The History of the Black Experience in Oregon
Understanding the Past to Open the Door to a Just Future
Every year in February, America spends 28 days focused on black history. Posters of well-known black figures are prominently displayed in hallways and classrooms (for those who have returned to in-person classes). Assignments are handed out to students to read essays about courageous civil rights activists and important milestones and moments that shaped America’s black experience and US history.
While historical black leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Katherine Johnson, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis are due the attention and respect bestowed on them, limiting the narrative to a few paints an incomplete picture.
US history lessons are full of stories about ordinary people who helped create our nation’s history—the wagon train pioneers and gold rush prospectors—that rarely, if ever, chronicle the sacrifices of unsung black heroes.
In some circles, there’s a movement afoot to incorporate black history into the regular history curriculum, to view it as a central part of the American story rather than treating it as a sidebar to the American history lessons typically taught in US schools.
But we aren’t there yet. And, until we get there, Black History Month must continue to be recognized as a crucial opportunity to broaden students’ knowledge and help them see how the past connects with their lives today—and how it has inspired movements that delivered change.
Connecting to the Past to Build a Better Future
Our work to empower young leaders of all races and ethnicity must include teaching them to connect the past to the present. Race is front and center for today’s students, and they will have a difficult time processing present-day issues without being well-grounded in the issues of the past.
From the racial tension and racist rhetoric on social media giving rise to white supremacy movements to recent efforts to take down Confederate monuments, it’s clear that slavery was the central plotline of American history in the past and continues to inform the present.
Black history teaches us that hard-fought progress is possible for historically oppressed groups and delivers civil rights victories such as the Voting Rights Act.
Black History and the Black Experience in Oregon
Oregon’s black population has always been and continues to be small: about 2 percent of Oregonians, or just over 80,000 people, self-identified as black, according to the 2017 Census Bureau survey. Eight in ten live in the Portland metro area. History provides a reason.
Mention the history of the West, and many Americans conjure up images of cowboys, loggers, pioneers, and homesteaders seeking new lives while dealing with uncertain, challenging circumstances. Although rarely mentioned until recently, black pioneers also carved out a life after coming to Oregon between 1840 and 1870, even as Oregon’s laws limited blacks’ immigration to the state.
At various times throughout Oregon’s history, the Provisional and Territorial governments passed laws excluding blacks from residing in the area. Oregon’s Constitution, adopted in 1857, contained specific language forbidding either free or enslaved blacks who did not already reside in the new state.
Land grants, the black-exclusion laws, the restrictions on voting (the Oregon Constitution barred not just blacks from voting but also Chinese) sent a clear message to anyone who wasn’t white that they were not welcome in Oregon.
Black History Education in Oregon
As is the case throughout the country, some educators have struggled with teaching Black history. It requires facing the uncomfortable truth that a great deal of Black history represents white America at its worst. As a result, what’s taught is often a sanitized and scrubbed version of history.
An example of this can be found in the traditional fourth-grade overnight trip to Oregon City that teaches students about the Oregon Trail with interactive activities. While it’s an integral part of the state and the country’s history, it neglects the story of the racial dynamics of the time.
Parents, students, and influential community leaders and organizations joined together to correct the situation. Those community leaders and organizations include black activist Donna Maxy, who runs a salon called Race Talks that focuses on dismantling barriers between races, and local group Oregon Black Pioneers, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of African Americans in Oregon.
A Beacon of Change and Hope
As the great civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, noted, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Black History Month is cause for celebration, an opportunity to highlight the vast contributions by American blacks and black culture. But it’s also a time to examine history. REAP is pleased to provide expansive resources to help people expand on their knowledge of the black experience. Rather than view Black History Month as just another school assignment or a time when television and other media parade their black material, seeing it as a vehicle for change serves everyone.