‘It’s historic and we need to save it:’ Vital piece of Black history burns up in Mill Fire – Chico Enterprise-Record
When the Mill Fire tore through the Northern California town of Weed, it not only injured residents and destroyed dozens of homes, it laid waste to a little-known but historically important piece of Black history.
The Lincoln Heights neighborhood, largely flattened by the inferno Friday, is believed to be one of the only intact Black neighborhoods west of the Mississippi River that dates back to the early days of the last century. About three-quarters of Lincoln Heights was reduced to smoking rubble by the blaze that residents said moved with frightening speed after igniting a quarter mile away at or near the sawmill that was key to the neighborhood’s founding. Now, the historic community’s future is uncertain.
“Everybody knew everybody,” said Dave Rodgers, 59, who arrived in Lincoln Heights in 1964 from Mississippi at age 2 with his mother and eight siblings. “Old people would sit on the porch. It was a friendly neighborhood. You needed something, everybody was there to help you.”
On Friday, Rodgers fled the Mill Fire with flames engulfing his pickup truck and the elderly neighbor he rescued screaming in terror. By Sunday afternoon, firefighters had slowed the blaze, which has grown to more than 4.200 acres but was 25% contained. The devastation for the 2,800 residents in Weed, a town in the shadow of Mount Shasta just south of the Oregon border, was only beginning to sink in.
Rodgers lost everything. His home, his two Chihuahuas, his boat, his RV are all gone — along with all but one of the community’s homes east of Highway 97. He managed to get a peek at the still smoldering rubble on Saturday in the neighborhood that represented decades of unique California history. He summed up the loss in two words: “It’s terrible.”
Lincoln Heights was born during the Great Migration that started in the early 20th Century and saw millions of Black people in Southern states move north to escape racial violence and oppression and find opportunity. In Weed, that opportunity came when the town’s namesake Abner Weed sold his lumber mill in 1905 to a Kansas company with operations across the South. New owner Long-Bell Lumber brought many Black workers to the little California timber town, and many others followed.
“My grandfather came out here from Mississippi in the ‘20s,” said Alonzo Greene, pastor of the 100-year-old Mount Shasta Baptist Church that survived the Mill Fire while many of its congregants’ homes were burned. “He got here and went to work at the mill, and went back, got his brothers and other family to come out here and work in the mill.”
Early Black mill employees built many of the small houses that made up Lincoln Heights, Greene said, with oral history suggesting Long-Bell gave them wood or sold it to them cheaply. “Those guys used to carry lumber home from work to build all of these houses that are now burnt down,” said Greene, 58, who was home in Lincoln Heights when the fire ripped into the neighborhood, and fled with his truck packed with neighbors.
Greene and others from Lincoln Heights described the neighborhood as a microcosm of America’s racial history, from its founding as a community segregated by White residents, to the conflicts of the Civil Rights Era, to its modern-day position as a racially-integrated neighborhood no longer fully dependent on the Roseburg Forest Products mill.
Long-Bell lumber set up the neighborhood to keep the Black residents in one place, said Mark Oliver, a filmmaker whose documentary “From the Quarters to Lincoln Heights” reflects the community’s original name, before its residents successfully petitioned town authorities to change it during the 1960s.
It was in that decade, amid the racial turmoil roiling the U.S., that the residents of Lincoln Heights, with some outside help, began to break free of the racism that kept them from fully participating in Weed’s economy. The community’s people, with few job opportunities other than at the mill, began protests, with the aid of the non-violent direct-action group Congress of Racial Equality, Oliver said. They disrupted commerce at businesses, shutting some of them down temporarily.
“The ‘60s in Weed was just like the ‘60s in major cities: Blacks in the cities were protesting, they were marching, and that happened here, too,” said James Langford, who came to Weed in 1974 as the small city’s first Black elementary school teacher, and worked with Oliver on the documentary. “They were looking for employment in the bank, employment at Safeway, just general employment. They wanted to be part of the city of Weed, but they weren’t really allowed.”
The protests worked, Oliver said. “All these businesses in Weed, they started hiring Black people,” he said.
That shift was a turning point for the people of Lincoln Heights and the town, but change didn’t come immediately, Rodgers remembered. In his childhood, he said, White schoolmates often taunted him and other Black kids with racial slurs, leading to fights. But, he said, by the late ’70s, children of different races were
generally getting along, playing baseball, football and basketball together, forging friendships bonds first among kids and then among parents.
“It felt good when you didn’t have to worry about going to school and trying to fight, tearing up each other’s clothes,” Rodgers said.
Before the fire, Lincoln Heights was still mostly a Black community, but White and Asian people lived there, too. Tension in Weed between Blacks and Whites is mostly gone, said Langford, who in his early days working at Weed Elementary got into trouble for teaching children about racism while instructing them on African-American history, and had to confront a teacher who refused to cast Black children in school plays. A few White friends still let slip racial comments but it’s largely among older folk where the “vestiges of racism” remain, he said.
But many of the younger folk raised in Lincoln Heights leave when they become adults, seeking jobs in bigger centers, residents said. And the Mill Fire has put the community’s future and its legacy in peril, Pastor Greene worried. Many older residents burned out of their homes — probably at least half lacking fire insurance — may follow their children to other cities, he said.
“This community cannot just go away,” he said. “It’s historic and we need to save it.”