Oregon’s Racist Roots

Photo courtesy of Oregon History Project

Unlike the rest of the historical United States, Oregon didn’t just enslave and then segregate black people; the state criminalized their very existence.

Under the first exclusion law passed in 1848, black people in Oregon were the first true “illegal aliens” in the state. Oregon was the only state to enter the Union with racial exclusion laws.

“The object is to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population [blacks]. We are in a new world, under the most favorable circumstances and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries,” said Peter Burnett, in support of the law. He later became the first governor of California, according to The Oregon Encyclopedia.

Those of black or mixed-race heritage could not live in, own property or make contracts in Oregon. Though the exclusion law was repealed in 1926, throughout the 1900s many towns in Oregon were known as “sundown towns,” where black people were not allowed after sundown. These towns included Lebanon, Salem, and Eugene.

With roots tangled so deep in racism, what does this state’s past mean for present-day Oregonians?

Many of the state’s residents are unaware of this history, or know only that Oregon was one of the few states to outlaw slavery. Although this is true, it’s not for the reasons one might hope.

While the climate in pioneer-day Oregon was anti-slavery, it was also anti-black. Slavery was seen as an economic threat to many of the poor white farmers who moved to the territory.

Walter Pierce, former governor of Oregon, was directly affiliated with the KKK.

Since its founding, Oregon experienced over 200 years of racial brutality and white supremacy, even electing Walter Pierce, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as governor in 1922.

In the 53 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, progress away from this racist culture has undoubtedly been made. Yet, with a past so firmly ingrained in racist rhetoric, is it possible that we have really come so far in only a quarter of the time that it took to create this state of whiteness?

Oregon has a population that is only 3 percent black. If you are a white person living here, it may be easy to overlook a culture that favors and empowers white people more than people of color. After all, it’s the status quo and you live your existence surrounded by other white folk. The racist culture persists, seeping through and escaping the notice of those unaffected.

Can this much homogeneity really be a positive, progressive state of existence? Oregon’s founders intended for this striking lack of diversity, and it has persisted through generations.

On the other hand, if you are a person of color, perhaps you’ve felt a societal pressure thrusting you into a state of “otherness,” stinging against your skin daily. Perhaps you’ve even experienced instances of blatant, violent racism in Oregon. I hope against hope that I’ve got that all wrong; our experiences are individual, unique, and I cannot possibly know yours.

However, history has shaped our current collective experiences. The past should not be forgotten or swept under the rug. In order to transform the psyche of our society into something better, in order to mend wounds and understand our current experiences, we must look backwards.

“It is the lived history and the living legacy of people in our communities,” said Walidah Imarisha, writer, educator, and poet.

Imarisha addresses Oregon’s racial history in her touring conversation and lecture project, “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History.”

“Oregon’s very foundation was created as a white homeland, a white nation-state,” said Imarisha.

“I think that Oregon is useful to study specifically because it is not different from the rest of the country,” said Imarisha. “The policies, ideologies and practices that shaped Oregon shaped this entire nation. The difference with Oregon is that they were bold enough to write it down, a lot.”

Despite being criminalized in Oregon, many black people moved to Portland as railway workers, after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Though blacks were redlined to segregated neighborhoods, a thriving culture and community emerged in the Albina neighborhood, according to Imarisha.

“There were never supposed to be black communities in Oregon at all, and the fact that black communities are here, that they have created institutions and that they have set down roots is important to recognize,” said Imarisha. “That this is a form of not just survival, but transformation.”

It is vital that the people of Oregon encourage further positive transformation and diversity. It’s all too easy to step back into the blurred lines of complacency; it takes bravery to confront ourselves.

After the presidential election in November, The Oregonian reported a “rise in bullying and racial intolerance” in Portland’s public schools. The specific instances included a senior prank suggestion at Lake Oswego High School that read, “Create a club called Ku Klux Klub and find every black kid and sacrifice them.”

It is clear that Oregon and its white inhabitants need to examine the past and the present, and the direct effects of the current culture climate. Oregon is so often viewed by the rest of the world as a blue, liberal state. But who are we really, Oregon?

Column and Feature Photo by Emily Goodykoontz

Timeline by Emily Goodykoontz and Scarlett Herren

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