A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Five - No Farther into the Dark Clouds
In 1860 the black population of Oregon according to the census was 128. Many of these individuals were living independent of white families, working as farmers, miners, shingle makers, washerwomen, barbers, cooks, blacksmiths and common laborers. A number of them still lived with white families as domestic servants, and a few were listed as slaves. An early black resident of Portland, A.E. Flowers, described conditions in the decade of the 1860's.
When I arrived in Portland there was only one Negro church in the whole town, the "People's Church" which was an independent organization. It was organized in 1862. At this time colored people were not allowed to own any property. They were not allowed to go into any kind of business and they were not allowed to vote. Every Negro had to pay a $10.00 head tax. The colored people had no civil rights. It was very difficult to get jobs except as a menial.
The politics of that decade did not ease difficulties for black people: a poll tax, ban on intermarriage, threats of enforcing the exclusion clause, a reluctant support for the North during the Civil War and the failure of the legislature to ratify all the federal constitutional amendments placed restrictions on the freedom and spirit of the few black people who lived in Oregon.
The national election of 1860 was fought over the issue raised by the Dred Scott decision: the extension or prohibition of slavery in the territories. The split in the national Democratic party was widening, brought on by increasing opposition to slavery and growing resentment against the southern Democrats' insistence on caucus sovereignty. The pro-slavery Democrats left the convention of 1860 and met separately, nominating as their presidential candidate John C. Breckenridge. When the Oregon and California delegates followed, Joseph Lane of Oregon became the vice-presidential candidate. The northern wing of the Democratic party nominated Stephen O. Douglas, and the Republican convention nominated Abraham Lincoln.
The split within Oregon's Democratic party was widening, brought on by internal opposition to the pro-slavery faction headed by Lane and Delazon Smith. George H. Williams began to canvass the state, running for the U.S. Senate. Later, he recalled his reasons for opposing Smith.
The agitation of the slavery question had now reached a crisis. The good Lord and good devil style of politics had now become disgusting. I made up my mind that, as far as my opportunities allowed, I would resist the further aggression of the slave power and oppose the election to office of those who favored it. Accordingly, in the month of March, 1860, I went into Linn County, to the residence of Delazon Smith, and said to him: 'Delazon, I have come to beard the lion in his den (Smith's friends called him the 'Lion of Linn'); I am going to canvass Linn County, and my object is to beat you and General Lane for the Senate. Come on and make your fight.
The majority of Oregonians saw the danger of secession implied by the Breckenridge/Lane ticket and elected James W. Nesmith, a Douglas Democrat, and Edward D. Baker, Republican, to represent Oregon in the U.S. Senate.
In spite of a coalition forming between Douglas Democrats and Republicans, the legislature of 1860 was still controlled by the regular Democratic party. Again, the exclusion of black people was proposed, prompted in part by petitions and also by the need to pass legislation to enforce the exclusion clause of the state constitution. The first bill, offered in the Senate, penalized anyone bringing a black person, slave or free, into Oregon. The fines were between $500 and $1,000; failure to pay the fine would mean a prison sentence. The penalty for black people who came on their own was a $50 fine or two months hard labor. The crime for blacks was a misdemeanor; a jury trial and appeal rights were guaranteed. The higher penalties imposed on people who brought blacks to Oregon suggests that the bill was primarily intended to discourage slaveowners from bringing slaves to Oregon.
The House bill was prompted by two petitions. One, presented by 293 citizens of Multnomah County, complained that black and Chinese people were becoming an intolerable nuisance in that part of the state, crowding in and taking over jobs that poor whites had held.
They are of no benefit to the State either socially, morally or politically--they pay no taxes, and the Chinamen after accumulating large amounts of money carry it to the celestial land. We therefore ask your [honorable] bodies to provide by law for the removal of the negroes and such provisions in reference to Chinamen as to cause them to prefer some other country to
This bill proposed that the fine for bringing blacks into the state would be $200, and $10 for blacks who had come themselves. The presiding judge could extend the time a black person had before he must leave. Neither bill passed.
