Interview with Tommy-Lee LaGrone

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“I never was a believer of anybody just lingering in their bed. What good would it do wanting to sleep all day? As a kid, we could not do it. We had to get up. By dawn we’d be out doing something: cleaning the yard, feeding the animals, or doing something. That habit grew on me. I started my first job in 8th grade and lasted through high school. Working is no mystery or nothing foreign to me. I’m used to working. If you work hard you make a decent living or a decent amount of money. That’s what I was determined to do. If you don’t put much in it, you’re not going to get much out of it.” – Tommy LaGrone

His Story. Our Legacy.

Interviewee: Tommy Lee LaGrone
Interviewed conducted on January 27, 2016 by Jarrel Phillips (grandson)
Location: LaGrone’s Insurance Agency. 666 Octavia St. SF, CA 94102

A tribute and testament to the life, legacy, and spirit that invigorated the soul of both a man and a father. A GRAND one. In love and gratitude to you Granddaddy! Thank you for sharing your life with us.
Jarrel Phillips a.k.a “Jar-Baby”

Jarrel: Talk about your upbringing before you came here. How would you describe yourself as a little kid?

Tommy Lee LaGrone: I was born in a little small East Texas town called Marshall, Texas on November 6, 1936 to Hezzie and Bertha LaGrone. I was the 3rd youngest of 12 kids. As a kid I was relatively quiet, fairly studious, and kind of outgoing if you combined all these things. My parents did not own a lot of land. It was a small lot. My parents were what they called sharecroppers. If you don’t know what a sharecropper is, it’s where the white man owns the land and you live there and you work the land to produce products on it. Whatever you grow, you share. Usually it’s a 50/50 thing. You do all the work and produce all the cotton, corn, peas, whatever it is then they get half. You sell it and they get 50 percent of the proceeds and you keep 50 percent of the proceeds.

This was real popular back then. I worked in it on the field but when I was eight years old, my parents left that kind of arrangement so I didn’t do much with it. My older brothers and sisters did more work under those kind of arrangements. They picked cotton and picked the peas and things like that. I picked very little cotton because I was too small but I witnessed it. This was a common thing. It wasn’t no great mystery.

Jarrel: Why did you first move to San Francisco? Why did you decide to stay here?

Tommy: In Texas there was two kinds of people where I was—a black person and a white person. The white person seemed to be dictating everything that a black person did. A black person, if he’s 50 years old, he’s a “boy.” A lady, even if she’s 60 years old, she’s a “girl” or “gal.”

And you had to call them “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Little boys called black people by their name regardless of how old they were, but you had to call the white people “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Sometimes you even called the little boys “Mr.” I had a real problem with that. Every day I’d come home from work…actually walk from home to work about two miles. I always was threatened and chastised by white boys in a car, so I always had a pocketknife with me. I said, “If they ever jump out, we’re going to have a fight.” And I did. I didn’t ever cut anybody, but I did have quite a few fights with Caucasians or the white guys. We fought. They couldn’t dictate to me too much.

Sometimes there’d be three or four of them so I let them get by. Then when I’d come by there’d be three or four of us and we’d give them the same treatment they gave us. It was that kind of thing. When I finished high school I didn’t want to continue that. I needed to get out of Texas. I don’t know anything that I left in Texas I want to go back and see. I’m through with Texas.

Jarrel: What was San Francisco like back then?

Tommy: I decided to come to California to go to college and live with my sister, Elsie. At the time I wanted to be a doctor. I came to San Francisco in 1955. Fillmore was extremely active. Black people owned almost everything up and down Fillmore. I particularly remember one bar on Fillmore and Bush Street called Texas Playhouse. It was owned by an old-timer from Houston, Texas named Wesley Johnson. All the big shots like Billie Holiday, Leola King, and Charles Sullivan came to his joint. He also founded San Francisco’s Juneteenth Festival, which celebrates June 16, 1865 when Texas slaves learned that they had been emancipated.

That’s where the origin of me and the Western hat came from. He wore a Western hat and I wanted to be like him. So I’ve worn a Western hat ever since then. That was in the
late 50s to 60s.

Jarrel: When I think of you I think of you with your hat on, without a doubt. But, also, you’re the businessperson. You’re a hustler in a good way, if I can say that?

