Maintaining Black Oregon History
By Kristian Trey Kodman
Portland, Oregon’s nicknames such as Paris of the Pacific, Beervana, and Little Beruit can be fun. However, Portland has not always rung bells for progressive counter-cultures and cliche startup businesses. Portland is also known for being the whitest per capita more than any other major city in the U.S. and has always been that way.
Upon statehood in 1859, Oregon barred blacks from living there. It was the only state to do so. From a 2016 article in The Atlantic, Walidah Imarisha, an expert on black history in Oregon and African American educator, said, “Yes, the city is politically progressive, but its government has facilitated the dominance of whites in business, housing, and culture. And white-supremacist sentiment is not uncommon in the state.”
Statistics show that racism still has roots in the community in a 2014 report by Portland State University and the Coalition of Communities of Color. It shared while whites nationally and in Portland average a $70,000 annual income, blacks only earn on average nationally $41,000, but only $34,000 in Portland.
Something experienced by Imarisha when she tours Oregon lecturing on black history, she said, “Neo-Nazis and others spewing sexually explicit comments or death threats frequently protest my events.” Imarisha also said, “I think that Portland has, in many ways, perfected neoliberal racism.”
The history that Imarisha and other fellow educators are teaching about black Oregonians is priceless to them. Founded in 1993, the Oregon Black Pioneers is an all-volunteer organization in Salem, Oregon, that gave themselves the task to research African-Americans’ contributions to Oregon’s history. Their outset plan is to continue the expansion of research and to tell stories about these pioneers through lectures, exhibits, and publications for distribution to educational centers statewide.
In a phone interview with Gwen Carr, Secretary of the Board of the OBP and serves on the Programming Committee, she said, “I’m always surprised when I go and speak somewhere and some of the young black adults that I talk to are enthusiastic about OBP, but this is the first they’ve heard of our preservation of Oregon’s black history.”
Carr continued saying about what Oregonians can do collectively to change our community, “You have to know the history, first of all, then know the implications of that history with what is going on in today’s world.”
“For example, if you know that Oregon has a bad racial history, and not everybody knows, it helps to explain some of the things that are going on now.” Carr continues, “If you understand how that racial history evolved into de facto segregation, restrictive covenants, and now into gentrification, it helps you to understand what you really need to address.”
Carr explained the advances OBP has made and shared some of its future goals. For example, they are on the brink of hiring their first executive director or program director. Also, they are currently taking into consideration of volunteers with the skills necessary to research and collect the history of black Oregon.