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'The relationship between blacks and the justice community has always been defined by the reality that police were assigned to keep the black population under control.'

COURTESY: KATE WILLSON - Darrell Millner says its no wonder that many minorities dont trust police in Oregon, given the long history of asking law enforcement officers to carry out discriminatory laws."Do black lives matter?" Darrell Millner asked, folding his hands and sitting back in his chair, surrounded by towers of books stacked floor-to-ceiling. Books about race. Racism. History. Oregon. "Of course they matter. We shouldn't even have to question that. But because of this history, we do."

Oregon, in 1859, was the only state admitted to the union of 33 with a constitutional ban on black residents. Its provincial government had tried threatening black residents with public whipping by a justice of the peace. Later, local law enforcement was ordered to arrest any black adult who remained in the state and hire him out as labor to the lowest bidder.

(Image is Clickable Link) INVESTIGATEWEST/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUPIn 1862, with Union forces claiming victories in the American Civil War, Oregon's Legislature replaced its forced-labor law with a $5 poll tax from any "Negro, Chinaman, Hawaiian and Mulatto" resident. Sheriffs were tapped to collect the money.

"The relationship between blacks and the justice community has always been defined by the reality that police were assigned to keep the black population under control," said Millner, a black studies professor at Portland State University. "To a degree, I think that's why there continues to be that kind of tension between the police community and the black community."

The state's formal exclusion of blacks was replaced over time with a policy banning people of color from buying property or marrying whites. Klaverns of the Ku Klux Klan formed in pockets across the state, from Astoria and Albany to Sherwood and Coos Bay. Police disregarded the beatings and murders of people of color while newspapers fueled the violence.

When Alonzo Tucker was lynched in Coos Bay in 1902, The Oregon Journal reported that the "black fiend" had begged for mercy but did not escape "the death he so thoroughly deserved."

When "Birth of a Nation" premiered in Portland in 1915, The Oregonian called the film a "superb achievement." When an Alabama businessman moved to Grants Pass with three black servants, the Southern Oregon Spokesman headlined its front-page editorial "Let's keep Grants a White Man's Town."

Into the 1940s, most Oregon towns easily answered the Spokesman's call. Portland, the only city with any significant black community, was 0.6 percent black, according to U.S. Census data. A booming wartime shipbuilding industry, however, would grow its population five-fold within a decade, leading to segregation and growing tensions.


COURTESY PHOTO - The Coon Chicken Inn's grinning facade greeted people traveling on Sandy Boulevard in Portland.COURTESY PHOTO - A menu from the Coon Chicken Inn.

Was there really a place called the Coon Chicken Inn? Hear PSU professor Darrell Millner discuss it's link to Portland's racist past.


In 1945, influential white residents convened a panel on racial prejudice at the City Club of Portland. Black residents made up less than 2 percent of the county population but, E.C. Halley, acting warden of the Oregon State Penitentiary, told the panel, more than 13 percent of felons that Multnomah County was sending to prison were black.

Portland Police Chief H.M. Niles said his all-white police force wasn't discriminating against African-Americans. It was his impression that black residents just committed more crimes. "Chief of Police Niles showed a lack of enthusiasm at the committee's suggestion of conducting courses in racial tolerance," the City Club later wrote.

Disparities in the criminal justice system, though still stark, have shrunk in the ensuing decades. Voluntary trainings on racial bias are offered at agencies across the state. A handful of police departments, including Portland, Hillsboro and Corvallis, track the race of people they stop, in an attempt to address racial profiling

The Legislature has passed laws outlawing blatant racial profiling, and requiring agencies to maintain clear profiling policies. Yet it has yet to empower any agency to ensure policies are in place, investigate complaints or examine the extent of racial disparities in criminal justice across the state.

Millner said the limping pace of reform signals a need for a new strategy.

"I was born into a country that was racist by public policy, and it's not any more. And I lived long enough to see a black president," Millner said. "No way I could have predicted that as a young man. I know that things change. But I know that things don't change by themselves. Things change because people decide to do things in a different way."

Kate Willson is an independent journalist who lives in Portland.

