Oregon’s legacy of racial segregation

"Senator Barack Obama looks out to a sea of supporters in Portland on May 18, 2008 (AP)." (Source: Gizmodo.)

“Senator Barack Obama looks out to a sea of supporters in Portland on May 18, 2008 (AP).” (Source: Gizmodo.)

The northwestern state of Oregon is known for its liberal culture and voting patterns, but this predominantly white state has a significant history in racial segregation and white supremacy. In an article published on Gizmodo by Matt Novak (via Jeremy Adam Smith), we learn of the explicit racist history that was pervasive in Oregon at the time of its establishment as a state and how that legacy would play out to the present day, in an attempt by some quarters to create a “white utopia”:

According to Oregon’s founding constitution, black people were not permitted to live in the state. And that held true until 1926. 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.

In 1857, Oregon would adopt a state constitution that explicitly advocated for the segregation and removal of black people and those of mixed race from the state.

“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.” — Oregon State Senator John R. McBride, c. 1860

And, while Asians were not specifically mentioned in Oregon’s first state constitution, they too felt the brunt of the racist attitudes at the turn of the twentieth century:

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. But some Chinese residents weren’t about to be intimidated and set up camp nearby. This wasn’t enough for the hateful mobs of La Grande, who broke up the camp and forced anyone remaining to get on trains out of town.

This history and experiences of Oregon’s earliest Sikh residents are not included in the Gizmodo article, but we can dovetail into this history what we know from other sources about the Sikh settlers along the Columbia River near the town of Astoria, Oregon. As historian Johanna Ogden documented a couple of years ago, there were notable pockets of Sikh populations (some of the earliest recorded Sikhs in the United States)involved in the lumber industry along the Columbia River who were not equitably acknowledged by Oregon’s establishment at the time and who became long forgotten in favor of another narrative:

White pioneers are Oregon Country’s first settlers despite large and longstanding Native communities. Logs of “pioneer” names or of local deaths don’t list the name “Singh” despite their having been neighbors or co-workers. Sheriff’s arrest ledgers where “nativity” contrast “American” with Jew, Negro, or Punjabi likewise expose and reinforce a certain notion of belonging. A thousand seemingly benign acts of erasure undergird and feed the persistent myth of Oregon as a white pioneer land. The result is that many of the immigrants whose labor made the American or Canadian West are perpetual outsiders, historical sidebars or simply forgotten altogether.

Given Oregon’s reputation today for being a bastion of liberalism in America, the overarching history described by Matt Novak about racial attitudes and behavior that persisted in Oregon when it joined the American union in the latter half of the 19th century provides additional context about the official and cultural obstacles and discrimination faced by the pioneering Sikhs who first settled in this country.

“It’s still a hidden history today. It’s not part of the curriculum that’s being taught in public schools in this state. I, in fact, gave a presentation that was mostly public school administrators and public school teachers and I asked them how many of them had known about the exclusionary law before they came to the presentation. Seventy to eighty percent didn’t know that Oregon had racial exclusion laws.” — Walidah Imarisha, adjunct professor, Portland State University.

Noting this history is especially important because much of this history — in Oregon and beyond, and the Sikh American’s place in it — is relatively unknown.

Read Matt Novak’s full article in Gizmodo.


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