A brief history of the racial culture in Oregon and why Juneteenth matters
Today, Oregon is known as one of the most broad-minded states in the country. It has consistently for years been placed in polls as one of the top 10 most liberal states to live in. Portland, the state’s largest city, has hosted the most continuous Black Lives Matter protest in the nation. It is also credited as one of the driving forces against the Trump Administration’s attempts to use the Nixonian campaign strategy of “law and order” to win a second term. Just recently on June 1st, 2021 the Oregon State Senate passed House Bill 2168 establishing a cultural and historical significant date as an official Oregon State holiday known as Juneteenth. Senator Lew Fredericks stated “HB 2168 designates June 19th as an Oregon State holiday, commemorating the arrival on horseback of the news of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston Texas, in 1865 to the cheers of African Americans then Enslaved.”
As forward thinking as Oregon is, and as supportive as Oregon appears to be of its African American residents, the 86% white state has a history of racial subjugation and prejudicial societal ideals. Even before Oregon became a state it was being purposely designed as a Caucasian-only haven. In the 1840’s the provisional government enacted laws against slavery while at the same time forbidding people of African descent the legality of settling in the area. With such laws as the 1843 Oregon Lash law stating that any free black person over the age of 18 “caught” living in Oregon was to be whipped every six months by the county constable until the person left the territory; literally criminalizing the presence of black people in the region. In 1859 Oregon was the first and the only state to be admitted into the Union with Racial Exclusion Laws in its Constitution. The laws remained until 1926, with original racist language finally being changed in 2002. In the 1920’s, one in twenty Oregonians was a card carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, the highest percentage of any state west of the Mississippi.
Oregon has been slow to confront its bigoted history, taking 89 years (in 1959) to affirm the 15th amendment giving Black citizens the right to vote (which was ratified by the rest of country on February 3rd , 1870) and 162 years to eradicate the racist language in its constitution. Oregon also took another More baffling still, is the fact that Oregon didn’t fully ratify the 14th amendment granting citizenship and equal protection to African Americans until 1973!
It is important for societies to remember their histories, especially when it comes from such places as Oregon’s racially iniquitous past. As the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can use it as a barometer to measure where we are and what direction we as a state should be headed. State Senator Lew Frederick (D-Portland) said it best “This new holiday recognizes that the people of the state of Oregon, despite our past, can take the veil of ignorance away and each year celebrate hope on Juneteenth.” That being said, Juneteenth’s recognition as an official state holiday starting June 19th, 2022 does not erase the past, but shows us as citizens of Oregon that however slow; progress is being made.
Please see more about Juneteenth, in this 2020 article by Dr. Rosa Colquitt, HERE.
(Damien Grace is the pen name of David Burnell, Multnomah County Democrats activist and PCP in HD 43.)