Oregon Was Founded As a Racist Utopia
Matt Novak, Gizmodo, January 21, 2015
When Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. It was illegal for black people even to move to the state until 1926. Oregon’s founding is part of the forgotten history of racism in the American west.
Waddles Coffee Shop in Portland, Oregon was a popular restaurant in the 1950s for both locals and travelers alike. The drive-in catered to America’s postwar obsession with car culture, allowing people to get coffee and a slice of pie without even leaving their vehicle. But if you happened to be black, the owners of Waddles implored you to keep on driving. The restaurant had a sign outside with a very clear message: “White Trade Only — Please.”
It’s the kind of scene from the 1950s that’s so hard for many Americans to imagine happening outside of the Jim Crow South. How could a progressive, northern city like Portland have allowed a restaurant to exclude non-white patrons? This had to be an anomaly, right? In reality it was far too common in Oregon, a state that was explicitly founded as a kind of white utopia.
The small number of black people already living in the state in 1859, when it was admitted to the Union, were sometimes allowed to stay, but the next century of segregation and terrorism at the hands of angry racists made it clear that they were not welcome.
Today, while 13 percent of Americans are black, just 2 percent of Oregon’s population is black.
The question of whether Oregon should allow slavery dates back to at least the 1840s. The majority of Oregonians (which is to say the territory’s new white residents who were systematically and sometimes violently oppressing its Native peoples) opposed slavery. But they also didn’t want to live anywhere near anyone who wasn’t white.
Even before it was a state, those in power in Oregon were trying to keep out non-white people. In the summer of 1844, for example, the Legislative Committee passed a provision that said any free black people who were in the state would be subject to flogging if they didn’t leave within two years. The floggings were supposed to continue every six months until they left the territory. That provision was revised in December of 1845 to removed the flogging part. Instead, free black people who remained would be offered up “publicly for hire” to any white person who would remove them from the territory.
In fact, 172 of the document’s [Oregon constitution’s] 185 sections were directly plagiarized from the constitutions of other states like Ohio and Indiana.
The original parts? As David Schuman explains in his 1995 paper The Creation of the Oregon Constitution, they fell into two camps: limits on state spending and forms of racial exclusion. Somewhat ironically, the racial exclusion sections were included in an article called the Bill of Rights.
The constitution was put to a popular vote in the state in 1857 and included two referendums that were to be voted on independently. The first was whether they should reject slavery. Roughly 75 percent of voters opted to reject the adoption of slavery. The second measure was whether or not to exclude black people from the state. About 89 percent of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state.
As one “pioneer” voter who would later become a Republican state senator and a member of the U.S. House explained at a reunion in 1898:
Some believers in the doctrine of abstract human rights interpret this vote against admission of free negroes as an exhibition of prejudices which prevailed agains the African who was not a slave, but I have never so regarded it. It was largely an expression against any mingling of the white with any of the other races, and upon a theory that as we had yet no considerable representation of other races in our midst, we should do nothing to encourage their introduction. We were building a new state on virgin ground; it’s people believed it should encourage only the best elements to come to us, and discourage others.
This language about virgin ground and “the best elements,” burned into law in the new state, was used as a recruitment tool for other white Americans in the latter half of the 19th century — many of whom were white “refugees” from the south who were fleeing the dissolution of slavery.
Technically the state’s exclusion laws were superseded by federal law after the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. But Oregon had a rather complicated relationship with that particular Amendment. Having ratified it in 1866, the state then rescinded its ratification when a more racist state government took control in 1868. The move was more symbolic than anything, but Oregon gave the sign that it wasn’t on board with racial equality. Astoundingly, it wouldn’t be until 1973 (and with very little fanfare) that activists would get the state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment yet again.
Though Asian people were not specifically called out in Oregon’s constitutional exclusion laws, the white people of many towns large and small did their best to drive out non-white people any time they got the chance.
As just one example, the white people of La Grande burned that city’s Chinatown to the ground in 1893. The Chinese residents fled, with some people getting on the first train out.
These efforts were decentralized and not officially sanctioned by the state.
