Volume 12 Number 3
Oregon Marks a New Chapter

01 June 1999

Many African Americans will tell you that Portland and Oregon are the most racist communities they have ever been in, and most can cite racist hurdles and language they have encountered.
Oregon, at least western Oregon, is green--blessed by nature with abundant rain. Oregon is also predominantly white, 90.3 per cent. This is not so natural. In 1849 legislation was passed by the Territorial Assembly excluding African Americans from the state. Similar language in the Oregon Constitution was only repealed in 1926. An attitude of exclusion was nurtured in the state. Its ramifications persist.

There are African Americans alive today who can remember when they were not allowed to stay overnight in certain Oregon towns. As a student, Oregon's former Senator, Mark O Hatfield, had to drive the great African-American singer, Marian Anderson, to Portland from Salem so that she would have somewhere to sleep.

In many race-related areas Oregon, which regards itself as a forward-looking state, has progressed. Today in Portland, the state's largest city, African Americans hold senior positions including Police Chief, Conductor of the Symphony, Director of the Parks Bureau, School Superintendent and President of Portland State University. William Hilliard, who could not deliver The Oregonian because he was black, became the paper's editor and President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Yet many African Americans will tell you that Portland and Oregon are the most racist communities they have ever been in, and most can cite racist hurdles and language they have encountered.

Last month, marking 150 years since the first exclusionary legislation, the House and Senate passed identical resolutions acknowledging this history, recognizing people of all races who have worked over the years for positive change and calling for ongoing dialogues and action. 'I am proud that the people of Oregon are earnest in correcting past mistakes,' the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Lynn Snodgrass, told the press. The Senate President, Brady Adams, added, 'It is important for us to look forward and make sure that Oregon is a place that will not tolerate discrimination.'

This 'Day of Acknowledgment' drew some 600 people to the Capitol building. In a formal and moving ceremony in the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President signed the resolutions, and the Governor a proclamation with the same wording.

AP reported, 'There were no words of anger or blame at the ceremony, when Oregonians, of all colours and religions, packed a House chamber. Buffalo soldiers dressed in traditional navy blue uniforms and Native Americans with feather headdresses posted the flags. The House swelled with song as former Representative Margaret Carter led the crowd in a rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. "We've come a long way here in the state of Oregon," said Governor John Kitzhaber. "But there's always more that can be done."'

A front-page article in The Oregonian described the event: 'Part revival meeting, part reunion, the ceremony rung with cheers and standing ovations as leader after leader talked about a past of injustice and a future of hope.' Looking out over the multiracial audience, Japanese-American lawyer Peggy Nagae said, to cheers, 'This is what the Oregon Legislature is going to look like.'

Future generations would know what had been done that day, said African-American Senator Avel Gordly. 'It is a model of what is possible when we forgive, correct, heal and decide to move forward together.'

The event was sponsored by Oregon Uniting, a coalition which grew out of a conference two years earlier arranged by Hope in the Cities/MRA and other human rights organizations. The honorary Co-Chairs, Hatfield and Myrlie Evers-Williams, who is outgoing Chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke, as did Hispanic, Native American and Japanese-American represenatatives. A series of multiracial dialogues was launched as part of the healing process.

The Secretary of State, Phil Keisling, told me, 'This may be the best thing that happens in the Legislature this year' and a Native American spiritual leader, Bernie Cliff, said, 'That was an answer to our prayers.'

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