No Whitewashing the Past: A Black Farmworker Family in Segregated California

Vance McKinney at Matheny Tract, in the San Joaquin Valley, California.

Copyright © 2023 by David Bacon. Story and photos reprinted with permission from David Bacon.

Author’s Note
This is the story of Vance McKinney, as told to the author. McKinney is a truck driver (who hauls mostly agricultural produce) in a farmworker community. His father was a farmworker. The  following article is based on interviews with residents in the Matheny Tract, an unincorporated town in San Joaquin Valley. Vance McKinney’s family left Arkansas after World War II, part of the great postwar migration of Black people out of the South. One stream of this vast migratory current arrived in northern industrial cities, but a lesser known migration ended in California’s San Joaquin Valley. This was the experience of the McKinneys. Arkansas’ last lynching was in 1936, only a handful of years before the family left. California’s last lynching was just two years earlier, so one might ask, was this a journey to a freer land? McKinney’s father, Osman, became an African-American farmworker in a Valley where racism and extreme economic exploitation were the norm. Vance says, “We were not slaves, but I felt we were still in bondage.” In his account of his youth in Matheny Tract, he tells it like it was, describing this small community’s struggle for freedom in California’s segregated Central Valley.

I came here when I was two years old. I was born in 1956, and my parents brought me here in 1958. I’ve lived here all my life. Everything I am came from the dirt in this hot place, where, by the grace of God, we were able to get some property.

Osman McKinney, my father, was not an educated man, but he believed in taking care of his family. In Arkansas, there was no work and my dad had no money. Back then it was like slavery was still going on, in the South. He came from a family of fourteen and they had nothing. He had seven brothers and six sisters, and there was nothing for them there.

My dad came out here with six or seven other men and found that there was work here. Here, there were grapes and potatoes, and there was cotton. Everybody worked in the fields. It was hard work, but it was work. In California, you had a little voice—not much, but it was a little better.

So he went back to Arkansas and brought us out. My dad was a sharecropper, and cut pulp wood. It was hard to make a living with that. He probably owed money, so he came and got us at night. We didn’t have much. We just came with our clothes. My mother brought us four out here with her, just me and my three older sisters.

Most people didn’t try to live in town when they came. My mom said the city [Tulare, a medium-sized city in the San Joaquin Valley] refused to allow them to have any kind of property. In the city, you couldn’t buy, or even rent. The city was fighting them at every turn. You’d try to get a house, but you had to have XYZ, to prove you were an American citizen, where you were born, that it was legal for you to be here. It was just like today with the Hispanics. You had to show all these documents you didn’t bring with you. When you left, you didn’t know what was going to happen.

At the beginning, we lived in a shack. My mother was a praying lady, and she trusted God. I used to hear her praying. “Lord, I just want to do better for my kids. I want to give my kids a better place.” We were living in a place where you could come from the outside, go under the house, and come inside through the floor boards. That’s how bad it was.

She was a seamstress. I had seven sisters and she would buy material and make their dresses. After a few years, she got lucky and got a job as a housekeeper for Missus Serty, who owns the 99 Grocery up there on K Street. She talked with my mother about getting a house built. She helped my mom save money by keeping some of her money back. My dad’s boss did the same thing. And they raised $800, and that’s how much the property cost. And the change came through Mr. Matheny. At first, he was renting homes out here. There were about twenty houses here, and the people who lived in them were the people who worked here on the ranch. Mr. Matheny owned all this land, and when he started selling it in the early 1950s, the Blacks started buying little parcels. Mr. Matheny was getting older, and he saw a need, and that he couldn’t just work with white people. He saw the writing on the wall, that things were about to change. He was going to die and then his kids would sell that land anyway. So why not enjoy some of the money when he had the chance?

The city and county didn’t want him to sell to us. I listened to my mother and the women talk about this. They’d say they wanted to buy land, because when you own something you have a say-so about it. But nobody would let them. Out here in Matheny Tract, a group of Black people could buy land and homes. Mr. Matheny opened that door. He could have said no, but he didn’t. I think he was really trying to rub the city too. When they tried telling him what he had to do, he said, “This is mine.”