In Oregon, as well as elsewhere, 1861 was a year of excitement. The war and anti-war feeling was at fever heat. Every hill and valley found a tongue, and firey speeches were made for and against the government.
The Civil War had begun when Oregonians were preoccupied in efforts to subdue the Indian tribes. Although the Indian wars had officially ended in 1858, a group of white people was attacked by Indians in September, 1860, near Fort Hall. Of fortyfour, only fifteen survived. The legislature requested that the federal government send more troops to fight the Indians, but as the conflict in the East grew, troops already in Oregon were transferred, leaving fewer than 700 by the spring of 1861.
In May, 1861, little more than a month after the firing on Fort Sumter, Governor Whiteaker, whose southern sentiments were well-known, advised the people of Oregon not to become involved in the war, which he characterized as a "domestic disorder? Although settlers had come from both North and South, he maintained that peace and tranquility existed in Oregon. He said Union party meetings being held throughout the state were creating disorder, and maintained that those opposed to the war were not disloyal. Predicting that the war would easily be won by the North without any help from Oregon, he said Oregonians should concentrate on protecting the frontier from Indian attacks. Whiteaker said further that the North would never be able to re-establish friendly relations with the South, and that the freeing of the slaves, like the freeing of the slaves in the Roman Empire, would sow the seeds of its own destruction. He warned the North to protect its institutions, saying, "Have a care that in freeing the Negro you do not enslave the white man?
The opening of the Civil War prompted a realignment of political parties in Oregon. The Whig party, by now virtually non-existent, had merged with the Republicans. Free state Democrats were unwilling to identify with this party, still under the stigma "Black Republican," but in 1861 the party name was dropped and citizens were invited to unite under the name of the Union party. The coalition that resulted succeeded in defeating the regular Democratic party and in 1862 the Union party seated a majority in the state legislature.
In spite of a shift in power away from the pro-slavery Democrats, this legislative session passed two bills that discriminated against black people. The first was an annual poll tax of five dollars to be paid by "every Negro, Chinaman, [Hawaiian] and Mulatto residing within the limits of this state."7 The local sheriff was responsible for collecting the tax. If it could not be paid, it could be worked out on the public roads at 50' a day. This bill was accidentally repealed in 1864 and attempts to revive it in 1866 failed? The second law passed in this session prohibited marriages between whites and persons of one-fourth or more Negro blood. A code of civil procedure approved in 1862 made no mention of race, and allowed black people to be witnesses in the courts of the state, although they could not act as jurors. The right of black children to attend public school was affirmed in the Codes and Laws of 1862, which held that schools should be "free to all persons between the age of four and twenty years?
The legislative session of 1864, still controlled by the Union party, considered a bill requiring that a census of all black people in each county be taken to determine how many were living in Oregon illegally under the terms of the exclusion clause. The local sheriff was empowered to take the census, issue warrants, and deport all blacks without any intervening judicial procedure. After a proposal to refer the bill to the Committee for the Insane, it was indefinitely postponed. This session also considered a bill which would prevent black people from testifying in a court of law. The Oregon Statesman summarized the discussion, without comment.
. . during the discussion in the House of the bill to amend the provisions of the code touching the qualification of witnesses, Mr. Fay desired section 701 to be amended so that the first clause should read as follows "The following persons are not admissible: No person of African, Chinese, or Indian or [Hawaiian] blood, and persons of unsound mind, & etc." To this amendment Mr. Lawson of Yamhill County proposed to add the following: "It being the opinion of this Legislature that a Negro, Chinaman or Indian has no rights which a white man is bound to respect, and that a white man may murder, rob, rape, shoot, stab and cut any of those worthless, vagabond races, without being called to account thereof: Provided, he shall do said acts of bravery and chivalry when no white man is troubled by seeing the same.
