Whites Only: Race in Oregon

There are whiter states in America, but when Oregon entered the Union in 1859, it did so as a “whites-only” state, the only free state to do so. 

One hundred and fifty years later, Portland is the whitest big city in America, with a population that is 72.2 percent white—almost ten percentage points above the national rate of 62.6 percent—and only 6.3 percent African American. In Ashland where I live, 322 residents identified as African-American out of a population of 20,733 in 2017. 

Recently, I dug into Oregon’s unquiet history with race, a counter narrative to its image as a redoubt of crunchy, progressive, west coast liberalism.

Here is some of what I’ve learned.

Illegal aliens

The first black exclusion law in Oregon, adopted in 1844, had sharp edges. Called the “lash law,” it mandated that blacks attempting to settle in Oregon would be publicly whipped—thirty-nine lashes, repeated every six months—until they departed. There is no record of any official whipping—the law was written with a grace period, and it was repealed before it had expired—but the message was clear. 

In 1849, the Oregon Territorial Government adopted a second black exclusion law, which was repealed in 1853.

The greatest impact of these laws was not in how many blacks were whipped, sent out of the state, or stopped at the state line but their deterrent effect on potential black immigrants. They made clear that Oregon was a hostile destination for blacks contemplating a move west. And the laws worked: Potential black immigrants who had the means and the motivation to go west simply chose to go elsewhere. Why choose danger?

Next to the exclusion laws, the most crippling anti-black law passed during these years was the federal Donation Land Act of 1850, which declared that land would only be granted to “every white settler…American half breed Indians included,” a clause that extended eligibility to the offspring of early white male settlers and their Indian wives.

By moving most Indians to reservations and excluding all but white landownership, the vision of a white homeland in Oregon became public policy. The profits, power, and political influence that flowed from near exclusive white landownership fortified, as the Oregon Encyclopedia notes, “a racially stratified society in which white ascendancy was assured and nonwhite marginalization was profound.” 

“In Oregon, African Americans were essentially illegal aliens,” a member of the Oregon History Society Quarterly writes.

The numbers told the story: 1860 Oregon census counted 128 blacks and 52,110 whites.  

Tightening the screws

As newly formed western states wrestled with endorsing or prohibiting slavery on moral grounds, the Oregon constitution, adopted in 1857, banned slavery, not because it supported emancipation but it offered yet another strategy to keep blacks out. In turn, the Oregon Legislature passed two bills in 1862 that targeted African Americans: one enacted an annual poll tax of $5 for each black person (possibly the first black poll tax in the country); the other prohibited mixed marriages.

Wherever a demand for specialized labor materialized, black workers were typically recruited elsewhere, imported to Oregon, and then often deported, by formal or informal means, after the need for their labor was exhausted. In the 1890s, for example, when coal deposits were found in the hills near present-day Coos Bay, hundreds of blacks from Appalachia were brought to work in the mines. When the coal was gone, they were sent back.

In the 1920’s, Oregon became Klu Klux Klan territory. The first Klan organizers arrived in Oregon from California and the South in early 1921, and the Oregon chapter of the KKK quickly became the largest west of the Mississippi River (although black Oregonians had countered with the first NAACP west of the Mississippi). “It was not uncommon for KKK members to parade through Portland and other towns in full regalia, displays that were often followed by torchlight rallies and public cross burnings,” writes historian Darrell Miller in his essay, “Blacks in Oregon.” 

Police fueled the beatings and murders of people of color while newspapers fanned the violence.  

When “Birth of a Nation” premiered in Portland in 1915, The Oregonian (the oldest continuously published newspaper on the West Coast) called the film a “superb achievement.”

In her The Second Coming of the Klu Klux Klan, historian Linda Gordon reports that in 1921, the Portland police department established the hundred-man Portland Police Vigilantes and commissioned them as police deputies, while a nine-man Black Patrol used violence with total impunity. 

In 1922, Klansmen won election to local and county offices throughout the state, snared seats in the state legislature, and installed an ally as governor. Their demise, however, was as precipitous as their rise. As charges of corruption and sexual scandals rocked the Klan in other states, most Oregonian Klansman quit the organization. 

Black Pioneers

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1880s brought the first large influx of blacks to Oregon. They came and stayed, earning posthumously the title “Oregon’s Black Pioneers.”

The Oregon Historical Society’s 2013 exhibit “All Aboard” tells their story. By 1940, “almost 99 percent of black men in Portland” were employed in the railroad industry, working as waiters, cooks, porters, redcaps, and shop laborers. Barred from existing services, the city’s blacks, like their brothers in “separate but equal” communities across the country, “needed to provide their own services.” The state’s first “colored” community rose from this necessity: the first black newspaper, black hotels, churches, social clubs, barbers, and more. Called Albina, the neighborhood was the only section of Portland where blacks could settle.

The second influx of blacks came during World War II, when southern blacks were recruited in large numbers to work in the Kaiser Shipyards on the banks of the Columbia River in Portland. The hastily constructed Vanport City, which housed Kaiser workers, grew in 1944 to include 100,000 people, 40 percent of whom were black. It became Oregon’s second-largest city and the largest US housing project—and surely the only to be surrounded by dikes, creating a literal as well as visual barrier.

