Oregon's Black history may begin earlier than previously thought
Oregon Black Pioneers Executive Director Zachary Stocks' recent overview of the state'sÂ African American history highlighted that Black people have been a part of Oregon's timeline since the very first non-Native footsteps hit landfall.
"When we talk about Oregon's history, we have to sort of rewrite what we think in our mind about when African Americans become part of that story," Stocks said. "For so long, it has always felt like we learn about African Americans in Oregon history around the time of the transcontinental railroad, but honestly, there's never been a time in the history of Oregon where there were white people here and not Black people here."
Oregon City Public Library in February hosted a virtual webinar presenting information on Black history in Oregon from the 1500s to the present day. The webinar was held Feb. 8 in partnership with Oregon Black Pioneers, the state's lone historical society focusing on "preserving and presenting the experiences of African Americans statewide." During the hour-long guest presentation by the nonprofit organization, Stocks referenced contemporary research conducted by Melissa Darby, a visiting scholar with Portland State University's department of anthropology, who found evidence indicating that English explorer Sir Francis Drake's landfall on the Pacific coast in 1579 — an expedition involving at least four travelers of African descent — likely took place not in California, but at a cove just south of Depot Bay in Lincoln County, Oregon.
Two of the Black passengers' names are known: Diego, who was "Drake's personal servant. He was free, and had been sailing with Drake since 1572," Stocks said, adding: "The other person we know is named Maria. Maria was an enslaved pregnant woman taken from a Spanish ship at sea off the coast of what is today Mexico."
Between 1579 and 1788, Stocks said research shows that more people of African descent, enslaved or free, made it to Oregon's shores aboard Spanish ships. Over the ensuing three decades, more ships came to the United States seeking the abundance of sea-otter furs, and Stocks said Black seamen were a ubiquitous part of maritime travel at the time.
Black people were also involved in two of Oregon's most well-known historical events, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, upon which traveled a man named York, who was an enslaved servant of the Clark family. Additionally on the Oregon Trail, about 3% of travelers were Black, Stocks said.
African American travelers' relatively small percentage on the Oregon Trail was partially due to diversion because of Black exclusionary laws passed between 1844 and 1859 specifically barring African Americans from experiencing "equality before law, and from participating in civic life alongside our white neighbors," Stocks said.
"They all had various means of success, they all were ultimately repealed or made moot, but it created a sort of back and forth series of years, where the legality of being Black in Oregon was uncertain," Stocks said. "That uncertainty discouraged Black individuals who had the means to travel on the Oregon Trail from coming out," Stocks said. "There was no free land waiting for Blacks in Oregon the same way that whites in Oregon could take advantage of stolen native lands."
Stocks said the beginning of a Black community hub in Portland was greatly facilitated by the transcontinental railroad in 1880, as nearly all porters hired by railcar manufacturer The Pullman Company were Black people, some of whom came to Portland and had to find hotels to stay at because they were not allowed to sleep in the Pullman cars.
He said this led to new hotels, such as the Portland Hotel and Golden West Hotel, being some of the first Black-owned businesses in Portland.
"We start to see the development of what could be called a new Black middle class in Portland," he continued, discussing the emergence of new community gathering places, such as churches including First African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Mt. Olivet Baptist, as well as multiple businesses.
"There was a professional class that grew out of this community, of lawyers and doctors, business owners, clergy. So these Black professionals really helped create opportunities for people to stay and make a life in Portland for the very first time," Stocks said.
He added that as the community was growing and expanding, so were national movements for civil rights, and Black Portlanders formed the western United States' first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In response to Vancouver and Portland areas becoming a shipbuilding nexus following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the cities created Vanport, which took all of 110 days to become the state's then-second-largest city with 40,000 residents, 6,000 of whom were Black, Stocks said.
When Vanport was pummeled by flooding of Willamette and Columbia Rivers in 1948, Stocks said 18,500 people were left homeless. He added that this prompted many Vanport residents to relocate to Portland, where Black residents' only choice was to move into crowded and segregated neighborhoods.
Because of the racial restrictive covenants, we see that Black "Vanporters" coming into Portland had a difficult time finding housing when everyone was competing for the same homes and for the same jobs, Stocks said.
He added that segregated Black communities in Portland saw major disinvestment as white Portlanders began moving to the suburbs, and from 1950 to 1980, the Albina neighborhood lost approximately 27,000 residents, most of them Black, and home values dropped by over 58%.
"Throughout the 1970s in particular, in response to discriminatory policing, and more militant activism, we see the emergence of Oregon's Black and Proud; Black is Beautiful campaigns, and also organizations like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense," Stocks said.
Moving into the modern era, Stocks highlighted a greater representation of people of African descent in government, and in positions of authority, Stocks said.
He listed examples including longtime State Treasurer Jim Hill, who in 1992 became the first African American elected to statewide office in Oregon, and Adrienne Nelson, the first African American appointed and elected to the Oregon Supreme Court recently in 2018.
"We still have so much work to do, particularly when it comes to finding pathways forward for racial justice and equality," Stocks said, adding that there were opportunities throughout the state's history to be just as racially diverse as other parts of the country.
"We have to call out that inequality and work together to try and figure out what is going to be our response," Stocks said, adding: "I think it comes from knowing our history and working together to create new opportunities for us to all succeed, no matter what our race is."
For more information about nonprofit organization Oregon Black Pioneers, click here.
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