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Tracing Tracy Territory

Black history in Tracy: Picking peas in 1939

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Back in 1939, there were probably no more than a handful of black families living in Tracy.

But our town did have black “newcomers,” quite a number of them in fact, arriving here every spring when fresh-market peas were ready to be harvested in pea patches south of town.

My dad, Harvey Matthews, then a reporter and advertising salesman for the Tracy Press, visited with several of these pea-picking “newcomers” one evening in April 1939.

Here is his report, reprinted during Black History Month at the suggestion of one of the members of Tracy’s current African American community. The article reminds us of the early contributions of black migrant farmworkers to Tracy’s agricultural economy — and of their unique chapter of black history in our town.




As Seen By H.F.M.

Business on Fourth Street is booming these days. Every cafe, pool hall and even the vacant spaces are full to overflowing with new population totaling 500 and may be only temporary but while it lasts, it makes the section the busiest in Tracy.

Cotton pickers and sugar cane workers from Mississippi, ex-prize fighters and night club performers from Chicago, bell hops from Missouri, many highly skilled and specialized agricultural workers from as far away as Florida — all are here to pick peas for the next month or so. Quite a few have been coming year after year.

They are a happy-go-lucky crowd, good natured and as a whole, law abiding. After a hard day’s work which nets the average not more than two dollars (a few always stand out and can earn under perfect picking conditions as much as $7.50 a day), they swamp the eating places where meals are served for 20 cents, and it is a big plateful too, containing, of course, plenty of beans, meat and potatoes.

Lodging for the night causes no financial worry. The great majority simply take their bedrolls out of the checkstand, find an open box car and sleep the sleep of the just. You hear some complaints about the cool nights but one big guy from Texas finds a way to keep warm by rolling up in the heavy paper found in most “empties.”

Baseball before darkness, then games of skill with the galloping dominoes on a vacant lot (when the cops are out of sight), card games, pool games, music and just old fashioned talk keep most of the colony in a happy mood. Occasionally you see a gloomy face which reflects a wish to be back in old “Alabam” for one more meal of corn bread and pork.

Yes, these are colored folks. Many of them will tell you that they have a wife and children “back in the south”. A very few bring their families on these cross country treks which provide the skilled with a good living. From peas to sugar beets, from onions to hops, from wheat to apples, they jump from one crop to another and cover a wide territory, including Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho. You’ll see many of the same faces here next year.

— Tracy Press, April 14, 1939


Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at

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