News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Oregon’s history steeped in racism

Many Oregonians have the impression that racism is not an issue in Oregon, and there are reasons for that. Oregon ranks 42nd among the states in its percentage of Black population, with only 2 to 3 percent.

Many Oregonians, especially in rural areas, seldom even see a Black person; and it turns out that there is a reason for that, too. In fact, it was by design.

In order to avoid the racial turmoil afflicting the rest of the country, Oregon’s founders sought to avoid all that fuss by simply creating what some envisioned as an all-white utopia. So, in 1844, the first exclusion law was passed which made it illegal to be Black in Oregon, excluding “any Negro or Mulatto” from the territory. Violators were subject to penalties such as fines and periodic flogging. When Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859, Oregon was the only state with a Black exclusion law.

Although such laws were rendered invalid by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868, they remained on Oregon’s books until 1926, when they were formally removed during that year’s election. Still, 37 percent of Oregon voters voted against rescinding those racist laws. This was at a time when the Ku Klux Klan had established a significant presence in the state, and some historians claim that Oregon had the highest per-capita KKK membership of any state in the Union.

Blacks were not the only target of Oregon’s white supremacists. While there has been much recent publicity surrounding Tulsa’s massacre of its Black population in 1921, Oregon had its own racist massacre in 1887, when a gang of whites murdered 34 Chinese gold miners in eastern Oregon. In spite of multiple witnesses and confessions, no one was ever punished for the crime. The killing site on the Snake River is now named Chinese Massacre Cove.

In 1869, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was drafted and passed, giving Black men (all races, actually) the right to vote. The amendment was ratified by the requisite number of states and took effect the very next year. Oregon was not one of the states to ratify; and it would take Oregon 90 years to catch up and formally ratify that amendment, an action which did not take place until Oregon’s Centennial in 1959.

Oregon laws restricting intermarriage and real estate ownership continued to affect Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans into the 1950s and ’60s.

As recently as 2002, Oregon voters were asked to remove racist language from Oregon’s Constitution. While the measure passed in all of Oregon’s 36 counties, the amendment was still opposed by 29 percent of Oregon’s voters. The counties where the vote was closest were all on the east side of the Cascades.


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