A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
My involvement with the Oregon Black History Project began in December, 1977, when I was hired to direct a year-long research project that would culminate in a manuscript covering the history of the black people of Oregon to the beginning of World War II. This project was funded by a grant from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, We inherited a number of oral history tapes and photographs from a previous phase of the project, funded by a grant from the Bicentennial Commission.
It quickly became evident that the history of a small minority had to be placed in the larger context of the history of the attitudes of the white community of Oregon in an attempt to uncover, if not fully explain, the peculiar and persistent prejudice against black people that existed in Oregon. Because of the nature of much of the material concerning the lives of individual blacks, especially in the nineteenth century when family records are meager and public attention was turned away from the small black community, much of the information is episodic.
The first chapter considers the role of black people in the settlement of Oregon from the appearance of Marcus Lopez in 1788 to 1850. The next four chapters describe the attitudes toward blacks and other minorities evident in exclusion laws, the slavery controversy, and various anti-black legislation considered and passed between 1843 and 1875. The next two chapters deal with the experience of rural black people in the nineteenth century, and the founding and development of the black community of Portland from 1850 to 1940. A chapter is then devoted to a description of the kinds of prejudice black people faced in Oregon, followed by a chapter dealing with attempts to pass civil rights legislation and to repeal existing antiblack legislation, including a brief comparison of anti-black legislation and attitudes in the neighboring states of California and Washington. The final chapter is an epilogue briefly describing the period after 1940.
The ambiguities inherent in writing a history of a minority with which the author cannot personally identify are not, in this case, unfelt or unaccounted for. I would not weigh the difficulties of being a woman in a male dominated society as equal with the difficulties of being a member of a minority. But if the intensity of the experience of discrimination is not comparable, the fact of it is. I have tried to resist general definitions of either the black community or the white community and to allow, wherever possible, the past to speak for itself. The oral history interviews that were collected, that I listened to over and over, were a major source of information and inspiration, and taught me what I could never experience. I have had spiritual mentors in two black people in particular, to whom this book is dedicated.
Because of the circumstances of limited funds and time, the history of rural black people in this century is missing. A second volume covering the period after 1940 is necessary. This book is but a beginning.
I would like to express my personal thanks to my research assistants David Wood, Patricia Passmore, and particularly to Martha Anderson, one of those who voiced the original idea for such a project. Margaret Sherman and Linda Freed shared in the painstaking task of transcribing the oral history tapes and typed some of the early manuscript drafts.
To the members of the Board of Directors of the project goes the credit for obtaining the original funds to support the research and much of the writing of the manuscript. They provided continued support and encouragement. Further, the members of the editorial committee spent long hours reading successive manuscript drafts, and their suggestions and comments were invaluable. All or portions of the manuscript were also read by Darrell Wax and Thomas McClintock, members of the faculty of the history department at Oregon State University. Their contribution and encouragement is gratefully acknowledged. A special thanks is due to Helen Warbington, whose tireless work behind the scenes was much appreciated. I would also like to thank Kim MacCoil, who agreed to publish the book.
The staffs of the Oregon Historical Society, the Multnomah County Library, the Oregon State Library and Oregon State Archives provided generous assistance to the members of the research staff. For the entire project, I wish to thank the people who believed enough in the book to order advance copies. Your patience and support is much appreciated.
Finally, I would like to express my thanks to William Beeson, for his personal support and encouragement, and to my mother, Betty McLagan, whose generous assistance has helped to make the timely publication of this book a reality.
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