Tommy: The connotation is a little different to some people. The young group that come along now may call it hustle. Some might call it entrepreneurship, but it’s basically…I always wanted to own something, own my own thing.

Whatever you do and however you do it you have to commit yourself to do something, and I had a wife and six kids. I didn’t know anything else to do but work. I had to try to conserve what I had and get more of the same thing too. That was a daily activity for me. How am I going to sell this piece of property or buy this new property? How am I going to make more money, because I needed that? And, hopefully, the kids would be able to go to college.

I primarily sell life and health insurance. I chose insurance because I wanted to have a job that I could do as I please when I wanted to do it. I made friends and clients at the San Francisco Municipal Railway. That’s the one that has been the one that I’ve done most of my work with— the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. They have been my number one client since about 1975.

We had lots of good times and the money was fairly decent. They named me as their insurance broker in 1973 or ’74. I did a lot of things with them. I helped them with picnics. I sponsored a golf tournament for them for more than 25 years. Each year we would have anywhere from 75 to 100 drivers playing golf. The union still does it annually. I had a tremendous relationship with the Transport Workers Union and I still have quite a few friends from there. I’m probably the only person still working. They’re all retired. Most of my peers worked hourly type jobs but I didn’t see that for me. I just didn’t get a chance to do as much as I wanted to.

Jarrel: What are some of the other things that you wanted to do?

Tommy: My wife, Shirley, was quite reserved. She tells me all day, “You can’t do that. You’ve bitten off more than you can handle.” I wanted to buy much more property, and she didn’t go for it. And she didn’t like horses. She still doesn’t like horses. My brother liked horses and I liked horses. If I had a lot of money and could do anything I’d go buy me the best racehorse I could find. And hopefully let him win a Triple Crown or something.

I remember one time looking for land to maybe put horses on. I found 10 acres of land somewhere near Pleasanton, CA. I wanted it. I had the money and the resources to but Shirley turned it down.

I think I was going to pay about $50,000 for 10 acres of land. I went back through there about five years later and you wouldn’t have recognized the place. They had developed this land and it was worth almost a million dollars. I couldn’t sleep for a while.

Jarrel: Why did you listen?

Tommy: Why did I listen? What do you mean? It’s your wife. Your wife and you are 50/50 partners. She was just kind of nice a lot of the time with me, and she would go along with me although she didn’t want to do it… just not this particular time. She helped me get by.

Jarrel: So do you think marriage is also like a business relationship?

Tommy: Marriage is very much a business relationship. You should sit and consult with each other and talk about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. Hopefully, if you disagree, you’ll work it out. Whatever you buy you buy together, you both have to be of one accord as to keeping it going. You can’t be divided that much and be successful.

The significance of marriage, why is that important—having a good partner? Talk about raising a family in San Francisco or raising a family in general.

A good marriage means everything. If you have a good partner it means you’re not sitting around worrying about everything. You can go to work comfortably and come back home comfortably and make decisions comfortably. If you don’t have a good partner, every time you make a decision they can counteract the decision you make. That doesn’t last very long, so a good partner is good for the family. Your kids grow up in a respectful manner and hopefully when they grow up they’ll look at you and see how you respected your partner and they will respect other people and their future partner.

Raising a family in San Francisco wasn’t that difficult to me because I had such a good wife. Shirley raised them mostly. I was out a lot of late nights trying to sell insurance. She would be there with them. We had six kids—four boys and two girls, which included two sets of twins. Regina and Renata and Kurtis and Keith. Plus Kheven who was our oldest and Kenny who is no longer with us.

Shirley would take care of the kids. She didn’t work so she had the kids and would take them every day. She’d send them off to school, pick them up from school, and they’d go to different little restaurants and have sandwiches and things like that. She took them to church every Sunday. Church gave them some structure and guidance. ‘

Tommy: I know you got married to Grandmommy after three months, which is pretty quick. Can you talk about meeting her?

I couldn’t make the grades to be a doctor while I was in school so I decided to go into the military. I was a corpsman in the military for four years. When I finished school in the Navy I was shipped out to Norfolk, Virginia. That’s where I met my wife, Shirley. I’m not sure exactly about “quick” but I saw her and I was actually getting ready to get shipped out and I wanted to take her with me. In order to bring her with me I had to marry her. Her parents were quite religious people. They wouldn’t allow her to just come along with me, and I wouldn’t have done that anyway. We got married a few months later in 1959. And the rest of it is history.