So, we saved money, and Mr. Matheny was willing to sell. And would let us get it very cheaply, at a price where you could afford it. After they got the house built, the women  would go over to my mother’s house and they’d cook. It was like a support group. My mother loved that. My dad knew all the men because they came up from Arkansas with him.

For a white man Mr. Matheny saw Black people as people. He didn’t look at us as “less than.” That one man made a difference to every Black person who got to stay here. He didn’t push us down. From my mother’s point of view, he wasn’t a savior or nothing, but he was a good man.

But Mr. Matheny also segregated his land. Back in that time, it had to be segregated. You could like a Black person then, even give him a bowl of soup. But he couldn’t be your friend, or you’d become an n-word-lover. He was a businessman, and he had to play that part.

Matheny Tract was very segregated. We had two separate sides of the ditch, the white side and the Black side. (See photo 1.) There were a few Spanish over on the white side, but there were separate places where they had to live. And they couldn’t have really nice stuff. On the white side of the ditch, you had to be sure that you were “less than.” It was a hierarchy. There were some that had, and then there was us. We had nothing. The Spanish on that side, they had a little something. But they didn’t have as much as the white people, who had all the nice stuff.

Photo 1. Javier Medina, a community leader, and the ditch that divided Black and white.

We literally couldn’t go on the white side of the ditch unless we were going to Sherman Strong’s store. And you couldn’t go straight across the ditch and down Beacon, because you might get beaten.

White kids and the parents too would beat up Black kids. It wasn’t just the kids. It was the parents. And the mothers were really the hardest. The men would kind of look at you and give you a snarl. But the women on that side of the ditch would call you nigger. “Little nigger, what you doing over here? What you doing over on this side. You know you not supposed to be here.”

Everyone here on this side of the ditch was African-American. We didn’t talk with the white people here that much. This man, Mr. Boba, had been yelling, “Don’t you come down my street!” I was about thirteen and a little cocky. I asked him, “Why do you call this your street? Did you buy this street?” And he turned a deep red. If he’d been closer to me, I think he would have killed me. I was just asking a question. I just couldn’t understand, how was it his road?

So I ran. My friends always told me, “When they turn real red, run!” We were taught to avoid them, white people. I’m a product of the 1950s. We were still being called “colored” or “boy.” When my parents said, “Run,” we ran. My father would always tell me, “Don’t look at the white man in the eye. He’ll beat you.” That was bred into me as a child.

But families would watch out for the kids. You might not see the parents, but they were watching. My parents always told us, if you go to the store be careful. We wanted to go to Sherman’s store because the ice cream was colder, the candy was better. About ten of us would go. We didn’t go wandering by ourselves. Because we didn’t know what was going to happen. There had to be someone to run and tell.

In the end nothing did happen, and I don’t remember anyone attacking me. When I went to Palo Verde School, the white kids over there knew that I would fight. My dad wasn’t someone you fooled around with. You had to be tough to endure the hardships they went through. He always told me, “If you get in a fight, you better not come home crying,” because he knew that if I was a crybaby I’d be weaker. He’d say, “You’ve got your sisters to take care of.” I’d say, “But they’re older than me.” My dad wanted me to be a man.

People go where they feel safe, where there’s enough of you. So there were a lot of Blacks out here. Sometimes white people would drive through here and taunt us. White people would call me nigger this and nigger that. I was only seven or eight years old. Our parents would tell us, “Be home before the sun goes down.” People brought that feeling of danger up from Arkansas. That’s one of the reasons why my dad got us out of Arkansas. He felt that his children might not live. In the 1950s and early 1960s, they were still lynching, still hanging people.

The white people here came from the south too, and they were sharecroppers there also. When they got here, someone put a boundary where the ditch is. There were no rich people
here. The whites worked for Mr. Matheny too but in a different area from where we were. They didn’t have Blacks and whites working together. I don’t think Mr. Matheny caused the segregation, but he did what he felt comfortable doing.

