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Is Oregon a Green Thumb State or a Sundown State?

Photo by Zack Spear on Unsplash

Oregon’s history is extremely racist. Made up of exclusionary laws, the state systematically worked very hard to keep black people out. In 1844, all black people were ordered to leave the Oregon Country fifteen years before Oregon became a state in 1859. “Oregon is the only state in the United States that began as literally whites-only,” said Winston Grady-Willis, director of Portland State University’s School of Gender, Race, and Nations.

Two years before Oregon became a state when the constitution was put to a vote in 1857, 87% of voters cast in favor of excluding Black and mixed-race people from the state. They didn’t cast votes to uphold slavery, but they did what was just as bad, practicing a systematic ethnic cleansing. The law passed that any black person still living in Oregon and who has not left by three years will be flogged with not less than 20 but not more than 39 lashes.

When it comes to the constitution, you may be shocked to know that while Oregon initially ratified the 14th Amendment in 1866, the state rescinded it in 1868. Karen Gibson, associate professor in Portland State’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, said the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves. Moreover, Oregon was one of six states that refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Oregon did not ratify the 15th Amendment until 1959, one hundred years after the state joined the Union.

It’s disgusting how long it took. I hate to even analyze what that implies, but who said journalism wasn’t sometimes painful? The one-hundred-year wait implies white supremacy reigned and maintained important positions in society, not allowing for other representations of the constituents to be shown. It also likely means that, because of the Oregon Land Donation Act in 1850, which granted land to “every white settler” in Oregon, this law excluded people of color, and abrogated Native American rights.

All the while, the white settlers were taken care of lux style; many nonwhites lived in redlined districts with shoddy homes in Vanport as the construction was put together in a cursory manner and used poor quality building products after World War II (WWII). The thing is, Vanport wasn’t meant to be made permanent; it was just supposed to be a temporary solution to the labor needs of WWII.

This is why the black population was sitting ducks when Spring of 1948 came around, and a particularly heavy rainfall came and broke the dam, which tragically washed the whole city of Vanport away in less than an hour. Ironically enough, the officials knew the dam was closing as they evacuated but handed out flyers to the residents of Vanport that everything was fine; there was no need to evacuate or panic. The Portland Housing Authority flyer stated

“REMEMBER. DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT. YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY. YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE. DON’T GET EXCITED.”

Meanwhile, the Portland Housing Authority packed out all their files the night before the flood because they knew there was a tremendous likelihood that the dam wouldn’t hold. So it’s a moment in history like this that brings me back to a maybe obscure and potentially offensively unrelated point in time wherein 1912 on the Titanic, the captain never set out an alarm that the ship would sink in less than an hour or two, to avoid panic. So, the same could be said here in this situation of course, but the statistics and circumstances of the history we know indicate other motives. Before the flood, black people made up 40 percent of the population.

Black people who had been swiped from their homes in Vanport became Portland’s refugees and were plagued now with not only having to deal with outward public hostility from white people but legitimate displacement. Alas, history can, at times, surprise us, and I have found in two sources that some white folks opened up their homes to displaced black people after the flood. Who says history can’t surprise you from time to time? Unfortunately, however, there was a lot more animosity being exuded towards blacks than people were opening up their homes for the refugees.

Even more, interestingly enough, the Portland Housing Authority reported 20 official deaths, but how does that make any sense when 17,000 people were left homeless? Suspicion raised around this casualty number only increased the distrust the people had towards the Portland Housing Authority’s credibility. Why would a government authority only take accountability for so few deaths when a large number of people went missing after the flood? Only a system that wanted to repress the black population as much in post-mortem as they did in real life. Only a systematic state that wanted to live out a sick dream of white settlement and ownership.

Scarily enough, in the 1920s Oregon was home to the biggest Klu Klux Klan group west of the Mississippi River. In 1922, Walter Pierce, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was elected governor of Oregon. Pierce served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1932 to 1942. Later on, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a huge rush of skinhead movement in Oregon, arguably it was the destination of the biggest skinhead movement in the nation, their aim crystal clear: to develop a white homeland, as white as can be. Darrell Millner, professor emeritus in Portland State’s Black Studies Department, said that “it was very dangerous to be a person of color in Oregon, especially Portland in the 1980s and 1990s.”

While Oregon has become progressive on many matters now, its racist history cannot be escaped. Oregon doesn’t even have that long of a history, yet, somehow, the state managed to implement all white-favoring laws as well as redlining laws. Now, today, it is no coincidence that the black population in Oregon makes up a little more than 2% of the total population. The laws that were put in place successfully did their job, it kept people of color out of the state. Unfortunately, animosity and bigotry prevailed over state politics throughout Oregon’s history and in turn, as a consequence of our state’s culture, Oregon did not assimilate, the state lacks culture that it could have attained.

Let’s hope that we may never repeat this history and that laws that continue to be passed in Oregon be progressive and benefit the total population of Oregon, including people of color such as the aforementioned decriminalization law that passed earlier this year in Oregon, protecting people (of color) for possession of an illicit drug as a disproportionate people of color were thrown in jail for possession. Black inmates have outnumbered white and Hispanic prisoners in the U.S. for a long time, but these gaps narrow as the black incarceration rate has fallen. In absolute numbers, there were about 465,200 black inmates in state or federal prison at the end of 2018, a 21% decrease from 590,300 at the end of 2006.

While the history of Oregon was heavy, and while it is an extremely white state still, there is a movement towards equality in the recent decades and recognition of a state past a white utopia. Luckily, we are seeing a drop in those numbers, and we are hopefully on our way to passing more progressive laws that encourage the vitality and inclusion of all races.

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