Side Trail Story
Vernon Tillmon
Steve Levi

Side Trail Story

Vernon Tillmon would have failed the paper bag test.


But that wasn't his fault. Not that he looked at it as a fault. That was the way he had been born. He had never been forced to take the paper bag test and no one is Santa Zanni cared that he would have failed the paper bag test first, because there was no paper bag test in Santa Zanni and second, the only people who talked about the paper bag test lived in New York. No one in San Francisco cared about the paper bag test. That's because San Francisco didn't care how black you were. You could be as black as the Ace of Spades, be Ethiopian or Othelloian, which Tillmon was, and still get a job in a theater or traveling troupe. Saved on the burnt cork anyway.

It would be easy to say that Tillmon came to Santa Zanni from the Deep South because that's where most Negroes came from in those days. But, in fact, Tillmon had come from Los Angeles. His grandfather and grandmother, had escaped slavery in Missouri, which was hardly the Deep South, and headed west on foot. They had hop-scotched to Los Angeles from hog farm to livery stable to saloon working where they could and moving westward when the money ran out. Tillmon's father had been a United States Marshal somewhere in Arizona and his mother had been a seamstress. The two drifted west through Las Vegas and finally landed in Los Angeles, the city of dreams, where being black didn't matter because everyone who wasn't white was in the same wagon.

What set the Tillmon couple aside from the rest of the population going brown was that they were so black. Like midnight. They were the blackest Negroes most people had ever seen. That wasn't good and it wasn't bad. It was just the way they were. When Vernon was born he was black like his parents. So was his wife, a pair of midnight black blacks with twins to match.

Vernon first heard of the paper bag test when he went to his first movie. There were a lot of Negroes in the movies and most of them were very light. That was because the film industry didn't want black blacks. They wanted white blacks, Negroes who could pass, “almost white," they were called, no darker than a brown paper bag. But Tillmon wasn't in the film industry. Or the theater business either. He was a skilled workman and as such everyone needed his services. He could fix anything and that's why he ended up working for Barnstorming Billy Macalister. Barnstorming Billy sold cars, flew hunting parties in his planes, repaired farming equipment and even did construction now and again. Tillmon was his most important asset because there was a lot of fixing in the things Barnstorming Billy sold.

Asset is not the correct word here because Tillmon and Barnstorming Billy were actually partners in some of the enterprises and Tillmon was a subcontractor in others. Tillmon was a partner in the car business because he was the perfect salesman. He was the perfect salesman because everyone who bought a car knew that if anything went wrong, Tillmon could fix it. Would fix it. So buying a car from Tillmon meant you were getting a mechanic with the deal.

Because he was a mechanical genius, no one had any fear flying with Barnstorming Billy. Every year the hunting parties came to hunt with Billy because they knew his planes were in perfect condition. Tillmon made sure they were in tip-top shape and didn't so much as burp when the prop started up. Tillmon was so good at his job that the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco even flew with his shoes on. This was a local joke. The Mexican Consulate, a man whose first name was Pedro, maybe, and who never gave his last name but paid cash at the Yazzi brothel, always traveled in his stockings. No shoes, just stockings. When someone asked him why, Pedro said that an old fortuneteller had said he would die with his shoes on. So the way he avoided accidents was to travel with his shoes off. But he wore shoes when he flew with Barnstorming Billy. Interestingly, Pedro was executed by Cristeros in 1929, Mexican rebels who believed they were fighting for Jesus Christ. Legend has it that Pedro left his boots in his jail cell on the way to the firing squad clearly hopeful that the fortuneteller had been correct.

There were more than a dozen Negro families in Santa Zanni and the surrounding environs. Overall they were just like white folks. Most of them were hard-working, God-fearing citizens that made up the backbone of every community. They raised their children well, paid their bills, attended church and served on jury duty. Some of them, like Tillmon, made more of their lives than their upbringing would have lead one to guess and a few – too many, if you asked the other residents – were just no-good, lazy individuals who felt that the world owed them a living. They were constantly running afoul of the law and too often in the newspapers because, alas, bad news sold more papers than good.

