Home > Uncategorized > Oregon’s hidden history as a sundown state – posted 6/27/2021

Oregon’s hidden history as a sundown state – posted 6/27/2021

Oregon has a reputation as one of the most progressive, reliably blue states and Portland is generally seen as America’s most hip and edgy city. The motto “Keep Portland Weird” was a wall mural in the city. During the George Floyd protests, former President Trump singled out Portland for his wrath because the city was a home for Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Less well-known is the history of Oregon’s racist past. It is a past that has been hidden. Even many Oregon residents do not know about it. Oregon had a different model than Southern states for how to maintain white supremacy: do not allow black people into the state in the first place.. Oregonians opposed slavery but early settlers did not want to live around any non-white people. It was a white state by design, committed to a sick dream of white racial purity.

When Oregon became a state in 1859, the state constitution forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. Black people could not make a contract or file a lawsuit there. Under the Oregon constitution, blacks were prohibited from voting. The constitution was not corrected until 1926 and racial language was not removed from it until 2002. When the constitution was put to a vote in 1857, 87% of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state.

American history, as conventionally taught, leaves this story out. Racial history, to the extent it is taught, is taught around the battle against slavery, which is a Southern story. Abolitionists fought the heroic battle to free the slaves culminating in the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Oregon history is not part of the story.

Before statehood, Oregon Territory stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains. The Oregon territorial legislature first passed a black exclusion law in 1844. The law said that any free black people who remained in the state would be subject to flogging if they did not leave within three years. The floggings were to continue every six months until they left the territory. The penalty was not less than 20 or more than 39 lashes.

Oregonians decided that penalty was too harsh but followed up in 1849 with a new law barring black people who were not living in the area from entering or residing in Oregon territory. In 1851 Jacob Vanderpool, a black man who owned a saloon was reported to the authorities for the crime of being black in Oregon. A U.S. Marshal arrested Vanderpool and after a trial a judge gave him 30 days to leave the territory. Only six days elapsed from the time he was accused to his expulsion.

In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act which granted land to “every white settler” in the Oregon territory. It excluded people of color and abrogated Native American treaty rights. Oregon imposed an annual tax on people of color in 1862. The state also banned interracial marriage in 1866. That ban lasted until 1951.

Oregon resisted federal laws that gave black people rights. Although Oregon initially ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 it rescinded that ratification in 1868. Oregon remained one of six states that did not ratify the Fifteenth Amendment which granted black men the right to vote. Oregon did not ratify the Fifteenth Amendment until 1959 and it did not re-ratify the Fourteenth Amendment until 1973.

Justifying segregation, the Oregon Supreme Court in 1906 allowed whites to racially discriminate against blacks in theaters. The Court confirmed and sanctioned the practice of racial segregation in public places and services.

In 1919, the Realty Board of Portland approved a Code of Ethics which forbade realtors and bankers from selling or giving leases to people of color for properties located in white neighborhoods. Racially restrictive housing covenants became common and remained in force until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968. Redlining still goes on.

In the 1920’s Oregon became a Ku Klux Klan hotbed. It was home to the biggest Klan organization west of the Mississippi River with over 40,000 members in 50 chapters across the state. In 1922, Walter Pierce, a KKK sympathizer, was elected Governor. It is not clear if he was actually a Klan member or just an ally. So few people of color lived in Oregon, the Klan needed to find a new focus and moved to campaign against Catholics.

Because of its acts of violence and its agenda of hatred, the Klan alienated itself from most Oregonians. An event known as the Medford Outrage which included several lynching attempts turned the public against the Klan. By the mid-1920’s the Klan was already in steep decline. Oregonians stopped paying Klan dues, hastening its demise.

By 1940, Oregon had a population of less than 1,800 black residents. World War II brought an expansion of shipbuilding. The Kaiser shipbuilding company built a physically segregated city north of Portland called Vanport. It became the second largest city in Oregon and it was 40% black. Black and white workers were both attracted to jobs in the shipbuilding industry.

Vanport was surrounded on all sides by bodies of water. In the spring of 1948 after a winter of heavy rainfall, a dam broke and the city washed away in less than an hour. Days before the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had deemed the dikes safe and the Housing Authority of Portland had distributed flyers to every house in Vanport telling people the dam would hold. The flood left nearly 17,000 people homeless. Looking back, the flood was an example of early day environmental racism.

The Pacific Northwest and especially Oregon remained a recruiting ground for far right groups who wanted to create an Aryan homeland. In 1988 in Portland Ethiopian student and father Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by three skinheads affiliated with the White Aryan Resistance. More recently in 2017 a white supremacist fatally stabbed two men and injured a third on a light rail train. The white supremacist was harassing two black teenage women.

As of 2019, Oregon’s black population was just over 2%. Portland remains the whitest big city in the United States.These small numbers are not an accident. They reflect policies, practices and ideologies in effect for 180 years. Oregon is probably the only sundown state in America, a state that systematically and methodically kept out blacks. Sundown towns have been extremely common all over America but states not so much.

A sundown town is a jurisdiction that kept blacks or other people of color from living in it and was “all white” on purpose. The sundown reference refers to signs all over America located on the outskirts of town that used to say “N——, Don’t let the Sun Go Down on You in ____”. Much of Oregon remains inhospitable and dangerous for people of color.

I am certainly not saying Oregon is the worst or most racist state. Every state has its own dark history around racism. I also should say that I focused on discrimination against black people but Asian-Americans have their own parallel story of experiencing racist discrimination as do Native Americans.

With the passage of the “divisive concepts” legislation, New Hampshire is moving backwards as far as honestly facing its own racist past. Forbidding teaching about discrimination is an embarrassment. Somebody needs to tell the Republicans in the legislature that it is not the 1950’s any more.

The white conservatives and libertarians behind HB 544 are trying to hide, obscure and deny history. I wondered whether Oregon’s racist history would be too much reality for their tender senses. Intellectual integrity and academic freedom demand the fullest exploration of all of our history not just the parts conservative white men want to hear.

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