On May 30, 1948, the Columbia River flooded and the dike protecting Vanport broke. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine notes that “within minutes the entire city was underwater, and nearly 18,000 people, many of them black, were left homeless.” For the black families that remained, the only option was the already overcrowded Albina district, where 80 percent of Portland’s blacks then lived.

Urban removal

In the 1950s, race relations in Oregon took on the sheen of fairness. Following the lead of other states, Oregon passed a fair-employment act favoring blacks in 1947, and ended the ban on interracial marriage in 1951. A state law making discrimination illegal passed in 1953. (On the other hand, the Oregon legislature did not fully ratify the Fourteenth Amendment until 1973.) 

But the exclusion, segregation, and dislocation did not stop; it just changed.

Bulldozers became the new cudgel against black residents in Portland. The construction of Interstate 5, a new coliseum, and an expansion of the city’s largest hospital divided Portland’s lone black community, Albina—and destroyed 1,500 homes. Neighborhood youth, bristling with resentment, brought their discontent to the streets in 1967, the city’s first race riot.

Then came gentrification. By 1999, blacks owned 36 percent fewer homes in Albina than a decade prior, while whites owned 43 percent more. Unaffordable housing has scattered the city’s blacks to suburbs.

White nationalists

While police brutality against black men may lurk in the shadows in Oregon, violent attacks by white nationalists pose the darkest threat. When Lloyd Stevenson, a black man, was killed by a Portland policeman using a choke hold in 1982, neither of the two officers involved was disciplined. Perhaps more disturbing, though, was the group of police officers who sold t-shirts at Stevenson’s funeral to fellow officers bearing the slogan “Don’t Choke ‘Em, Smoke ‘Em.” Both identified as members of the White Aryan Resistance.

In 2018, two white nationalists threatening three black girls on a MAX train murdered two intervening bystanders. A journalist covering a rally in support of the murderers asked “Why Portland?” Referring to the city’s status as the whitest major city in America, a Patriot Prayer member told her, “You’ve done what we could only dream of in Portland.” 

The same year, white nationalists were implicated in the widely reported murder of Ethiopian exchange student Mulugeta Seraw.

In most of America, minority men make up the majority of the prison population. But in Oregon, which is overwhelmingly white, the majority of its prison population is white as well, making it fertile ground for white supremacist gangs. 

In a CBS News special in 2017, “How Oregon’s prison system fuels its white supremacy problem,” Portland State sociologist Randy Blazak describes how inmates often enter prison with no connection to hate groups, but leave covered in swastikas, graffiti, and marching orders to commit hate crimes. He says whites—including those who clearly see themselves as non-racists—rarely push back.

In 2019, the award-winning Intercept ran an article titled “Riotlandia: Why Portland Has Become the Epicenter of Far-Right Violence.”

What now?

As I write this today — a warm day in June ’20 — the death of George Floyd has arguably and profoundly transformed our national conversation about race. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Portland is entering its 16th day of protests (yesterday’s demonstration brought hundreds of kids, parents, and teachers), and 1,000 Ashland citizens demonstrated in the town plaza two weeks ago. 

Small-town Oregon, traditionally a white, conservative stronghold, has turned up too. In St. Helens (pop. 13,000), 700 people joined in a peaceful demonstration undeterred by passersby in cars who reportedly spat and told them to go home; Donald Trump won 50% of the town’s vote in 2016. In Hood River (pop. 7,800), 150 people blocked the overpass to an interstate highway.

Watching the national news, I keep wondering, after the demonstrations subside, where does the discussion about race go in a state where blacks are few, police chokeholds and neck restraints are outlawed, but where hate groups thrive? 

Here are my two starting points, maybe yours, too.

First, if we are to make black lives matter, we must begin by interrogating ourselves, which starts with listening to black voices. In homogenous communities like mine, this listening requires aggressively searching out black voices on thoughtful media (and not inviting the few black members of the community to bear witness). 

Second, we need to interrogate our institutions. Here in the Rogue Valley, for example, there are two divergent stories about race, employment, and opportunity.

Few of the 435 hospital staff members and none of the 150 physicians at the region’s Ashland Community Hospital are black. When asked why the hospital was not requiring recruiters to focus on minorities, its chief operating officer said, “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t really thought about that.”

At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 45 percent of the 77-actor troupe are people of color. “We are American theater, and therefore, we need to represent the face of America,” the OSF director who made recruiting blacks a top priority 15 years ago said. OSF’s new artistic director, Nataki Garrett, is a black woman.  

Unlike COVID-19, racism is not a virus of the body but of the mind. Like COVID, though, it can be (seem) asymptomatic. While researching this piece, I came across an interview in the local paper with the coordinator of Southern Oregon University’s Multicultural Resource Center, Marvin Woodard, a black man. He talked about the subtle forms of racism in towns like Ashland. He remembers the time when he and two other black men were walking at night and heard the unmistakable click of people locking their car doors.

Had I been walking behind Woodard that night and heard people locking their doors, would I have done anything?

//inserted by Sharon