People strolling the sidewalks of Berlin routinely stumble over engraved brass plates marking where Jews or others were abducted from adjacent homes by the Nazis and deported to death camps. Collectively, these stumbling stones, or Stolpersteins, deliver a subtle message of "never again." There are now more than 75,000 of them in two dozen European nations.
In contrast, people in Portland and elsewhere in the United States are more likely to encounter statues, historical plaques and public buildings honoring racists, slaveholders and those who committed atrocities against indigenous people. Victims of white supremacist brutality are typically neglected, and lost to history.
Thanks to the Black Lives Matter upsurge, it's an apt time for Portland to reimagine how to use historical plaques, art and other means to educate people about our buried racist past.
As public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson said on a recent 'On the Media' podcast, until Americans reckon with our violent history of white supremacy, it will "continue to haunt us."
The outstanding 2019 film "Just Mercy" chronicled Stevenson's tireless efforts to free Blacks unjustly imprisoned on Death Row. He also founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that created The Legacy Museum and the National Museum for Peace and Justice.
Just blocks from where Rosa Parks triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Alabama museum tells the sordid history of slavery, the domestic slave trade, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and more. The nearby memorial honors individual Black lynching victims, among others.
Stevenson is now calling on communities throughout the nation to confront their past injustices and erect local markers for victims of lynching and other racist violence.
"I think the monuments create an opportunity for communities to begin a process of recovery, of reconciliation, of restoration," he told On the Media.
Inspired by Stevenson's call, I recently researched an anti-Chinese worker riot in Mount Tabor back in 1886, and penned a summary of what occurred blocks from my South Tabor home. Now I'm wondering if others — BIPOC advocacy groups, arts organizations, historians, elected officials and enlightened businesses — want to join me in taking up Stevenson's challenge.
Much has been written to shine a spotlight on our racist history, particularly Oregon and Portland's heinous treatment of Blacks. Yet it's easy to read something on a laptop or smartphone and then largely forget about it.
It's harder to forget about the murderous racist attacks on a MAX train in 2017 after repeatedly seeing the memorial to the victims at the Hollywood MAX station.
Aside from the anti-Chinese riots, I can envision many more examples where we "unbury" our unsavory history with placed-based historical markers, works of art or other memorials:
• White settlers' adoption of anti-Black provisions in the Constitution for the new state of Oregon.
• Shameful massacres of Oregon's indigenous peoples and land grabs in multiple locations.
• The 1887 massacre of 34 Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon.
• The 1902 lynching of Alonzo Tucker in Coos Bay.
• The rise of the Oregon Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and its bigoted attacks on Catholics.
• Oregon's eugenics movement and forced sterilizations, which led to the forced sterilization of 2,648 people institutionalized in Salem and Pendleton. One of the goals was ridding Oregon of homosexuality.
• The 1942 herding of Japanese-Americans into a Portland livestock center and later transfer to concentration camps.
• Forced displacement of Black and other families in the 1950s to make way for the Interstate 5 freeway and Memorial Coliseum.
• The 1957 inundation of Celilo Falls along the Columbia River, destroying the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.
• The 1970s destruction of Portland's Black commercial and cultural district to make way for the never-completed expansion of Emanuel Hospital.
I'm sure there are lots more ideas out there. Anybody willing to join me in taking up Bryan Stevenson's challenge?
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