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Museum Exhibit Explores Black History in Oregon and the Willamette Valley

By Matt Wastradowski

It's impossible to talk about Oregon history without acknowledging the racism that influenced and guided the state's earliest years. 

When Oregon was admitted to the United States in 1859, for instance, it was the only state with an exclusion law written into the state constitution-meaning that Oregon excluded all free Black people from living in the state, even as slavery was outlawed. Interracial marriage was banned in 1866 (a law that wouldn't be repealed until 1951), and it wasn't until 2000 that Oregonians voted to remove the last of the racist language from the state constitution.

A new exhibit, “Black in Oregon: 1840-1870”, seeks to contextualize that history and spotlight the people those laws hurt the most: early Black pioneers in the Willamette Valley. The exhibit is available on the Oregon State Archives website and, through April 17, 2021, at the Benton County Historical Society's Philomath Museum. (Visitors wanting to see “Black in Oregon: 1840-1870” in-person should call ahead to confirm the museum is open prior to arrival.)

“Black in Oregon: 1840-1870” Focuses on Overlooked Stories

“Black in Oregon: 1840-1870” looks at the lives and experiences of Oregon's first Black pioneers who arrived (some voluntarily, some as enslaved people) prior to statehood and in Oregon's first years as the 33rd state.

Oregon Black Pioneers, the state's only historical society dedicated to sharing the history of Oregon's Black residents and communities, provided the 20 informative panels that comprise the in-person exhibit. The Benton County Historical Society added 10 artifacts and photos from its collection-some of which had never been displayed before-and added a story from Benton County, as well. (The exhibit is also available on the Oregon State Archives website.)

The exhibit goes beyond the state's exclusion laws and tells the oft-forgotten stories of some of Oregon's earliest settlers. “People of African descent are often left out of our state's early narrative,” says Zachary Stocks, executive director at Oregon Black Pioneers. “This exhibit helps correct the record by pointing out the extraordinary legal and social inequalities that these Black individuals confronted in order to build a life for themselves and their families in Oregon."

Individual Stories Spotlighted, Given Context

One such pioneer is Latetia Carson, who came to Oregon as an enslaved person or former enslaved person with David Carson in 1845; four years later, she gave birth to a son, Adam-believed to be the first Black child born in Oregon. David Carson died in 1852, and Letitia spent the next several years in court, seeking payment for her work and fair value for the livestock and property to which she said she was entitled; a jury awarded her $300 in 1855 (along with $229.50 to cover court costs and legal fees), and a federal judge and local jury awarded her another $1,399.75, for the unlawful sale of her cattle, in 1856.

Another story focuses on Hannah Gorman, who arrived as an enslaved person in the Oregon Territory in 1844 with her daughter, Eliza. The two settled in Polk County before moving to Benton County in the 1850s-where Eliza became an accomplished seamstress and Hannah worked as a laundress. The two later bought a house in Corvallis, even though the state constitution's exclusionary clause prevented Black people from being in the state or owning property. Eliza died in 1869, and a eulogy in The Corvallis Gazette noted her "intelligence, modesty, [and] kind and sympathetic disposition"-and remarked that she was held in high esteem by those in her community.

The stories of Latetia Carson, as well as Hannah and Eliza Gorman and several others, show just how hard the state's Black pioneers worked to achieve justice and build a life for themselves in the face of challenge after challenge. “Despite the ever changing laws meant to limit or ban Blacks from coming to Oregon, these handful of Black pioneers settled here and contributed to the development of some of the state's first permanent communities,” Stocks says.

“Black in Oregon: 1840-1870” is currently scheduled to remain on display through April 17, 2021, at the Benton County Historical Society's Philomath Museum. Visitors wanting to see the exhibit in-person should call ahead to confirm the museum is open prior to arrival.

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