All this being said, 1919 was not a good year for Negroes in America. This is not to say that any other particular year was a good one; just that 1919 seemed to be a bad one in particular. The bad news in 1919 actually started in 1915. In February of that year the premier movie director of the age, D. W. Griffith, had cobbled together what would become a Hollywood staple: a great script coupled with excellent acting and even better directing that distorted history beyond recognition. The problem was that in 1915 movie goers didn’t know any better. Why should they? The movie focused on a mythical event during Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War and used a very broad brush to sell a very bad concept to people who were more than willing to pay $2 apiece to see a three-hour movie – and $2 was a lot of money in 1916!

BIRTH OF A NATION was a masterpiece of cinematography. It was the best anyone had ever seen on the silver screen. It was the best possible movie to be produced based on the worst possible book and was designed to make money appealing to the most odious depths of every one of the seven Cardinal vices. Originally titled THE CLANSMAN, the story was set in the Reconstruction South and falsely portrayed the society as one being dominated by Negroes backed up by the Union Army. Supposedly the Negroes, backed by the United States military, controlled law enforcement, the ballot box and the courts. The story twisted further when the newly elected Lieutenant Governor, a Negro, attempted to force a white woman to marry him. When she refused the confrontation between Negroes and whites escalated until the Ku Klux Klan, riding to the rescue dressed in white sheets, frightened off the Negroes. As the movie concluded it was the next Election Day with the Negroes in queue ready to vote. But when the Ku Klux Klan rode into town in full regalia, the Negroes scattered. Thus, implied the movie, the reassertion of white supremacy in the South was achieved and the re-establishment of the correct social, political and economic order of the nation established, THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

The film got an unexpected endorsement from the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. THE BIRTH OF A NATION was the first movie screened in the White House. There it had the best of all possible audiences: a President of the United States born in Virginia, the son of parents who had specifically left the North because they were Confederate supporters. The President’s father had cared for the wounded in his church during the Civil War and as a child Woodrow remembered looking into the face of Robert E. Lee. Woodrow Wilson lived in the South during his youth – Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina – and only moved north at 19, at the very tail end of Reconstruction, when his father took a job at Princeton University. After the President saw BIRTH OF A NATION, he supposedly said it was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” This was later disputed but that made no difference. Once it was in the newspapers it was considered a fact and, to this day, the quote sticks to the Wilson legacy like a barnacle on a luxury steamship.

The film was a smashing commercial success but it was widely condemned and banned in many cities. But the key words were “smashing commercial success.” Profit trumps ethics and the well of intolerance will never run dry. INTOLERANCE was the title of the next D. W. Griffith film. Filmed in 1916 it was the talk of California because the entire set of Babylon was constructed in the Southern California desert and Barnstorming Billy flew four planeloads of what were called extras to be in the film.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION sparked the creation of Ku Klux Klan klaverns across the country, many of them in areas where the Negro populations were either nonexistent or so small that the number of families could be counted on a single hand. Additionally, that all of the Negroes in THE BIRTH OF A NATION were obviously white with blackened faces did not seem to bother the men who were forming the new KKK. Newspapers across the country carried stories on the rise of the new KKK and that generated more klaverns. But the klaverns were only increasing in number not in membership. Every community has its collection of racists and the formation of the klavern just gave them a place to gather. It did not increase the number of fanatics in town.

If there was a klavern in Santa Zanni it was a very small one. And a very quiet one. There were quite a few white farmers in the area who were from the South but most were working shoulder to shoulder with Negroes in the field and there had not been a single case of a burning cross in the county. There were two families who could have been called KKK supporters but they were most often referred to as hicks, California hillbillies, idiots or no good bastards who should be hanged. They spent their time bootlegging and committing crimes that were so small that it was not worth the time of the police and court to actually send them to prison: vagrancy, poisoning dogs, petty theft, public intoxication, disorderly conduct and vandalism. They needed to feel superior to someone and THE BIRTH OF A NATION gave them a reason to feel superior to the Negroes – though no one knew if they had ever actually seen the movie.

