Printed in the Oregon State University Press
June 7, 2017
On June 4, Kirk Johnson wrote a piece in the New York Times spotlightling Oregon’s racialist recent past in the wake of the fatal stabbing May 26 of two men on a Portland Max train. The victims of that attack were stabbed when they defended two teenage girls, one black and one muslim, from hate speech. R. Gregory Nokes, author of Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in Oregon, offers a bit of historical context:
The New York Times has suggested that the harassment on a Max train of two persons of color, and the stabbing of three good Samaritans, two of whom died, was a legacy of the racial prejudice and animosity that prevailed in Oregon’s early history.
While that might strike some Oregonians as a stretch, the racism that scarred Oregon’s history is an uncomfortable fact. Beginning in 1844, Oregon had exclusion laws on its books banning African Americans from the region for most of its early history. An exclusion clause was written into Oregon’s Constitution, and not removed until 1926. The laws were generally not enforced, but they served to discourage African Americans from emigrating to the region. This explains, in part, why there are so few people of color in Oregon.
Oregon had a history of sundown laws, red-lining of residential neighborhoods, and accommodations and restaurants closed to blacks well into the mid-20th century.
Slavery, although not legal, was tolerated in Oregon until the Civil War, and Oregon actually voted in 1857 on whether it should be a slave state, although the proposal was defeated. While Oregon sided with the north during the Civil War, there was considerable pro-South sentiment in the state, reflected in how the Legislature dealt with the amendments that resulted from the war. The Legislature promptly ratified both the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship and equal rights to African Americans. But the Legislature rescinded its ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and didn’t re-ratify it until 1973. The lawmakers declined even to consider the 15th Amendment granting voting rights to African Americans, and didn’t actually approve it until 1959. The votes were symbolic, of course, as by this time blacks had citizenship and voting rights under federal law.
For more on the early Oregonians’ attitude toward blacks, Chinese and other people of color, including the 1852 trial that was the only slavery trial held in Oregon, see my award-winning book, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory, published by Oregon State University Press in 2013.
R. Gregory Nokes