Oregon’s exclusion laws weren’t part of the state history curriculum

Dear President Trump,

Have you ever been to Oregon? My brother told me the other day that you’re planning a rally there soon; he’d very much like to be in another state when you’re there. A cursory Google search using the words “Trump” and “Oregon” shows that you visited Oregon in 2016 and that you did pretty well in the rural parts of the state (as you did here in Washington) in 2016. There are also a couple of entries about how your 2020 campaign is considering making a serious attempt to flip Oregon from “Blue” to “Red.” I wish I could be confident this is merely a Trumpian pipe dream, but I’m not so sure about that, which is frankly, horrifying.

I think I’ve told you that I grew up in Portland, OR. I am a product of Portland Public Schools and as such I learned the state song (Oregon, My Oregon), bird (Western Meadowlark), and flower (Oregon Grape). I also learned that Lewis and Clark befriended the Native American people they encountered along the way and that the (white) pioneers who traveled West on the Oregon Trail righteously fought off the Native Americans by circling the wagons. These White Paragon myths were taught so matter-of-factly that for years it didn’t occur to me to question them. It was only toward the end of my grade school years (I was in a K-8 school), when I was obsessively reading the older grade-level books in the Native American section, that I began to glimpse some of what was not presented.

What was nowhere in my school curriculum at any point were the Oregon Exclusion Laws. I just learned about them from a WP Retropod piece. At age 56. You know about them, don’t you? They are right up your alley so even though they have to do with a Western state, you probably know that those laws were set up when Oregon was still a territory and banned blacks from owning property and from residing there. The territory was sort-of-kind-of supposed to be free, but there was a clause allowing whites to bring black slaves there and to have them there for three years, after which time the freed black men had two years to get out of Oregon and the freed black women had three years to get out. For a year (1844-45) there was a “Lash Law” on the books, which decreed that any black person who was not out of the territory by the requisite time would be whipped every six months until they left. Apparently it was never enforced but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an awful impact.

I also learned today that Oregon’s very formal racist legacy continued through the 19th century and well into the latter part of the 20th century. It was the only state to enter the Union (in 1859) with an official policy of black exclusion as part of its state constitution. Oregon even disavowed the 14th (1868) and 15th (1870; California also refused to recognize it) Amendments. The 15th Amendment wasn’t ratified there until 1959 and the 14th wasn’t ratified until 1973. And it took until 2002 for Oregon to remove the last of the racist, exclusionary wording from its constitution.

Maybe most white Oregonians who grew up there and stayed there (and likely most, if not all, black Oregonians) know this history, but I feel as though a rug has been pulled out from under me. It’s not that I’ve been naïve to how hard it is for black people in Portland and in Oregon generally – I grew up with my African American brother and he and I talk regularly about the shit he has to deal with on public transport and pretty much wherever he goes in public. And I’ve not had my head in the sand on this; I’ve known about red-lining, “Whites Only,” segregation, and the racist ways the GI bill and VA loans were distributed (etc………), but I had no idea there were formal exclusion laws for entire states, let alone my home state.

I tried to figure out whether this history is now being taught in Oregon public schools and I can’t tell. In the overview of the state curriculum materials there’s a link to the Oregon Encyclopedia and if you dig in there you can find this information. But it’s not at all clear that it’s standard for kids there to learn this, which is probably just fine with you. I’m sure you’d like to swoop in and take advantage of this largely unknown racist history, play on that deep reservoir of racial animus to send your base the message that if they stick with you, they can make Oregon white again.

May we all be safe to live and thrive anywhere.
May we be willing to look hard at the past and at the present.
May we take care of each persons’ health, well-being, and dignity.
May we make peace with knowing what needs to be known.

Tracy Simpson

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