Nokes is a former reporter for The Medford Mail Tribune, The Associated Press and The Oregonian and author of three books on Oregon’s history of racial discrimination, including Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory. He lives in West Linn.
The widespread white support in Oregon for the Black Lives Matter movement, reflected in weeks of peaceful demonstrations from Portland to far-off Wallowa County, is in striking contrast to the state’s long history of racial exclusion and discrimination.
Many of the unsavory episodes around race in early Oregon have been largely forgotten, as they receive little or no attention in most schools. Slaves in Oregon? Couldn’t be. A vote on whether Oregon should be a slave state? Impossible. A slavery trial? Certainly not in Oregon. Prominent Black singers Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson denied a decent hotel room in Salem? Doubtful.
All true. And there’s much more.
During most of Oregon’s early history, exclusion laws banned African Americans from settling in Oregon. Informal sundown laws – prohibiting Blacks from remaining in a town after sundown – were commonplace, as was redlining to keep Blacks from buying homes in many Portland neighborhoods. And when I was a beginning reporter in Medford in the 1960s, the lone Black family fled town after a cross was burned on the family’s front lawn.
From the beginning of white settlement, Blacks were unwelcome. Peter Burnett, a captain of the first major wagon train in 1843, envisioned Oregon and the West as a region evermore off-limits to Blacks.
As the author of Oregon’s first exclusion law in 1844, Burnett explained to a Missouri newspaper: “The object is to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population [Blacks]. We are in a new world, under the most favorable circumstance, and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries.”
The exclusion law provided for up to 39 lashes for any Black person who refused to leave Oregon after three years. Cleverly written to benefit slaveholders, the law allowed slaves to be kept for up to three years, reversing an earlier law that banned slavery altogether. Known as “Peter Burnett’s Lash Law,‘’ this law was dropped within a year in favor of a return to a flat ban on slavery. But most of the early wagon trains brought at least a handful of slaves during the period leading up to the Civil War. Although no one kept track, there may have been as many as 100.
Whether Oregon would become a slave state was recognized as the single most important issue facing delegates to the 1857 Constitutional Convention in Salem. Leading the argument for slavery was Supreme Court Justice Matthew P. Deady, the convention president, who famously declared: “If a citizen of Virginia can lawfully own a Negro (of which there is no doubt), then I as a citizen of Oregon can lawfully obtain the same right of property in this Negro by either purchase or inheritance.‘’
Although strongly opposed by some delegates, notably by Jesse Applegate, a pro-slavery clause was submitted to voters who handily rejected it. But they approved a clause to ban Blacks, similar to Burnett’s exclusion law. Blacks also were denied the right to vote or own property. Applegate refused to sign the Constitution, later explaining “It is hard to realize that men having hearts and consciences . . . could be led so far by party prejudice as to put such an article in the frame of a government intended to be free and just.”
Of course, Oregon wasn’t alone in its hostility to Blacks. Discriminatory laws were prevalent throughout a number of the non-slavery territories and states in this period. But Oregon stood out as the only free state admitted into the Union with an exclusion clause in its Constitution.
The Civil War resolved the issue of slavery, but otherwise did nothing to enhance the status of Blacks in Oregon. The Oregon Legislature quickly ratified the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery. While it also ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 granting citizenship and equal rights to Blacks, it turned around and withdrew ratification two years later. Not until 1959, did Oregon approve the Fifteenth Amendment granting voting rights to Blacks.
But over the years, there were many who stood up to help turn Oregon toward a more just state – too many to list here.
Among them are Applegate, who argued against slavery at the Constitutional Convention and Obed Dickinson, pastor of the Salem Congregational Church who admitted three former slaves into his church in 1861, putting his career at risk.
Also high on such a list is former U.S. senator and governor, Mark Hatfield, who as a student drove the singers Anderson and Robeson to find a hotel room in Portland in 1942. Eleven years later as a legislator, he led enactment of a public accommodations law that established everyone is entitled to “full and equal accommodations . . . without any distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race.” Hatfield also helped expunge racist language from the Constitution.
Mention must also be made of William McCoy, Oregon’s first Black legislator, who led the successful move to reapprove the Fourteenth Amendment in 1973, and Oregon Supreme Court Justice Reuben Boise who, as a legislator, helped kill another exclusion law in 1854.
One person very much deserving recognition is Robin Holmes, a former slave, whose suit against his former owner in 1852 resulted in a definitive ruling that slavery was unlawful in Oregon. Holmes was the head of a family of five slaves brought from Missouri in 1844 by Nathaniel Ford, who put them to work on his Polk County farm. Holmes and his wife, Polly, were allowed to go free in 1850, but Ford kept three of their children, which prompted Holmes to file his suit seeking their freedom. Judge George Williams of the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in Holmes’ favor in a landmark ruling in 1853.
Because of Holmes’ courage and perseverance, as an illiterate Black man prevailing in court against a white man who would serve four terms in Oregon’s provisional and territorial legislatures, he deserves consideration for a statue on the Oregon State Capital grounds. To the best of my knowledge, there are no statues commemorating any of Oregon’s early Black population. But that is a matter for another day.