Mr. Matheny used Blacks and whites for different things. Whites learned how to drive tractors first. They drove the one-row cotton pickers first. We were still picking cotton by hand. He had wagons that would go to them. We would have to drag our bags to the wagon.

When my father started working for Mr. Matheny, he was making about 65¢ an hour. At the end, when he was working for Mr. Raleigh, he was making $3.65 an hour. But they all used him as an animal. As a child, we see our parents bringing us food and clothes, and we don’t understand what they’re going through. I’d hear my mother and dad talking, and they’d say, “Gene, we’ve got $30. That’s all we’ve got for the month.” My father would work all week and maybe make $100. They’d sit down and go through their budget, and what they’d have to buy, how to make that $30 stretch to the next payday.

Discrimination was always in the forefront of my family and my life. When my father worked on one ranch, the kids of the people who owned the property would be calling him names. My dad had an old raggedy green truck and they would tease him. “You need to get you a new truck.” They’d call my dad “boy.” These were kids, calling my dad “boy.” Calling him “nigger.” Calling him “Black.” Calling him “Sambo.”  These were kids, talking to my dad like this. And I’m saying, “I can’t wait till I get bigger.”

Their parents would not respect my dad as a person. They wanted him to be like an animal. My dad would say, “I wish I could get something better.” But he couldn’t because he wasn’t an educated man. He couldn’t jump up and leave.

He worked like that for eighteen years for one man, Carl Gaffney. And then he worked for Cecil Gibbs. Mr. Gibbs was a little bit better, and his kids didn’t taunt my dad. But my dad was still not considered equal. He was considered property. Today, people talk about this, but I know what that feels like because I’ve seen it. Where you can’t say what you feel.

When I was a kid in the early sixties there were no streetlights here, so it was really dark out here at night. This street was where we played. We had a basketball court right there and played until it got dark. We played football before it got dark. We did everything before it got dark.

This was our stadium—Beacon and Casa streets. (See photo 2.) We used to run our own Olympics. We didn’t have a 440 track, so we’d start in my house over there, and we’d run all the way against other kids, about three boys running, and all the way around, back to my house. Then another set of kids would get up and run the same thing. It was the 440 relays. Jake Torrance made a triple jump pit and a pole vault pit.

Photo 2. Vance McKinney at the corner of Beacon and Casa streets.

We were all about the same age. There were three sets of kids out here—the high schoolers, the grammar schoolers, and the preschoolers. It was a big family. That’s what we did in the summer months. In the winter, we didn’t do much.

The streets weren’t paved then. They were dirt streets. This part of Beacon was an obstacle course. Finally, in 1972, the county came out and paved it, but you can still see here the original asphalt. Over the years, they’d come out and put patches on the holes, but no new paving.

The county wouldn’t bring in sewer or water service. (See photo 3.) I really believe that the reason was because we were African-American. They were fighting against letting Blacks own property. They didn’t want Black people living here, and they didn’t want Black people living in the city. Where were we supposed to live? They didn’t care.

Photo 3. A Matheny Tract home at sunset, with tanks for water in front.

But the Black people out here were determined and didn’t give up. People out here were determined to stay here, hoping and praying that something would change. So the Blacks, they met in this church here, which they made a meeting hall. (See photo 4.) Bennie Franks and Ben Loren and some of the more educated African-Americans got people together and started a committee. Mother Mary was an evangelist. That’s how the Pratt Mutual Water Company came to be. African-Americans had a little property and had a little voice and now they could speak. Because you can’t speak if you’ve got nothing. Now they could go to the city when our wells went bad because of the sewer plant.

Photo 4. Vance McKinney, in front of the church where the struggle over the water began.

The city water treatment plant is right next door and they won’t connect us to the city sewer system. When I was a kid, when it rained our cesspools would overflow. (See photo 5.) That still happens. We told them that their sewer plant is deeper than our water table. We were getting water from our wells contaminated by their sewer. They told us they would clean it up, but they don’t care about the people out here. We only just got water service five years ago, and that was because we fought for it for ten years. And the reason we won is because they wanted to annex land near us for an industrial park.

Photo 5. Vance McKinney shows the sewage bubbling up from the cesspool by his house.

