Uncovering Oregon's racist history
This story has been updated from its original version.
Walidah Imarisha, an acclaimed author and speaker on Oregon Black history, shared her studies at Marylhurst University July 23 in a talk titled 'Why Aren't There More Black People in Oregon: A Hidden History.'
Respond to Racism (R2R) and the West Linn Alliance for Inclusive Community co-hosted the event which rallied nearly 200 attendees.
"Oregon Black history is Oregon history," Imarisha said. "We can't begin to understand the place we live without knowing its full history."
Imarisha grew up on military bases and spent many years in predominantly white Germany and Iceland. Still, she said moving to Springfield Oregon at age 13 was shocking as she saw very few people of color.
Imarisha went on to become an author, educator and public speaker devoted to educating others on the history of Black Oregon and racial issues on the whole.
Imarisha structured her talk as a dialogue, asking people to read through a timeline she created in pairs and to cultivate questions and comments about our history.
Imarisha warned that much of the content in the timeline can be disturbing and surprising to those learning it for the first time. She also noted that those just now learning about the racist history of Oregon are privileged.
"There are two Oregons right by each other," Imarisha said. "And the white Oregon doesn't know what it is like being in the Black Oregon."
In 1844, Oregon outlawed slavery but allowed slaves to be kept for up to three years as a lenience period. Black residents were then required to leave the state once freed. Black people who remained in the state were subject to public whippings every six months under Peter Burnett's Lash Law.
In 1921 came the first rst Ku Klux Klan chapter in Oregon. Oregon once had the highest per capita Klan membership.
In 1922 Walter Pierce, then Governor of Oregon, doubled as a supporter of the Klu Klux Klan.
The fourteenth amendment, guaranteeing universal citizenship with no regard for one's race, was de-ratified in 1868. It remained de-ratified until 1973.
Black exclusive language wasn't removed from the Oregon constitution until 2002.
Shame, disgust and shock were all expressed by voices around the room who took turns sharing their reactions and commentaries after reading the timeline.
"All of these points in our history send a message about the kind of place Oregon wanted to be," Imarisha said.
One person asked how to move forward with this knowledge while still being proud of this state.
"If you are going to be proud of something you should be able to prove why you are proud," Imarisha said.
A 'white utopia' was how Imarisha described Portland — progressive place if you are white and rich, and a case study of neoliberal racism.
"Portland portrays itself as a liberal utopia, a white playground," Imarisha said. "But this utopia and the history of racism and white supremacy are inextricable."
Another attendee asked if white people ever helped in the fight for racial equality. To this Imarisha replied that white allies have always existed but that they shouldn't be confused as white saviors.
"People of color don't need saviors, we need allies," she said.
Digging into the institutional racism in Oregon, Imarisha cited the state highway system as a racist structure built for the demand of suburbs as a place for white folks to live in secluded safe areas.
Many suburbs in the U.S., including Lake Oswego, were classified as "sundown towns" where Black people were specifically barred from residency.
David Salerno Owens, director of equity for the Lake Oswego School District and a member of the Steering Committee with R2R, said there are a lot of people wanting to engage with tools and conversations to better understand racial issues in our community.
"It is pivotal to engage the community in these conversations to create a more inclusive and welcoming space," Salerno Owens said.
Salerno Owens used to be a part of Lakeridge High School staff as one of the few people of color in a place where 93% of educators are white. Owens said part of his goal is to recruit and retain people of color in the school district and to celebrate them in a safe, inclusive and welcoming environment.
The Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) recently released "A People's Plan." This document outlines tools to bridge racial disparities and is recommended by Imarisha as a place to draw knowledge to help form a better, more just future. This can be accessed online on the PAALF website.
The conclusion of Imarisha's talk focused on a lengthy list of over 100 organizations in Oregon fighting for racial justice.
Bruce Poinsette, media action team leader with R2R and member of steering and executive committees, has followed Imarisha for years and praised her for her work ethic, vision and inspiratory presence.
"I think this talk touched a lot of people," Poinsette said. "I think it connected the dots between overt racism and things like our highway system that also stem from racism."
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