Unequal Justice is a joint project of InvestigateWest and the Pamplin Media Group, made possible in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Researcher Mark G. Harmon from the Portland State University Criminology & Criminal Justice Department provided statistical review and analysis.

(Image is Clickable Link) INVESTIGATEWEST/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP


Race and justice in Oregon: A timeline

1843

Oregon's territorial government bans black immigrants, then outlaws slavery a few months later.

1844

The territorial government enacts corporal punishment for black residents who remain in the state, up to 39 lashes on the back, to be enforced by the justice of the peace. It's soon amended. Instead, the government "will publicly hire out such free negro or mulatto to the lowest bidder."

1857

Voters approve Oregon Constitution, which continues the prohibition against slavery and an exclusion of black residents.

1859

Oregon gains statehood; the only state admitted into the union with a black exclusion clause in its constitution.

1862

A year after the outbreak of the Civil War, the Oregon Legislature passes a law requiring a $5 poll tax from every "Negro, Chinaman, Hawaiian and Mulatto" who refuses to leave the state. Sheriffs are tapped to enforce it.

1870

Oregon fails to ratify the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which granted black men the right to vote. But the state Supreme Court affirms the right of black residents to vote in Oregon.

1893

During a depression, a mob of white men in La Grande, many of them jobless, burns down the local Chinatown and runs its residents out of the city.

1902

Alonzo Tucker, an African-American man, is lynched in Coos Bay. The Oregon Journal writes: "All the pleading in the world would not have saved him from the death he so thoroughly deserved,"

1915

"Birth of a Nation," a film glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, debuts in Portland. The Oregonian calls the film a "superb achievement."

1922-23

Black men are abducted and threatened with lynching in mock lynchings in Medford, Jacksonville and Oregon City.

1924

An Alabama businessman moves to Grants Pass with his three black servants. The Southern Oregon Spokesman writes a front-page editorial headlined, "Let's keep Grants a White Man's Town."

1924

Timothy Pettis, a black man, is murdered and castrated in Coos Bay.

1945

A Senate bill would make it a misdemeanor for any Oregon business to refuse service to members of racial or religious minorities. It dies.

The City Club of Portland's 1945 report on 'the Negro in Portland.'1945

The City Club of Portland holds a public hearing on race and crime. Records show black residents are arrested at much higher rates than whites on many charges. The police chief says it's because black people commit more crimes.

1959

Eighty-nine years after three-fourths of the states ratified the 15th Amendment giving African Americans the right to vote, Oregon joins the list, the fifth to the last state to do so.

1982

A city of Portland study on black residents and the criminal justice system finds black people are less often let off with a citation and more often taken into custody by Portland police.

1985

Lloyd Stevenson, an African-American man and former U.S. Marine, is choked to death by a Portland police officer after being mistaken for a robber. On the day of his funeral, two white officers sell T-shirts to fellow cops showing a smoking handgun and the slogan "Don't Choke 'Em, Smoke 'Em."

1992

The Oregon Supreme Court appoints the Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Issues in the Judicial System. Three years later, the task force's Implementation Committee largely fails to push through legislation focused on racial-bias training and data collection.

1997

The Oregon Supreme Court appoints the Access to Justice for All Committee to carry on the work of the implementation committee.

2001

Rep. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, proposes a requirement that police record data on all traffic stops. After pushback by police, the data collection is made voluntary.

2010

A Portland police officer fatally shoots Aaron Campbell, an unarmed black man, after a lengthy standoff.

2015

The Oregon Legislature passes a bill requiring police and prosecutors to maintain anti-racial profiling policies and a complaint process, but falls short of the original intent.

2016

Multnomah County publishes a report showing racial disparities from arrest to imprisonment, including the same trends highlighted in 1982. The Oregon Supreme Court appoints a Council on Fairness and Inclusion to carry on the work of the committees of the 1990s.

2017

The Oregon Legislature is again considering a requirement that police track the race of people they stop. Other measures before lawmakers include mandatory bias training for police and changes in harsh drug-charge sentences that have a disproportionate impact on people of color.


Unequal Justice is a joint project of InvestigateWest and the Pamplin Media Group, made possible in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Researcher Mark G. Harmon from the Portland State University Criminology & Criminal Justice Department provided statistical review and analysis.

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