Locally produced film to be shown for Black History Month
In celebration of Black History Month, the award-winning 2010 film “From the Quarters to Lincoln Heights” will be screened at Mt. Shasta Sisson Museum next Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m.
Produced by Mount Shasta’s Mark Oliver and Weed’s James Langford, the film tells the story behind the African American population coming to Weed to build up the logging industry in the 20th century.
Oliver said this is the first time the film will be screened in Mount Shasta, a place that struggled with segregation and racism, though perhaps not as acutely as the towns of Weed and McCloud, which were company owned.
Though the film focuses on Weed, Kenny Blockman, who personally experienced the struggles of growing up in Mount Shasta as an African American in the 1950s and ’60s, said he hopes the film will shine a light on the entire black community of Siskiyou County and their contributions to local society.
“Hopefully we never go backwards. That is my greatest fear,” said Blockman, now 58.
Blockman said in the 1950s, the area near the post office, including Berry and Brush streets, was where the black community was concentrated.
“Those were our ‘quarters,’ said Blockman. “By today’s standards, they were the slums, but kept up. At that time, we felt great about it. We didn’t know anything better.”
However, his parents “weren’t standing for it,” and in 1963, Blockman said his family was the first to move out, relocating to Ski Village Drive.
Blockman describes a Mount Shasta that was not too fiercely segregated, with rules and customs of its own, perhaps because it was an independent township.
Despite the town’s more incorporated feel, Blockman describes instances that illustrate the prejudices that were a way of life 50 and 60 years ago.
“There was a lot of racism,” said Blockman. “You were not allowed to ‘eyeball.’ What is eyeball? You weren’t supposed to look them in the face. My mom told me to be proud. Do not let anyone knock you down.”
In the fourth grade, Blockman explained that he underwent surgery for a thymus tumor and missed several weeks of school. On his first day back at the elementary school, his friends – black and white – encouraged him to the front of the bus line, so he didn’t have to stand as long.
Blockman said a white teacher yanked him out of line and “dug her long fingernails into my surgical scar.” He showed the bumpy scars that remain on his chest nearly 50 years later. “I looked into her eyes. I told myself I was not going to cry. It was a test of will.”
When blood began to show through Blockman’s white shirt, he said the bus driver, Mrs. White, got off the bus, pulled him inside, and seated him directly behind her. She then drove Blockman all the way to his home, where he was afraid to tell his mom what had happened.
After hearing about the incident, Blockman said his mother went to school the next day and confronted the teacher. He remembers kids who were sitting near the windows that look out on the playground telling him that his mom was chasing her and beating her with a purse.
He said that teacher lost her job the next year.
Blockman said there were some places in Siskiyou County that black people simply would not venture alone, particularly Yreka, where the races were very segregated.
In Weed, what is now Lincoln Heights was “The Quarters,” where the black population lived. According to research contained in the documentary, white managers and supervisors lived in the best areas of the town, and the best paying jobs at the lumber mill were reserved for whites. In Weed and McCloud, seating at the movie theater was segregated, and blacks weren’t allowed in the McCloud swimming pool.
In Mount Shasta, Blockman said his family went to restaurants and businesses – some which were more segregated than others – because of the pioneering ways of his father, Ernie Blockman, who he described as “an old legend.”
“We had our trials and tribulations here, but he knew how to manipulate the Mount Shasta system. Mount Shasta depended on him, too, to keep the peace” during the “Black Panther Era” of the 1960s, Blockman said.
In 1968, Blockman said his older brother, who was about 20 at the time, was beaten by a police officer with a large flashlight during the investigation of a crime that he had nothing to do with.
“They pulled him out of his car, searched the trunk, and hit him with their big flashlights, but they didn’t find anything,” said Blockman. “He had lumps and knots all over his head.”
When Blockman’s father found out what happened, he was irate and went directly into the Mount Shasta Police Department to confront the officer. “The officer that did it stepped up, and he called my dad ‘Mr. Blockman.’ And from that time on, things were peaceful,” Blockman said.
A talented athlete, Blockman said on the court or the field, he was well-liked. It was a hard thing to see those same older white people who cheered him on at Mount Shasta High School turn their heads and pretend not to see him on the street when the season was over, he said.
In 1974, his senior year, Blockman said he earned MVP for both football and track. Though Mount Shasta High School always held an awards banquet where the MVPs were recognized, that year, they didn’t have one.
“It wasn’t publicized. That hurt,” Blockman said.
In addition to blazing trails on the football field, Blockman said he and his friends were doing something many white parents didn’t approve of – interracial dating.
“It was a big secret in high school,” said Blockman, adding he never attended a prom or dance because he didn’t want to deal with the wrath of parents who might not want their daughter going with him.
After attending College of the Siskiyous and playing sports there, Blockman worked on the freeway and in the 1970s was more than once turned down for jobs with the city of Mount Shasta. However, he decided this is where he wanted to raise a family and made a conscious choice to do so.
“My kids were raised here and I taught them my values,” said Blockman. “They’re not racially biased. They love everybody, black and white... Maybe one of them will stay here and do the same.”
Blockman said the best thing about “From the Quarters to Lincoln Heights” is that it sparks conversations that can be difficult to start.
“No one acts like they want to talk about race, but you’ll find that they really do. Until this movie came out, no one talked about how it was to be black in Siskiyou County,” said Oliver.
Blockman said it’s his hope that Mount Shasta begins celebrating Black History Month, and the stories of the black community come to the surface, where they can be explored and learned from, so they’re never repeated.
About the film
“From the Quarters to Lincoln Heights” was a collaborative project between Oliver and Langford, a former teacher at Weed High School who wrote his thesis in 1984 on the black culture in Weed. Together, the two men pursued funding for the film.
Sponsored by the Weed Revitalization Coalition, the film was selected as one of 15 projects out of 180 applicants receive a grant of $10,000 from the California Council for the Humanities Story Fund Grant, which looks for untold culture stories of California.
The 85 minute documentary contains more than 50 interviews with Weed’s African American population. It was first premiered in Weed at the College of the Siskiyous to rave reviews in September, 2010. Since then, it has been an official selection in a number of film festivals around the world. It won Best Film on the Black Experience/Marginalized People XXVI at the Black Internation Cinema Festival in Berlin, Germany, and took second place at the North Carolina Black Film Festival. For more information about the film and research behind it, go to fromthequarters.com.
Mount Shasta screening
The Feb. 27 screening at Mount Shasta’s Sisson Museum will begin at 7 p.m. for a donation of $5.