Blacks in Oregon
7:27 am
Wed July 30, 2014

"Why Aren't There More Blacks in Oregon?"

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. We celebrate it at a time when Oregon's population is not quite two-percent African-American.  A Portland State University professor is criss-crossing the state asking this provocative question: Why aren't there more blacks in Oregon?

Portland State University professor Walidah Imarisha.
Portland State University professor Walidah Imarisha.
Credit Walidah Imarisha

It was a bittersweet commemoration as a packed auditorium listened to the Northwest Freedom Singers and heard Portland State University professor Walidah Imarisha says that in the 1840's, Oregon became the only U.S. territory with a racial exclusion law:

"It outlawed slavery, but it also outlawed black people from living here and included a clause called the lash law that said that black people would be publicly whipped every six months until we left the state."

Imarisha says when Indian land was confiscated in the 1850's, the no-blacks law was used as a selling point to attract white settlers. In 1859, Oregon became the only state to have an exclusion clause in its constitution:

"Black folks did not come to Oregon because they got the message loud and clear that Oregon did not want them.  In many ways, the racial exclusion clause was like a flashing neon sign at the borders that says you're not welcome here."

Imarisha says according to a majority of historians, Oregon had the highest per capita membership in the Ku Klu Klan in the twenties when a Klan-endorsed candidate, Walter Pierce, was elected governor.   Some Oregonians wrongly believe the Klan's presence was limited to the rural parts of the state.  Portlander Laverne Bagley Brown knows otherwise:

"My first sense and knowledge about the Klan came when we had people come to our house with pitchforks and shovels and axes and screaming and yelling one Saturday night and it was very scary.  We couldn't understand why our parents didn't talk back to them."

It was 1939 and Bagley Brown was 10. Her family was building a house in Portland.  Klan members told them to stop or they'd burn it down.  They kept building.  The house was burned to the ground. But they did not consider leaving Oregon:

"Never, never, uh-uh."

Walida Imarisha says blacks who left the South were not drawn north just for economic opportunity in the first half of the 20th century. They were fleeing Jim Crow:

"Lynchings were happening as an epidemic.  There were three to four lynchings per week for decades, mostly in the South, and so we see that part of that great migration out of the South as an attempt to get away from this state-sanctioned terrorism."

They were not coming to Oregon.  Then came World War II and the recruitment of blacks in the South by the Kaiser Shipyard which was building and launching ships in Portland as fast as it could:

"Ship horn....the color guard will raise the American flag as the Klamath Falls Marine Band plays the national anthem...."

The shipyard and jobs on the railroad are the reasons that Portland is home to more than  half of Oregon's African-Americans.  The city is six-percent black while Eugene and Salem are one and a half percent and Bend is a half-percent African-American. The black shipyard workers mostly lived in the Vanport housing project, but in 1948, Oregonians tuned to their radio heard the bad news:

"Dale Denny from the KOIN news staff and yours truly Ted Cook have come out here to see what we could of the disaster...."

Vanport was washed away by flood waters.  Some expected the residents to leave Oregon, but they stayed. It's part of a pattern of resistance and resilience woven through Oregon's black experience: In 1867, blacks in Salem, though here illegally, raised funds and built their own school.  In 1910, blacks were part of a decades-long timber community in Wallowa County.  In 1925, blacks in Bend fought to get Jim Crow signs taken out of local businesses, and won.  In the fifties, Portland's North Williams Avenue was one of the jazz capitals of America until it was bulldozed away in order to build the coliseum. But jazz continues to thrive here:

Thara Memory is a Grammy winning trumpeter and educator. A Florida native, Memory was living in Los Angeles during the Watts riots and decided to head north:

"Portland was like paradise....When I go down home, they say why do you want to live up there around all them white folks? So the obvious answer is, why would black people want to live around this many white people? I'm the only black person who lives in my building.  I'm all right with that.  There are a lot of black people that ain't all right with that."

To historian Walidah Imarisha, it's clear that Oregon's early laws shaped our future. Memory wants to change that shape:

"I want to make the next 200 years better than the last 200 years."

Although the exclusion clause has been gone for decades, it took Oregonians until 2002 to get rid of racial references in the state constitution.