th Amendment, the right to an equal opportunity," he explained. "That's all we've ever asked for. And we're not going to stop trying to attain that goal."
(Max Millard is a former staff writer and copy editor for the Sun-Reporter.)