Sometimes science and philosophy respond to the same law. For instance, Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law states that force occurs in pairs. For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. In physics this can be proven numerically. While philosophy cannot be assessed using angles, inches or long tons, the measuring can be seen in social reaction. It was only a matter of time before THE BIRTH OF THE NATION was going to elicit an equal but opposite reaction. That reaction began in March of 1916 when Marcus Garvey arrived in New York.

Garvey, one of eleven children, had been born in Jamaica. Self-educated, he traveled extensively in South America and beginning in 1911 became a newspaper editor and social philosopher. He moved to London where he spent two years taking class in law and philosophy at Birkbeck College before returning to Jamaica. In 1914 he recognized the need for the Negroes – in this case the Negroes of the world – to join together in an association of self-help. To this end he established the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, the UNIA. He came to the United States in 1916 and began speaking on street corners for the unity of the Negroes. This lead to a 38-state speaking tour after which he formed the first UNIA chapter in the United States.

UNIA embarked on two missions. The first was Negro economic improvement. UNIA established what would later be called the Negro Factories Corporation, basically a funding umbrella for Negro businesses. In large cities. In smaller communities, and particularly in the West in communities like Santa Zanni, banks loaned money to people who could repay the loan with interest. Skin color did not have a lot to do with it. After all, Rodney Snodgrass loaned money to Vernon Tillman and Snodgrass got his money back with interest. A lot of white people might not have thought of Negroes as being their social equal but money was something else. Barnstorming Billy said it best; “Cash makes no enemies.” Business was business and the only color that mattered was green. Tillman was good at business and the profits were green. That was all that mattered.

Marcus Garvey and UNIA might very well have remained an East Coast phenomena as far as Santa Zanni was concerned. There was not a speck of trouble with the coloreds locally and everyone knew their place. That was the way it was. Negroes lived on the “other side of the tracks.” Whites only went to the “other side of the tracks” when they were slumming. But Tillman lived uptown because he had money. If he had not had money he could not have lived on the good side of the tracks. He was considered an aberration; a Negro with money. But there was only one of them in town. One family anyway and it didn’t look like there was going to another one any time soon. Smart kids like the Tillman twins left Santa Zanni and did not come back so everyone expected the Negro problem to end with Tillman and his wife.

The second campaign of Marcus Garvey and UNIA set white Americans’ teeth grinding. Being colored was one thing; un-American was something altogether different. Every blessed one of us lived in the good old US of A because, flawed as it may have been, it was the best place on earth to be. After all, wasn’t everyone who wanted to work wanted to work making money? Wasn’t everyone is Santa Zanni better off here than where they came from? If it wasn’t then why hadn’t they gone back? The streets weren’t exactly paved with gold in Santa Zanni but there was plenty of opportunity on those cobblestones. If you were willing to take a chance, you could make good money. No one was going to become a J. P. Morgan but you didn’t have to die broke in California. If you did it was your own fault.

Being eleemosynary was one thing; being a separatist was quite another. With one hand Marcus Garvey was raising money for Negro businesses to flourish in America and with the other he was asking for money to send Negroes back to their homeland, back to Africa. The Back to Africa Movement, that’s what it was called, was like a stab in the heart of white America. Sure, Negroes didn’t have the same opportunities that white folk did but the Negroes were better off in America than in, say, Mexico or Jamaica or Africa. After all, if Africa was civilized it would have the same economy that we did. But the Africans didn’t. They were living in mud huts, throwing spears and running around in loin cloths. What kind of a civilization was that?