The bill was not passed.
In the closing years of the war, Oregon increased its support of the Union, and raised troops which were sent East. Oregon's role during the war was to protect the frontier from Indians and the interior from "rebel sympathizers," although the latter was not totally successful. In the election of November, 1864, a sharp increase in population was noticed in the number of votes cast for the Democratic candidate for president. Most of the new arrivals were southern sympathizers from Missouri, dubbed the "left wing of Price's army," because many had deserted the Confederate army. Many settled in southern and eastern Oregon and their numbers alarmed citizens, who feared that the balance of power in the legislature would shift back to the pro-slavery Democrats. Governor Addison C. Gibbs feared that at least 800 soldiers from the Confederate Army had settled in Oregon, and that others were on their way.
In July, 1865, he received a petition from the citizens of Belpassi, Oregon, requesting that the legislature be called into a special session to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. They wanted some protection from Southerners as well, saying:
We would heartily encourage the emigration of good and loyal citizens to our adopted State, [but] feel assured it would be greatly detrimental to the peace and prosperity of Oregon to be overrun by hoards of disfranchised rebels and traitors.
Gibbs called a special session, and addressed the opening meeting in a lengthy speech repeating the evils of slavery and endorsing the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. It was ratified in both chambers, but not without opposition. Dissenting members, all Democrats, argued that the people of Oregon had not been consulted and that the amendment had not been passed legally in Congress because the southern states were not represented. They also argued that it was a modification of the federal constitution and invaded state's rights.
In this session another half-hearted attempt to enforce the exclusion clause was proposed. Some members suggested that "successionists, guerillas, and bushwackers" should also be excluded? This bill and a similar one proposed in 1866 failed to pass.
While the Civil War years saw political changes in Oregon, it did not improve the climate for black people who lived here. The Union party supported the North but continued to pass racist legislation. Advocates of slavery refused to admit defeat and during the Civil War united in an underground movement to support the South and establish slavery in Oregon.
In the southern part of the state, a die-hard pro-slavery group prepared plans to carve out a separate pro-South republic. The idea of creating a separate state in that area had been proposed as early as 1854, when the Oregon Statesman reported that a convention would be held in Jacksonville to consider creating another territory out of southern Oregon. Every effort would be made to resist joining the Union with the rest of Oregon Territory. Later that year a proposal was made to include northern California in the new territory, but was withdrawn when Joseph Lane received word that Californians objected to reducing the size of their state. During the constitutional convention in 1857, an amendment was offered to permit the creation of a separate state in southern Oregon, but this was defeated.
In 1861, secessionist sentiment found expression in the organization of a secret society that worked to defeat the proUnion administration, resist the military draft, and plan the creation of a separate territory to be called the Pacific Coast Republic. This organization was part of a national group calling itself Knights of the Golden Circle. An underground group, it had secret passwords and signs by which members could recognize one another. One member would stroke his mustache twice with the first two fingers of the right hand closed against the thumb. The response was a scratch behind the ear with the
right hand. A conversation followed:
"Were you out last night?" "I were."
"Did you see that lone star?"
"Which way did it point?"
"To the Southwest."
According to information obtained through infiltrators, in 1863 and 1864 there were roughly 2,500 members in at least ten groups in various Oregon communities: two in Portland, two in Salem, and one each in Scio, Albany, Jacksonville and Yamhill County. They bought weapons and practiced military drills in secret. William Gwin, one of the California organizers of the Knights, wanted to model the Pacific Coast Republic after an ancient Venetian republic. Universal voting rights would be discarded and labor provided by Chinese, Hawaiians and Negroes who would be imported and made slaves.
