I sometimes picture my farm as a battlefield with troops of people struggling with nature in a hundred-year war.

Germans, Italians, Chinese and Japanese, Armenians, Filipinos, and Mexicans---their voices have sounded over this farm, their families have walked these rows . . .

~ David Mas Masumoto, Epitaph for a Peach

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Featured Oral History


This interview was conducted in August, 1977 and includes an excerpt regarding her career as a milliner in San Francisco and Fresno’s theater life in the 1920s (interviewer Vivian Jones). Fresno Historical Society Oral History Collection, Ethnic Oral History Project.

BIGBY: ... Mrs. Brownely saw that she could use me at the Fairmont hotel, and she dressed me very, very beautifully. She would have me go in and take care of customers on the floor. I was very, very petite, I only weighed about a hundred pounds. She schooled me on how to walk, how to talk, how to act in this beautiful salon. This was because we took care of nothing but the carriage trade. Of course, I had taken care of Sophie Tucker, and different movie people like Natacha Ramova, who was Rudolph Valentino’s wife. I had seen him many times and sat at the table with him and his wife in Mrs. Brownely's suite. She lived at the St. Francis Hotel one time. So I went to work at the Fairmont. On one occasion, I was called out to drape a veil on a customer. She had two ladies with her, and her clothes were just horrible, I thought. Unbecoming, ugly gray suede shoes, and the hat that she wanted me to drape the veil on was horrible. So I took the hat back to the work room, and I threw it up in the air and kicked it and made fun of it. I cut the veiling and pinned it to one side, and was going to walk outside and show her how it would look. Before going out, one of the designers called me back and said, "Mary, do you know who that is?" I said, "No." she said, "That's the Queen Mary, Mother Mary." I think I fainted it scared me so bad. Anyways, I went back and gave her nice service and pinned the veil on her. So I was cured there of Royalty…

QUESTION: Do you remember Ethel Waters playing the Orpheum Circuit [when you were living in Fresno? 
BIGBY: Definitely I do because she stayed at my house. She was the first black female performer on the Orpheum Circuit. They played here every week. Of course, there was always a new star, she was one of the first.

QUESTION: Why did she stay at your home? 
BIGBY: Because the hotels were prejudiced and they didn't allow negroes in the hotels at that time.

QUESTION: Most of the black stars that came to Fresno, they had to be housed in private homes? 
BIGBY: They did.

QUESTION: Were these arrangements made in advance? 
BIGBY: Through my husband who was downtown, he's well known. And I think through him there were many people who stayed at my house because of that. There were the Nicholas brothers. The William Four, who were my oldest brother's stepchildren. They appeared on the same bill with Ethel Waters. The William Four. They stayed at my house, and since I was such a terrible cook, my mother would feed them. She would board them.

QUESTION: Do you remember a street that was referred to as "Black Broadway"? 
BIGBY: Definitely. That was F Street in west Fresno. Because all the action was on F Street…

Last Updated Tuesday, January 28, 2020 - 07:13 PM.