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Earth Notes: African-Americans in Arizona's Timber Industry

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the timber industry was drawn to the Colorado Plateau’s extensive pine forests. And African Americans—newly freed from slavery—played a big part in that industry.

Sawmill towns in the South had become major hubs for emancipated people to find jobs. By 1927, two-thirds of the workers in the Southern lumber industry were Black. They faced dangerous working conditions, racism and low wages under white managers.

At the same time, choice old-growth trees were disappearing in the South. So, the Cady Lumber Company based in McNary, Louisiana decided to relocate its entire operation—machinery, employees, their families, and possessions-- to the rich forests of the White Mountains in northeast Arizona. McNary became the name of the new company town as well.

Nearly 500 of the workers were African American. Segregation still existed - Black people lived in a separate part of town with different schools and churches. But for many, lumber industry wages were better in Arizona and the threat of violence was less than in the South where Jim Crow laws were rampant.

Cady Lumber eventually became Southwest Forest Industries and moved operations again to Flagstaff, at the time also a segregated town. By the 1950s African Americans were working on all the Northern Arizona forests and living in Holbrook, Winslow, and Williams as well.

Logging jobs meant workers migrated as the economic winds shifted. And as they moved westward, they helped build a vital industry for the nation.

This Earth Note was written by Rose Houk and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Rose Houk is a Flagstaff-based writer and editor, specializing in natural history and environmental topics.  Rose was a founding contributor of KNAU's Earth Notes and has written nearly 200 scripts for the series. She is also the author of many publications about national park and monuments, along with audio productions. 

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