A Shrinking Presence
When the Rev. Henry Gaines recalls how African Americans helped transform this remote, sleepy hamlet into a once-booming logging town -- and then tries to predict the future of blacks here -- he is flooded with pride and sadness.
The 80-year-old Baptist preacher, who has lived in Weed since 1948, enjoyed the heyday of the Northern California mountain town, where African Americans found relative peace and opportunity in an era of racial antagonism.
But in recent years, from his post at the wood-frame Mount Shasta Baptist Church, he has lamented the black community’s diminishing numbers and what it means for the future of Weed.
“It has changed a lot,” said Gaines, a Mississippi native who moved to Weed from Oakland after leaving the Army. “The older people are long gone. The new generation is altogether different.”
Gaines is a member of a fast-disappearing generation of African Americans who make up an unexpected link in the history of Weed, a picturesque town nestled on the western slopes of Mt. Shasta, 50 miles from the Oregon border. Theirs is a past rooted in a once-flourishing black community that prospered with the thriving timber industry. But as Weed’s financial base shrank in recent years, many younger blacks left to make a living. Other Weed natives, however, are showing a greater appreciation for their past and are taking steps to preserve it.
Every two years since 1982, Diann Smooth has helped organize reunions for those who have moved away. The events have attracted 250 to 700 people.
The elementary school teacher, who left Weed in 1971, said she hoped the gatherings would strengthen old bonds and maybe inspire those who left to return home.
“The black community is shrinking because a lot of the old-timers are dying, and once they die, the family connections are going to be lost,” said James Langford, 56, who teaches seventh grade at Weed Elementary School and wrote his master’s thesis on the town’s black community.
“When I first came here, I couldn’t believe there were so many black people here,” he said.
Southern blacks began to settle in Weed in the 1920s, drawn by a promise of jobs from Long-Bell Lumber Co., which had closed two of its mills in Louisiana. They were even advanced money, which they repaid, for train fare.
Word spread quickly as black employment scouts began to crisscross the South, proselytizing about a promised land at the base of a 14,162-foot, snow-capped mountain. Abner E. Weed, a white lumber mill owner from Maine, had founded the town in 1900.
There is no record of how many blacks came here initially. But Langford, who interviewed many of the original settlers during his thesis research, estimated that about 1,000 lived in town in the mid-1920s, when Weed’s population topped 6,000.
African Americans settled in the northwest corner of town. Many crowded into boardinghouses or camped in tents until company houses were built on streets with names such as Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Dixie.
“It was kind of like stepping back into the South,” Langford said.
The roads were renamed in later years at the request of the black community, offended by names that recalled segregation.
According to the 2000 census, African Americans make up about 10% of the town’s nearly 3,000 residents.
Locals acknowledge that this is an unusual place to find a black community of any size. Populations of African Americans rarely rise above the 1% mark in the 20 counties north of Sacramento.
However, in Weed -- a town with one supermarket and one drugstore, and where bowling is on the Chamber of Commerce’s list of popular pastimes -- blacks are part of a vibrant ethnic patchwork of residents who trace their roots to Italy, Mexico and Southeast Asia, among other places.
Blacks in Weed were not untouched by the pre-civil rights era racial hostility that marred much of America. The Southerners who ran the mill segregated the housing provided to blacks, Mexicans, Italians and whites.
Certain stores refused to hire blacks, and from 1955 to 1958, African Americans in Weed participated in anti-segregation student protests and sit-ins. In the 1960s, Weed was even visited by a contingent of the militant Black Panthers.
Still, a certain level of racial harmony and social decorum remained. The schools, for example, were never segregated.
“When we were growing up, our best friends crossed the color line,” said Yvonne Henderson, 49, Gaines’ daughter. “The community got along very well.”
“Weed had that type of attitude that we could do anything,” said Muriel Williams, an account executive in her 30s whose uncle was a recruiting scout for the old mill. “We didn’t have that type of racism.” Blacks were generally able to thrive because the lumber industry relied heavily on their labor.
“At one time, the mill was so lucrative that a kid could graduate from school, walk down to the mill, get a job and work there for 30 years,” said Langford, who moved to Weed in 1974.
And lumber industry salaries were considered high back then.
“I made $11 a day hauling pulp wood,” recalled Willie Lee Thomas, 77, a onetime farmer from Mississippi who, like a lot of former Southerners here, retains a distinct drawl. He arrived in 1951 at the urging of his brother, who had already settled in town.
Fresh from church and smartly dressed in a gray pinstriped suit, the chatty senior recounted how he raised six children in a three-room shack, but eventually was able to build a four-bedroom house -- complete with a wood-burning stove.
“I built it myself, from the bottom up,” Thomas said, describing with his hands how he laid the foundation.
Louisiana native Eddie Byrd, who followed her sister and brother-in-law to Weed in 1943, recalled how her now-deceased husband paid $500 for the two-bedroom house in which their eight children were born.
“Life was better then,” said Byrd, 82. “Everybody had a job that wanted one.”
In later years, African American residents excelled in the professional and political arenas.
Byrd’s son Charles, who died last year at age 56, was elected Siskiyou County sheriff in 1986. He was the first black person to hold that office in California and served four terms.
The closing of one mill in 1982 forced 650 layoffs and economically devastated the town. Though another mill remains open, the lack of jobs has forced many to leave.
“There really wasn’t anything to do in Weed,” said Patrick Walker, 28, who left town at 19. He now owns a janitorial service company in Sacramento. “And the younger generation -- if you don’t get out of there, you end up in trouble whether it’s your fault or not.”
Like the Rev. Gaines, old-timer Thomas lamented not only the lack of opportunities, but also what he called a lack of drive and desire among many young blacks.
“Most of the kids, if you get them to go through high school -- and that’s as far as they want to -- you can’t push them no farther,” Thomas said. “They get out there, and they get to drinking and using these drugs. It makes my heart melt.”
Still, Weed retains a special allure.
Walker tries to visit once a month.
“When I open the door and walk out of my parents’ house,” he said, “there’s always someone there to greet you.”
Smooth, the reunion organizer, plans to retire here and gushes over what made Weed so special: the omnipresent beauty of Mt. Shasta, the safety, the sense of belonging.
“Because Weed is so small, it was like a flower garden, and the flowers were the children that the pastor nourished and encouraged,” she said.
Donald Bearden was seduced by Weed when he returned from Atlanta on a short visit in 1995, after an 18-year absence. He had intended to remain just 10 days to help his mother care for his sick father, but ended up staying.
Last summer, Bearden, 48, opened Big D’s Bar-B-Que and Catering on North Weed Boulevard. The chef acknowledged that the town he grew up in has changed. Laotians now live in his former home.
But this is where Bearden plans to remain. “There’s no place like it,” he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
African Americans recruited from the South in the 1920s helped the mountain hamlet of Weed grow into a once-thriving logging town.
* Founded 1900 by Abner E. Weed
* Incorporated 1961
* Median household income: $23,333
Asian/Pacific Islanders: 5%
*Does not total 100% due to rounding
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census; Weed Chamber of Commerce