By Stephen Canright, Park Curator, Maritime History
In the summer of 1926, Thomas C. Fleming, later the co-founder and longtime editor of San Francisco’s leading Black newspaper, the Sun-Reporter, worked for a season as a bellhop aboard the steamer Emma Alexander.
The Emma was a coastal passenger liner, running between Victoria, B.C. and San Diego for the Admiral Line. Admiral Line was the last big operator in the coastal passenger trade, a trade that began in the Gold Rush era and carried on until the mid-1930s.
While the deck and engine crews of the Admiral Line ships were entirely white, the stewards department was all black. Work as a cook, waiter, porter or bellhop offered the only shipboard employment available to Black Americans on the West Coast until the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Fleming’s recollections, now available on the Web, offer an intriguing glimpse of this little-remembered piece of our maritime history.
Thomas Fleming was eighteen years old and freshly graduated from Chico High School in 1926, when he arrived in the Bay Area to look for work. After being turned down by the Southern Pacific Railroad, he heard that the Admiral Line was hiring and was immediately shipped aboard the Emma Alexander, leaving that afternoon. The first trip was to Victoria, with stops at Seattle and Tacoma on the return leg. The passage to Victoria took 27 hours and the ship laid over at Seattle for a day on the trip south.
Fleming worked for several months as a bellhop, from six in the morning until late into the evening, for $45 per month. There was no union representation on these ships. Only when the ship was in port did the men get a day off. Most of the work was seeing to the needs of the passengers. With tips, Fleming could make an extra $25 if he moved quickly. He could also make a bit on the side supplying the occasional bottle of Canadian whiskey to passengers on this prohibition-bound American flag vessel. He reports that the passengers treated the Black stewards and the white crew about equally. All were seen as servants.
After a dispute with the Bell Captain on the Emma, Fleming made a trip on the smaller Admiral Dewey as a room steward. He was laid off as the summer travel season came to a close. Returning to Oakland, he got a job as a cook with the Southern Pacific Railroad, and stayed with that for five years.
Although Thomas Fleming worked only briefly for the Admiral Line, his recollections add to our understanding of life and work aboard these ships. Until stumbling across this series of articles, I had no idea that the stewards department on these coastal liners consisted of African Americans. The work of these thousands of seafarers, over decades of service, had rated no mention in the standard histories.
A rich collection of Mr. Fleming’s articles, prepared and presented by his colleague Max Millard, is available on the Web at www.maxmillard.com/blackhist.htm.
It is well worth a look.
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Last updated: April 23, 2021