For the last of six packed, back to back presentations throughout Oregon, a good crowd turned out at the Bay City Arts Center just north of Tillamook to take part in Walidah Imarisha’s provocative and deeply necessary Oregon Humanities conversation project tour, “Why aren’t there more black people in Oregon? A hidden history”.
The short answer: Because Oregon was founded as a white homeland.
In an engaging group dialogue, Imarisha walked us through a timeline of black history in Oregon and then asked how our present might be informed by all that history. It’s a terrible story, but one every Oregonian should know.
Like the Juan de Fuca plate grinding slowly underneath the Cascadia subduction zone, Oregon’s deeply buried racial past is both unseen (by some) and yet directly linked to so much of recent history. It’s right there, still a live fault, just below the surface. It’s not the more common Oregon narrative we’re familiar with. It’s not the one being taught in schools.
A unique aspect of Oregon’s demographics that explains some of the recent conflict over the bike lane on N. Williams is that a huge number of whites moved here recently, after a lot of the key events that still resonate for the black community, such as the clearing of the Albina neighborhood to make room for an Emanuel Hospital expansion that never happened. Ironically, in a city obsessed with everything local, there’s a major blind spot when it comes to local history.
And this isn’t ancient history we’re talking about. While former “sundown towns” may no longer post billboards at city limits that say “Whites only after dark”, is the message any less clear in some places today? What does it mean when a monster truck drives by with a big confederate flag flying? It’s pretty clear what that means.
It makes a lot of sense that, given its history, this clean, green Pacific Northwest state would still be seen as a white homeland by some. Changing that story is going to take a lot more than simply ignoring the facts about how we got here.