Mount Shasta’s Mark Oliver explored an obscure chapter of African American history with his film “From The Quarters To Lincoln Heights,” an in-depth look at the history of the black community in Weed.

Mount Shasta’s Mark Oliver explored an obscure chapter of African American history with his film “From The Quarters To Lincoln Heights,” an in-depth look at the history of the black community in Weed.

That project, completed nearly a decade ago, planted the seeds for his latest undertaking, an exploration of African American participation in the Gold Rush.

It’s another effort “to bring some history out of the shadows,” as Oliver puts it.

“Kids in school hear about the Mexicans, the Chinese, even the Hawaiians who came here during the Gold Rush, but they never learn about the African Americans who were here back then,” he said.

Oliver himself was unaware of this chapter in the state’s history until, in his research for the “Quarters” film, he started looking at old maps and coming upon place names like “Negro Boy Mine” and others with more lurid names using “the n-word.” He discovered census records going back to the 1850s that recorded the presence of black people in the area.

More research revealed that there was already some documentation for African American goldmining activity in the Sierras in the 1850s, notably in Sylvia Roberts’ book “Mining For Freedom,” published in 2008. But their presence north of Redding had yet to be explored in detail.

Although known primarily as a filmmaker, Oliver is taking an entirely different tack with this new project. He’s starting with a live theater event, “Voices Of The Golden Ghosts” at the Shasta College Theater April 6. It will be a performance by seven local actors he recruited with the help of Redding-area black community leader Eddie McAllister. The play will feature scenes from those early Gold Rush days, depicting interactions between black and white gold miners as well as dramatizing the paradox of free black miners working next to black slaves brought to the state by their southern masters.

As part of the event, there will be talks by Roberts and Rick Moss, the former director of the African American Museum And Library in Oakland. Their talks will put the experience of early-day black gold miners in a larger context and highlight the history of a state that in its early days had an ambiguous attitude toward black people. California came into the union in 1850 as a “free” state, but it was also a state which allowed southerners to bring their slaves in to work the gold mines.

In some cases these slaves were able to earn enough to buy their freedom, but even as free blacks they faced the state’s discriminatory laws. The most notorious of those laws banned them from testifying in the courts, which made it impossible for a black person to defend themselves from charges of robbery or murder – or to escape being deported to the south as an alleged runaway slave.

But, as Rick Moss noted, the story of the early African American pioneers who came to California is at its core no different from that of their white counterparts; both shared a desire “to improve their economic and social condition through westward migration.”

Once here, he noted, they tried as best they could to blend in peacefully with the larger white-dominated society, something that was probably easier in less populated, rural areas, “where calmer, one-on-one relationships could be developed,” Moss said.

Oliver kickstarted his project with a $20,000 grant from the nonprofit California Humanities and is soliciting additional funds through a GoFundMe account. A film on this subject is at this point still just a gleam in his eye, but he plans to take a step in that direction by creating a video of the live stage presentation.

“Voices Of The Golden Ghosts” will be staged at 7 p.m. April 6 at the Shasta College Theater. Admission is free. For more information contact the Shasta Historical Society at (530) 243-3720.