We fought for SB 200 up in the Legislature in 2019 [legislation that forces cities to provide services to unincorporated communities like Matheny Tract]. I went on those trips and I even talked with the Governor. But it took two years before they even sent someone from Sacramento to see what it’s like here. Told us they’d put in more lighting, but we’re still waiting for it. Now they’re telling people they’re going to put a sewer out here. But until people start pushing the city, they’ll keep putting it off.

People are still fighting that today. It hasn’t changed. At the end of the year, the city and county go to Sacramento and get all this money to fix things out here, but it all goes uptown. Nothing comes for the people out here . . . no grocery stores . . . no gas stations. They use us for revenue, and they count us on the census, but we get nothing from that.

In Sacramento I told Senator Monning [who fought for the Matheny Tract residents],

I speak because this is where I live, this is what I know. I love Matheny Tract. I want you to understand that we’re not second-class people. We work hard, trying to do the best we can with the limited resources we have. Nobody out here is looking for a handout.

Most people living in Matheny Tract now are Mexican, and they’re inheriting the discrimination. It’s like a flashback. I know how they go to work, work hard, come home, and can’t get anything. The city and county won’t help them. I want to reach out to them.

For the Blacks here, after our parents died, most of the kids went on to do better things in their lives. This is what the Spanish are doing now. They’re just trying to raise their families, give them opportunities to do something better. And the city makes them feel like they’re nothing. It took us almost thirty years to get this one light here that we’re standing under.

I picked cotton myself, from the age of four. We’d go in the rows with my parents. We’d pick and make big piles, and they’d come behind with the bags and pick them up. And they’re picking cotton too, as they’re coming. If you were sick you stayed at home. If you weren’t sick you worked. We couldn’t afford childcare, so my mother would put on her apron and strap my baby sister in I stopped doing field work in my sophomore year in high school. My parents would tell me as a young man, “I don’t want you to work in the fields. I want you to get an education and have a better life.” I heard that. I went to school. Graduated from Palo Verde. Did about a year of college. But college was not for me. So I got a job. My wife, when she was my girlfriend, she had a child. I was seventeen and she was fifteen. But it was always in the back of my mind what my parents said. I applied that, not with a great education, but with the things I learned over the years. Now I’m able to look back and say, I have what my parents wanted me to have. If they were alive today, they’d say, “Yes, you did hear us.”

I’m not the only one. We have teachers and principals and lawyers. Because the same thing I was hearing in my house every African-American parent was telling their child. Some took heed of it, and some didn’t.

I’ve found the only way to get rid of racism is by being honest. I’m not ashamed to talk about my life and what I did. People need to stop sugarcoating things so much. They say, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” Yes, it was that bad. Even African-Americans have forgotten the struggle and try to whitewash the past. But we can’t live in the past. All we can do is move from then to now. I don’t hold anything against the people who called my dad nigger when we were kids. That made me a better man.

Matheny Tract is not just a place. Everything I am and everything I have become is because of what’s here. Now all my kids are college graduates. My oldest daughter graduated from Tulare Union, and she lived out here. All my kids went to Palo Verde School, and when my son graduated with honors he got a letter from President Obama.

You don’t see Blacks out here that much anymore. There are some who just don’t want to leave because this place is a part of them. I’m sixty-five years old and I can say, “I can buy property that my parents had to pray for.” It took my parents ten years to save up the $800 for the down payment on their house. I make that in a week.

So I honor their memory. I try to live up to their standards. My kids know who their grandparents were. I tell their stories. If you ask my daughters, they can tell you verbatim what I’m telling you, because I told them how it was. They can tell you everything about the Matheny Tract legacy because I taught it to them.

Author Biography
David Bacon is a California-based writer and photographer. He is the author of In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte (Colegio de la Frontera Norte/UC Press, 2017), which  documents the lives of farm workers in photographs and narratives. His latest book is More Than a Wall/Mas que un muro (Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2022).

1 thought on “No Whitewashing the Past: A Black Farmworker Family in Segregated California

  • Aggie Rose-chavez

    Thank you fir this writing David Bacon.

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