There’s a reason that the only African-American character in Burying My Dead appears on a Virginia battlefield: in 1857, when Oregon was positioning itself for statehood, the exclusion of blacks was written into its constitution. Here’s the jaw-dropping, no-holds-barred clause:
“No free negro or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall ever come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contract, or maintain any suit therein; and the Legislative Assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such free negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the State, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the State, or employ or harbor them therein.”
In short, Oregon was the first – and the only – American state that was, from the outset, established for whites only.
The stage had been set 15 years before by Peter Burnett, a former slaveholder from Missouri. Under his leadership, the Provisional Government passed a law forbidding all black people – freed or enslaved – from living in Oregon. “The object is to keep clear of this most troublesome class of population,” he wrote. “We are in a new world, under most favorable circumstances, and we wish to avoid most of these great evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries.” Black men already here had two years to leave; women had three. Any black settler remaining could be whipped “not less than 20 and no more than 39 stripes” every six months. The “lash law” was repealed and Burnett moved to California to become its governor, but a foundation of racism and exclusion remained.
In 1848, a new law made it illegal for any “Negro or Mullato” to live here. Two years later, the Oregon Donation Land Act granted 650 acres of land to whites and “half-breed Indians” but no other person of color was allowed to claim land. Immigration from the South surged, and many settlers brought their supremacist inclinations with them. When Oregon became the Union’s 33rd state in 1859, it banned slavery – not because it condemned the practice but because the state wanted to avoid conflict. Freed men of color were also banned because many feared they might join with native tribes and rise up against the white settlers.
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation drove pro-slavery, pro-Confederate sentiment to a fever pitch. Secret secessionist societies cropped up in the Willamette Valley. In response, the new Union party, supported by Governor Addison Gibbs (think SW Gibbs Street) created fraternal organizations that pledged to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. But even Henry Pittock, editor of the Unionist Oregonian, had reservations that surfaced with the end of the war. “This nation of the white race,” he wrote, “should well ponder the question before it admits the African, the Mongolian [Chinese] and the Indian to all its privileges.” Antagonism against the growing Chinese population only magnified concerns about African-Americans.
After the Civil War, freed slaves were granted citizenship and equal protection by the 14th amendment. Oregon ratified it in 1866, but rescinded ratification two years later, claiming two of the votes were illegally cast. It was not “reratified” until 1973.
In 1870, the fifteenth amendment was intended to secure the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” though, in practice, it did not achieve its goals. (You notice, of course, that gender is not included, leaving women to fight for suffrage on their own.) Oregon was one of just six states that refused to ratify the amendment. That didn’t happen officially until 1959.
So it’s not so surprising to remember that the Ku Klux Klan found fertile ground in 1920’s Oregon, becoming the largest KKK organization west of the Mississippi River. Or that Walter Pierce, a member of the Klan, was elected Governor of Oregon in 1922, and served in the U.S. Congress from 1932 to 1942. Or, that the largest skinhead movement in the country settled here in the 1980’s and 90’s. Or, sadly, that people like Jeremy Christian, who bullied two young Muslim women on a MAX train and decapitated two men trying to protect them, still walk among us.
All these things were very much on my mind last Sunday when I attended a fundraiser for the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (https://www.raicestexas.org/) at Augustana Lutheran Church in northeast Portland. Dozens of talented jazz musicians had gathered to entertain a packed house to raise awareness and money for families pulled apart at the border or awaiting an uncertain future in detention. Outside, the temperature had soared to 99 degrees. Inside, foreheads were shiny with sweat. Clothes stuck to pews. Hands waved makeshift fans frenetically. But this diverse crowd was proud, impassioned, and joyful. We understood our past and the immense challenges of our present, but we were there in hope.
“From Mississippi to Maxville/From hanging up to cutting down” sang vocalist Marilyn Keller. The song is “What Do the Trees Tell You?” – part of a grand work by the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble entitled From Maxville to Vanport. I hope to see the performance in its entirety one day. With poetry and emotion, the lyrics spoke to the longing of so many black families who moved north to Oregon – and the longing of immigrants everywhere – to find a better life, despite the injustices awaiting them.
The legacy of our shameful past lingers. Sometimes it’s subtle. More often these days, it screams at us. Discouragement is understandable but not an option. We need to bend that moral arc toward justice. It’s clearly not happening by itself.