James Langford, Retired 2007, Weed Union Elementary School District
After retirement, he collaborated on African-American migration documentary
James Langford was the first African-American teacher at Weed Elementary School, launching his career there in 1974. He wrote his master’s thesis on the history of the local African-American community and, after retirement, he went on to collaborate with filmmaker Mark Oliver on the documentary From the Quarters to Lincoln Heights.
The film explores the African-American migration from the southern U.S. in the 1920s to work in some of the world’s largest lumber mills in Siskiyou County, as well as the little-known history of segregation that existed in this part of California. The documentary was recognized in a number of film festivals around the world.
Here, Langford gives insight into his own journey that brought him to the small town of Weed and his contribution to the community.
Why did you become a teacher?
When I was just about ready to graduate high school, the Berkeley police department opened a position called police service assistant. I got into that program in 1967 and it was a wonderful job. I worked for the police department from 1967 to 1972. In my last two years, I was a jailer. It wasn’t all that great. I got to see people at their worst.
My wife—we weren’t married at the time—was graduating with a degree in English and wanted to be a teacher. I would get off at 8 a.m., then help her out in her classroom. I was also going to San Francisco State University and decided to get a teaching credential.
You grew up in big cities like Madison, Denver and Berkeley. How did you end up teaching in Weed?
After I left the police department, they called me from San Francisco State and said there was a job in Weed. I got an interview and the guy said if I wanted the job I could have it. For a teacher, junior high is tough. For a new teacher, it’s like no, no, no, don’t wanna do that! Anyway, I agreed to do it. The day my oldest daughter was born, I moved to Weed. I was the first African-American teacher at Weed Elementary School.
The first couple years of teaching were a little rocky— you know, getting your feet under you with seventh and eighth graders. And I decided after two years, “Hey, I can do this!” And so I did it for 31 years. I taught language arts and social studies and eventually, in my 32nd year, my principal asked if I ever thought about teaching fourth grade.
So the next year I was in fourth grade—it was a totally different experience. The kids love you! You’re like their mentor, their role model—you’re all that. I loved teaching science—I never had a chance to teach science before, and I’m a science guy!
In my 33rd year of teaching, I had a fourth/fifth grade combo in the same room, so that was like wearing two hats. It was a wonderful experience. I would say that was one of my best years of teaching.
How did your master’s thesis end up as inspiration for a documentary?
There wasn’t much written information about African-American people in Weed, so I decided to write my master’s thesis on the subject. It was called The Black Minority of Weed: Its History, Institutions and Politics. I gave a copy to the high school, the elementary school, the library— it’s all over the place. Mark Oliver, a filmmaker, read my master’s thesis and contacted me. He said we could make a film about the African-American contributions to this area and the fact it was a segregated town at one time. I became the co-producer on the film.
That’s what’s kind of amazing—when some people see the film they go, “Whoa, I didn’t realize that was going on!” It was a shocker to me, too.
I’ve never really been around segregation. In the early 1950s, my dad took my brothers and me on a trip to Prescott, Arkansas, and things were different then in the South. I was 9 years old, but I can definitely remember certain things that were different from where I came from. You were supposed to say “yes sir, no ma’am” and not be a wise guy. My dad had to warn us about certain things.
When I did my master’s thesis and then got to do this film, it reinforced a lot of things I already knew.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; Denver, Colorado; and Berkeley, so this small town thing was really foreign to me. We bought 5 acres of land. It was kinda like I’m in the woods! I can have chickens, I can have pigeons, I can do bees, my kids were all in 4-H. I got to do a lot of things! I consider Weed my home, and I know that my teaching career was wonderful. I’m very proud of being the first African-American teacher in Weed Elementary and I hope that my tenure there was educational for a lot of people.
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.
This profile also appears in Retired Educator Summer 2018, as part of the “How Are You Spending Your Retirement” series. To share the exciting and interesting things you have done since retiring, email us at RetiredEducator@CalSTRS.com.