The East Oregonian in Pendleton, Oregon did a story on Walidah's Oregon Black history program done at Blue Mountain Community College as part of their arts festival April 17, 2012.
By KATHY ANEY
When Walidah Imarisha moved to Oregon as a teenager, she remembers
wondering, “Why are there so few black people here?”
Imarisha, who now teaches black history at professor at Portland State University, asked
the same question again Monday during Blue Mountain Community College’s Art &
Culture Festival. In a series of slides, Imarisha cruised through a visual timeline that
started with Marcus Lopez, a cabin boy for Captain Robert Gray – the first person of
African descent to set foot in the state.
The history lesson that followed made some in the mostly-white audience shift
“Why,” she asked, “are there so few black people in Oregon?”
The question is a head-scratcher at first glance. After all, the state declared slavery illegal
in 1844. But slavery isn’t the only form of oppression, Imarisha said. Oregonians soon
passed the so-called “Lash Law.”
“Black people would get publicly whipped every six months until they left,” Imarisha
said. “Oregon basically said we don’t want black people here.”
The exclusion law, which required at least 20 lashes and no more than 39 lashes, was
modified before it actually went into place. Forced labor replaced whippings. Later,
blacks were simply barred from moving to the state at all. In 1857, the law became part
of Oregon’s Bill of Rights and stayed there until 1926. It wasn’t until 1927 that the state
removed a clause that kept blacks from voting and, in 1951, repealed a law prohibiting
“Oregon didn’t say black folks have the right to be citizens until 1959,” said Imarisha,
who teaches black history at PSU. “That set the course for us as a state.”
The Oregon chapter of Klu Klux Klan started its brief, but “spectacular” reign in 1921. In
the next 25 years, membership reached 200,000.
Housing discrimination also pushed blacks away, Imarisha said. In 1919, the Portland
Real Estate Code of Ethics barred realtors from selling to blacks to protect property
values. Most Portland blacks lived in a public housing project called Vanport on the
banks of the Columbia River. In 1948, a flood wiped out the shoddily-constructed
collection of buildings.
“The houses literally floated away because they had no foundation,” she said. “Suddenly,
17,000 people who were disproportionately black had no place to go.”
Many of Portland’s African Americans eventually relocated to northeast Portland’s
Albina neighborhood where the black community faced more frustration when the city
razed hundreds of homes and black-owned businesses for construction of Memorial
Coliseum in 1960.
“Memorial Coliseum – that was the heart of the black community,” she said. “They built
it on top of the black community and destroyed 450 homes to do it.”