What shocked white Americans was how popular this Back to Africa movement was. It might have started as a pipe dream but it was picking up converts, and dollars, from across the country. The numbers may have started small but within a short period of time they were in the millions. That was millions of dollars as well. Tens of millions of dollars. Maybe more. And if there is any one thing that makes Americans suspicious it is tens of millions of millions of dollars just running around with no apparent home. It didn’t take long for the United States government to get involved and pretty soon the Bureau of Investigation was looking over the books of UNIA. You did not have to be a railroad engineer to know what was going to happen next. Once the government starts looking into your financial records someone is going to go to jail.

Because he was Negro, Tillman got all the Negro questions. It wasn’t that he knew any more than anyone else did but, because he was not white, it was assumed that he had secret information that only Negroes had. Perhaps the whites thought he had a secret telegraph key in his home hooked up to a Negro wire network. Or he got Negro newspapers no one else could get. Or, maybe, Negroes could telepath information between and among themselves, an atavistic characteristic of jungle people. If Jack London could show that dogs could do it, why not people?

Tillman thought it was funny. It was amazing how many supposedly intelligent people would believe just about anything about colored people. It was also amazing how many supposedly intelligent colored people thought that giving someone money to take them back to Africa was a good idea. What were these people thinking? Better yet, were they thinking at all?

It did not take long for the long arm of the law to wrap itself around the neck of Marcus Garvey. By 1919 his account books were being plumbed by Bureau of Investigation – which had hired the first Negro agents in the country’s history. Maybe they wanted to make sure that there were only black fingerprints on the accounting records, wags said. But no one had any doubt as to what was going to happen. The United States government was not necessarily your friend but when it became your enemy, anything could happen. Marcus Garvey was not an American so he probably had no idea what trouble he was in for. But if you lived in America, Negro or white, Mexican or Indian, rich or poor, Catholic or Protestant, you knew what it meant when the United States government came looking into your records.

It was the wrong time to be a Negro in America. The colored man was ready to be a citizen of the first class. So was the colored woman. Suffrage was in the air. The Nineteenth Amendment looked like it was going to pass, or at least that’s what the newspaper were printing. Several thousand Negroes had served in the United States Army, several hundred of them as officers. They may have been cleaning latrines, cooking and driving trucks but they were wearing the uniform of the United States of America. That meant respect outwardly in England and France and inwardly when they returned home. But not all of America was ready for Negroes and whites to live together. Uniform or no uniform they were still niggers in the South. In the North and Midwest they were coloreds and in the Far West they were co-workers who lived on the other side of the tracks. In Santa Zanni there was only one school and one church and one grocery store and one hardware store and one telegraph office and one railway station so everyone mixed with everyone else all day long. The Negroes may have lived on the other side of the tracks but when the sun came up they were just like everyone else.

What Tillman knew but did not say was that he was the point of a very long spear. The bulk of the Negroes in America were in the South, called the Deep South by those in Santa Zanni who did not know better. Ever since the Civil War the whites and Negroes in the South, from Joplin to Savannah, had been trying to make a living growing cotton. That had not worked before the Civil War and it wasn’t working out seven decades later. So the Negroes had begun to move, heading north and west because that was where the opportunities were. A mighty migration was starting and it was turning into a black tide.

Soon black faces would be appearing in the factories in the Northwest and on the docks of the Far West. Americans have always been on the move and now it was the turn of the Negro. Tillman knew that year-by-year more black faces would appear in Santa Zanni and Salinas and San Francisco. He worried that America might not be ready for the flood.

And it would be a flood, an inundation at least a century in coming.

People went where the opportunities were. These were the good people, white or black, people willing to take a chance on a better tomorrow. Tillman’s grandparents had been people like that. They came early and Tillman and his wife had harvested the grains their parents and grandparents had sown. The question now, in 1919, was how willing was America going to be over the next decade when one million Tillmons got on the train and went west and north and northwest. How were they going to be greeted? Would Vernon Tillman, the most prosperous Negro in Santa Zanni, be considered the first of his kind to be successful in spite of the fact he was not white? Or was he going to become as just another colored man in a sea of the same. The only fear Tillman had was that his twins would not be out of high school and employed before that black tidal wave struck.