Black in Oregon

I took some time to investigate the history of blacks in Oregon, and what I found was eye-opening. In 1844, the then-territory of Oregon passed a law banning slavery. To modern eyes this may seem quite progressive, until you read the rest of the law and it becomes clear that this was not a statement about the ills and injustice of slavery, but rather an effort to rid the state of black people. In addition to banning slavery, the law also prohibited blacks from entering the state. Those who entered anyway could be whipped “upon his or her bare back not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes”, every six months until they left. The law was repealed the next year, but other “exclusion bills” followed.

In 1857, Oregon joined the United States and became the only state to do so with a clause in its state constitution to specifically exclude blacks. The Oregon Constitution banned slavery and prevented blacks from legally residing in the state, or owning property, voting, etc. Oregon also rescinded (took back) its ratification of the 14th amendment (which gave all native-born Americans citizenship, including blacks) in 1869 and voted against the 15h amendment (to give blacks voting rights) in 1869. It did not ratify the 15th amendment until 1959 (!) and the 14th in 1973 (!!).

Oregon continues to have a small black population – about 2%. That rarity can create its own problems. I found this very thought-provoking:

“Because exclusion policies served to keep minority numbers low, racial discrimination has not been evident to white Oregonians and many outsiders… Perhaps that is why Oregonians have a special problem with race-blindness: it tends to afflict most those who are unaccustomed to seeing themselves in racial terms.” from Race, Politics, and Denial: Why Oregon Forgot to Ratify the Fourteenth Amendment by Cheryl A. Brooks (2005)

And maybe this contributes to not only ignorance, but also violence. Given the recent murder of George Floyd, it was chilling to come across this passage:

“One such case occurred in 1985, when Lloyd Stevenson, a black man, was killed by a policeman using a choke hold. Neither of the two officers involved was disciplined. The case took a bizarre and controversial turn when on the day of Stevenson’s funeral, two police officers sold t-shirts to fellow officers bearing the slogan “Don’t Choke ‘Em, Smoke ‘Em.” They were fired but were eventually reinstated with back pay.” from Blacks in Oregon by Darrell Milner (2019)

There is so much more to learn and so much more to do. And of course it is not just about Oregon. I am grieving for this history and for our present day. Unlike a virus that jumped species and attacked us from the outside, racism is something that we created. We did it to ourselves. That makes us responsible. And that also means it is an opportunity, because we control our actions and how we want the future to be. We get to choose.

1 Comment
1 of 1 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Kiri said,

    June 23, 2020 at 11:22 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    So, I looked it up – Oregon did not remove the black exclusion amendment from its state constitution until 1925.

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