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Working the Quincy Mill: African American Lumber Mill Workers in Northern California, 1926-1955

Economic opportunity motivated millions of early 20th Century African Americans to leave the segregated South.  Most of the people of the Great Migration found better jobs and better pay in northern factories in World War I and western defense industries in World War II.  However, at least a few thousand migrants pursed improved employment opportunities in tiny western lumber mill towns.  Not all of the black migrants had been sharecroppers – tens of thousands had industrial experience in southern pine mills.  This experience provided another option for African Americans when combined with another economic reality, the demise of southern forests and the opening of high quality and vast quantities of western lumber.

By the 1920s the southern lumber industry neared the end result of decades of “cut-out and get-out” logging philosophy.  At the same time improved transportation and mechanization provided western forest products to eastern markets.  A number of southern lumber companies recognized this reality and invested in western mills.  Powell Lumber Company of Lake Charles, Louisiana was one such company.  

In late 1926 Powell Lumber purchased two existing mills in northern California, about fifteen miles apart.  Those mills became the Quincy Lumber Company.  One of the mills, located in Sloat, California, about 75 miles west of Reno, Nevada, was truly a company town–the purchase included a saw mill, box factory, company store, and segregated company housing.  The other mill formed the imposing eastern boundary of Quincy, about 15 miles west of Sloat, then a town of less than 1,000.  Though not a company town in that all of the facilities were owned by Powell Lumber, the mill complex did include housing that came to be known as “the Quarters,” home to the firm’s black employees.

Unfortunately, this investment was poorly timed.  The Quincy mill sat silent during most of the 1930s and only the Sloat box factory operated during the same period.  However, by 1937 lumber industry fortunes in Northern California

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