Many prominent Democrats were rumored to be members of this organization, including Joseph Lane. In Washington D.C. he openly supported the Confederacy, suggesting that the North surrender and make peace. He returned to Oregon in disgrace, accused of smuggling guns for the Knights. In Dallas, Oregon, he was hung in effigy. His reception in Corvallis was more cordial and in a speech he affirmed his loyalty to the Union. Before he arrived at his home near Roseburg, he was injured by an accidental discharge from his rifle. He did not recover completely from the wound and spent the last twenty years of his life a recluse, deserted by all his friends. His last companion was a black youth, Peter Waldo, who lived with him in a cabin on the banks of the Umpqua River.
The Knights became openly militant in 1864, and it was rumored that members were well armed, particularly in the Long Tom and Siuslaw River valleys. Local pro-Union militia companies were organized and received weapons from the state arsenal, which was heavily guarded. Other secret societies called the Union League and Loyal League were formed to oppose the Knights. These groups never had a large membership, and when they attempted to organize a separate political platform in Multnomah County, internal division resulted and the' organizations dissolved.
When it became clear that the North was winning the war, the Knights of the Golden Circle began to vanish. Strong local militia and informers within the organization insured against any attempt to seize power. By 1866, the Oregonian exposed the organization and its members, some of whom were running for public office.
Voters of Oregon, do you want a United States Senator of that kind . . . who belonged to the treasonable Democratic organization of the "Old Guard?
During the Civil War, the legislature passed the last antiblack state laws, with the exception of the ban on intermarriage passed in 1866. Between 1866 and 1872, the legislature was required to consider ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which gave citizenship to black people and the right to vote to black men. It was clear, however, that these amendments were unpopular with most Oregonians.
As early as 1843, Robert Newell, who had married an Indian woman, stated his objections to allowing black men to vote.
I think we have got high enough among the dark clouds; I do not believe we ought to go any higher. It is well enough to admit the English, the French, the Spanish and the half-breeds, but the Indian and the Negro is a little too dark for me. I think we had better stop at the half-breeds. I am in favor of limiting the vote to them, and going no farther into the dark clouds to admit the Negro.
In 1865, the Oregonian commented:
The man who--knowing of the African race in our country-favors the extension of the privileges of citizenship to them, is surely reckless of the consequences, and regardless of the future result . . . The Negroes as a class possess no capacity of self-government, and the few who are intelligent enough to take part in public affairs are offset by the multitude who don't . . . this nation of the white race should well ponder the question before it admits the African, the Mongolian and the Indian to all its privileges?
The Oregon Statesman, in an editorial published the same year, predicted that giving the vote to blacks would have a revolutionary influence on society.
We do not believe that any democratic or republican form of government can successfully govern two separate and distinct races of people in large numbers with equal political rights to both races?
Not only those few qualified blacks, but the masses just released from slavery would be able to vote. Full suffrage would result in a "war of the races," the editorial concluded.
If we make the African a citizen, we cannot deny the same right to the Indian or the Mongolian (the Chinese, Japanese and other Asians). Then how long would we have peace and prosperity when four races separate, distinct and antagonistic should be at the polls and contend for the control of government?
The 1866 legislature, still controlled by the Union party but with a strong minority of Democrats, considered and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, although the vote was close. When the resolution came up for discussion in the House, eighteen members entered a formal objection, claiming that the Judiciary Committee had recommended ratification without consulting two members. Two seats in the House were contested, and finally filled by the Democratic contenders. The Democrats made two attempts to withdraw ratification, but even with the support of the two additional Democrats, these attempts failed.
This legislature also passed another law prohibiting intermarriage. It was directed not only against white/black marriages, but against anyone with "one-fourth or more Negro, Chinese or [Hawaiian] blood, or any person having more than one-half Indian blood. It was passed with little debate; the combined vote was forty-seven in favor, eight opposed and three absent. The penalty for disobeying the law was a prison sentence of not less than three months, or up to one year. Any person authorized to conduct marriages who broke the law by marrying two people illegally was subject to the same penalty,
Click Here To Continue With Chapter 5 - Page 2
Return To Table of Contents