Jarrel: Did you know that Mayor Willie Brown used to rent this office out? That’s some cool history, too!

Tommy: My office location is 666 Octavia Street. This building has had quite a few of the black echelons in it. Willie Brown was here along with another set of attorneys. My office used to be Willie Brown’s office. One attorney that was here was the first black board of supervisors for the city of San Francisco. There was another attorney… I can’t think of his name, but he became a judge in this city. They all occupied this same location I’m in. They were black figures who made a difference in San Francisco’s history, particularly for black people. But back then, the building was owned by somebody else. I purchased it in 1976.

I bought my first home in 1968 in Oakland. It was in East Oakland. 87th Avenue and East Oakland. We lived in that home from ’68 to ’71, then we bought a home in Daly City. That’s where all of my kids went to school. I sold the house in Daly City in 1987. I had bought about six acres of land in Vacaville about five years prior to that and I built a house on it. That’s where I reside now.

Jarrel: You always pumped into us: college, college, college. Why is it important?

Tommy: That would be the greatest thing for me, to see all my kids and grandkids go back to school. College may not be for everybody, but they got other programs out there. You need a skill in this world.

If anyone would look back on history, the people who went to college usually are the ones who advanced more. Even if you have a masters you should still go and advance more. Get one higher. Education and school are the key to almost everything.

I had a few peers that asked me, when I went into the insurance business, why I was choosing it over the medical field. They said, “You didn’t need to go to college to be an insurance man.” I said, oh, yeah. But I wanted to be a better one. College helped me.

Jarrel: You gave Andre and I our first job. Why?

Tommy: At that time, ya’ll had grown up to a point that you knew how to read and write. You could answer the telephone, you could do a little typing, and you and Andre were pretty sharp. I liked that.

I gave you the job so you could make a couple of dollars and I needed someone to work. I was hoping that it would show you a little bit about how life works on the other side of the street too. You didn’t have to be out there running around with your friends all day. You have something else to do. Also, you were helping me too. That was all part of it.

Jarrel: We were lucky to grow up so closely connected to our grandparents. How important are family relationships an intergenerational interaction?

Tommy: I always thought intergenerational interaction is important. I always felt my relationship with my grandkids was great because there are a lot of things the immediate parents can’t yet transfer over to you. They don’t want to, know how to yet, or they don’t have the time. A grandkid can come to their grandparents and they can get a lot of knowledge, and come with a lot of confidence to talk about things that a parent might not talk to them about. I always felt close to you all— all my grandkids—, and I’m sure you all felt it too. You all talked to me about a lot of things you wouldn’t talk to your fathers about. You can’t talk to me about anything illegal, but you can talk to me about anything else. I’ll just give you my opinion about it, whether it’s good or bad. It’s a good relationship, the grandparents and the kids. All my life I’ve seen good relationships.

Jarrel: What would you tell your grandkids and the future generations?

Tommy: What I’d like to tell them now? I’d like to tell them, as I repeat to myself:

Do work but don’t spend all the money. Don’t spend it all in the same place. Don’t spend it all at the same time. Every time you make a dollar save a little bit of it. Be kind and gracious to people. And the world needs more educated people. I’d like to preach this, if I could, to my grandkids. I’d like to put it on a tape of some kind and just wrap it around their head, or their neck so they wear it every day and listen to it 24 hours a day.

If you teach them properly, kids are usually not that bad at life’s situations. Do to other people what you want done to you was mainly what I wanted to impart to all of my kids. I don’t know if I imparted this to them well enough, but you try to teach them right and wrong. That’s a basic thing—right and wrong—and how to respect other people and their belongings or property.

Jarrel: Have you have ever had to demand respect in your life?

Tommy: I don’t think I have. I’ve always tried to associate with people or deal with things in a manner that I don’t have people always testing me all the time. If I’m going to be around somebody who seems like they want to test you a lot, then I stay away because I don’t enjoy being around those people. So no, I don’t recall ever having to demand someone’s respect. If you respect another person’s right, then they should respect yours. If they don’t, it’s left to you to demand that.

Jarrel: All right. Thank you. Can you introduce yourself one more time?