The Golden West Hotel was unique in that it was owned, operated, and exclusively patronized by black people in Oregon. It was the only place that black people from out of town could rent a room, and it was the central hub of black entertainment, recreation, and dining in Portland.
First opened in 1906, Portland authorities continually tried to shut down the place on trumped up charges of prostitution, gambling, and later for not having the “proper licenses.”
When the owners of the Golden West were forced to plea for their license back in 1921 they “pointed out that the hotel and club was practically the only place in the city where negroes could congregate.”
The arrival of the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon was swift and terrifying. In 1922 the Klan in Oregon boasted membership of over 14,000 men, with 9,000 of them living in Portland. And they were setting the state aflame. There were frequent cross burnings on the hills outside Portland and around greater Oregon.
The Klan held meetings, openly participated in parades, and held enormous gatherings for initiation ceremonies. One such gathering in 1923 at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem attracted over 1,500 hooded klansmen. They reportedly burned an enormous cross, of course.
As David A. Horowitz explains in his book Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, the entire state was being terrorized. And politicians at every level of government from the state to county to city officials were involved. In 1923, Oregon governor, Walter M. Pierce, and Portland mayor George L. Baker, attended and spoke at a dinner in honor of Grand Dragon Frederick L. Gifford’s birthday.
Both the governor and mayor would later claim that they didn’t know the event was sponsored by the Klan.
The August 2, 1921 issue of the Portland Telegram included a photo of Portland city and Multnomah county officials with two Klan members. The mayor of Portland, George L. Baker, is third from the right and the police chief, L.V. Jenkins, is third from the left.
The Telegram was one of the few newspapers in Oregon to openly oppose the Klan at the height of its power in the state. Despite being owned by white Protestant men, the newspaper’s adversarial stance against the Klan’s terrorism brought concerted campaigns to boycott businesses that advertised in the paper. The paper hemorrhaged thousands of readers and when it folded in 1933 many reportedly blamed the Klan’s efforts.
The Klan themselves counted men like Governor Pierce as members in secret minutes obtained in 1968 from the estate of a former state legislator. Colon R. Eberhard died at the age of 86 and while his personal papers were being processed, a folder of over 200 pages of KKK meetings in Oregon was discovered, dating from 1922 until 1924. Those pages weren’t handed over to the Oregon Historical Society until 1980.
But the Klan’s presence in Oregon was far from a secret, even in the 1920s. Not only were the hooded cowards meeting with law enforcement, they were advising them on what they’d like to accomplish — all while getting their picture in the newspaper. As the Telegram would report, the Portland police department was “full to the brink with Klansmen.”
People of color were naturally a target for the Klan during this period, but with so few people to irrationally hate for the color of their skin, they turned to campaigns against other groups like Catholics. The Klan, being for American-born Protestants, hated the Roman Catholic church and any of its followers.
Of course, the discrimination didn’t stop after the decline of the Klan. White restaurants still wouldn’t serve black people in Portland, black people weren’t allowed in the city’s swimming pools, and the local skating rink set aside a day for black people. This was as late as the early 1960s.
The segregation in Portland was as stark as anything in the Jim Crow-era South. And Portland’s bizarre dearth of black people (bizarre to outsiders who were unaware of the climate) really came to a head during World War II, when an influx of black workers came looking for the plentiful jobs offered by the Kaiser Shipyards.
The company worked with the city to create Vanport, an enormous new housing development halfway between Vancouver, Washington and Portland — thus the name Vanport.
Oregon today still exists as a white utopia in some respects. The state, much like so many others, is haunted by the residue of less explicit experiments in whitopia. These experiments form the basis of Rich Benjamin’s 2009 book Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.
In it, Benjamin travels the country, visiting places that are overwhelmingly white. He meets fascinating characters along the way, and helps to explain places like Oregon and how the actions of the 19th and 20th century bleed into the 21st.
From Searching for Whitopia:
Through most of the twentieth century, racial discrimination was deliberate and intentional. Today, racial segregation and division often result from habits, policies, and institutions that are not explicitly designed to discriminate. Contrary to popular belief, discrimination or segregation do not require animus. They thrive even in the absence of prejudice or ill will.
It’s common to have racism without “racists.”