by Celine Sannes-Pond
Hiding behind the progress we associate with Oregon is a long and ugly history of racial discrimination. While many minority groups have been subject to significant intolerance and violence in this state, Oregon has been particularly overt in its lawful racism toward the black community, creating a torrid and painful history that spills over into present-day race relations and representation.
When I think of pioneers, images of the “Oregon Trail” game come to mind, involving a lot of walking, crossing rivers and battling diphtheria. However, what is often hard to consider is why so many folks undertook this journey: to create a safe haven for racial homogeneity and bigotry.
Oregon holds the distinction of being the only state ever admitted to the Union with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, owning property or signing contracts within the state. While Oregon joined the United States in 1859, it wasn’t until 1926 that black people were legally allowed to live in the state.
Calvin Henry, president of Oregon Assembly of Black Affairs, said in an article to The Oregonian, “People in the South were quite honest about who they are … black people in the South knew what they were up against. People here to try [sic] fool you.”
Numerous laws have been enacted throughout Oregon’s history that clearly attempted to deter blacks from entering the state and living alongside its white residents. According to the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon’s earliest anti-slavery laws allowed a three-year grace period for slave-owners to “remove” their slaves out of the territory and freed all slaves who had been forced to remain.
However, being freed by the Oregonian government did not qualify former slaves to live in the state. Instead, males were instructed to leave the territory after two years, and females after three. Remaining in Oregon meant facing Peter Burnett’s Lash Law, which stipulated that any freed slave who remained in the territory would be lashed every six months until they did leave.
This law was amended in 1845 when many decided that lashing was too harsh a punishment; however, it was replaced with a clause stipulating that any free blacks in Oregon could be offered up “publicly for hire”—essentially auctioning them back into slavery—to any white person who would remove them from the state.
In many ways, these laws were symbolic; they did little in practice, but made Oregon’s stance on race relations very clear. The lashing law and its amendment were both repealed before they could truly take effect, with only one man, Jacob Vanderpool ever being removed from the territory under the law. Vanderpool owned a saloon, restaurant and boarding house in either Salem or Oregon City (the records are unclear). It is likely his success that got him arrested for the crime of being Black in Oregon. He was given 30 days to leave the state and complied.
Ultimately, these laws did not become part of Oregon’s legal system when Oregon became a state in 1859. However, the attitudes that shaped the territory’s laws remained prevalent when the constitution was drawn up. Passage of the constitution included two referendums that were put to popular vote: the first in regards to slavery, with 75 percent of Oregonians voting not to allow it in the new state, and the other on whether or not to allow black and mixed race people to live in Oregon with a majority of 89 percent of Oregonians voting to keep the state white.
As a result, the exclusion clause that specified that no people of color could live in Oregon remained in the state constitution until 1926.
The next several decades of Oregon history featured race relations that were bumpy at best: 1866 saw the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which acknowledged African Americans as U.S. citizens, but was rescinded on the state level in 1868 as a symbolic gesture that Oregon was not interested in supporting racial equality. The amendment wasn’t re-ratified until 1959, 91 years later.
After the exclusion clause of the constitution was lifted, many cities and counties chose to become “sundown towns”—areas where it was legal for Black individuals to pass through but not stay the night.
In the 1940s, former U.S. Sen. and Willamette alumni Mark Hatfield had to drive black singers Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson to Portland after a performance in Salem due to the whites-only hotel policy in the state capital.
Although these laws were only enforced in a few cases, they accomplished the Oregon founders’ goal of creating a white state. The laws acted as a profound deterrent to other African Americans who considered moving to Oregon, as evidenced by census results on the racial breakdown in Oregon: in 1860, there were only 128 black Oregonians.
In 2010, census results painted a very similar picture: while blacks make up 13 percent of the population nation-wide, they account for only three percent of Oregonians.
Equally as concerning, The Oregonian reported that half of all black children in Oregon live in poverty, compared to 19 percent of white children. While this reflects problems that occur on a national level, a rate of 50 percent for black childhood poverty is appalling even compared to the national rate of 38 percent. Further, although black people make up only three percent of the general population, they account for seven percent of occupants in Oregon prisons.
Clearly this systematic racism is alive and well in Oregon today: in 2002, Ballot Measure 14 proposed the removal of racist language like “negroes, mulattoes, and whites” from the Oregon constitution, where racial legislation had remained but not been enforced. The measure passed and the language was removed, but only after 29 percent of Oregonians voted against it.
Jennifer Walter, a lawyer, activist and educator from Lebanon, Ore., agrees that laws like these were put in place to make Oregon to establish and maintain its whiteness. As a sundown town, Lebanon would only allow African Americans to spend the night in the town if they were playing at the local Elk Club and left immediately after their performance run had ended, Walter recalled.
“[M]ore than anything, the culture of the state kept it that way and continues to influence our minority populations.” Walter said. “The lack of a significant minority population keeps Oregonians unaware of how the culture maintains the whiteness and the white privilege. When you have a community that is so overwhelming white, you don’t really need laws to maintain white privilege. Newton’s law of inertia operates.”
According to Walter, Oregon became racist as a result of the trials experienced by poor white southerners. An influential member of Oregon’s early state government, Jesse Applegate is quoted in the Oregon Encyclopedia, saying, “Being one of the ‘poor whites’ from a slave state, I can speak with some authority for that class—many of those people hated slavery, but a much larger number of them hated free negroes worse even than slaves.”
Walter describes rural, mostly white communities in similar terms. Her home of Lebanon is still almost entirely white—according to the most recent census, only 0.5 percent of the population is black. She says that being isolated from other racial groups for so long has instilled a sense that other races are threatening to their existing culture and economic system.
“I don’t think there’s any way to create equity without including poor whites in it,” Walter said. She raises particular concerns about the role of low educational attainment in shaping racist mindsets and argues that disadvantaged communities need to be given better educational and other resources in order to erode racism’s pervasive grasp.
All of these problems lead back to the one question I hope every Willamette student is frequently asking themself: What can I do to help?
Structural racism is, of course, an incredibly large problem, but it’s not insurmountable if everyone gets involved.
One of the most important things we can do is educate ourselves. Read more histories that center on racism in Oregon or wherever you’re from. Read articles about how to discuss racism with people who hold prejudicial views, and educate yourself on how those prejudices arise and how to combat them.
Educate yourself, and then talk about what you’ve learned. Call people out for using racist language or supporting racist ideas. Shut down racist jokes when your friends and families make them. Talk to your racist uncle about why he holds his opinions, and try to open dialogue. Write me an impassioned email letting me know what I’ve gotten wrong in this article so that I can do better next time.
On a larger scale, ask Willamette why we don’t have more professors of color. Ask why American Ethnic Studies was nixed as a major, despite community interest and the importance of critical race theory. Ask why campus safety harassed a student of color and refused to let him enter his room while they searched it and found nothing. Ask what we can all do, as a university, to be better.
Racism is a problem rooted in societal attitudes. As such, no individual can solve racism. But it’s everyone’s problem. Get in there and make some change! Oregon can be the free-love, sandal-wearing utopia we all dream of—we just need to put in work to help it get there.