A young girl in shadows

Oregon once legally banned Black people. Has the state reconciled its racist past?

Oregon became ground zero of America’s racial reckoning protests last summer. But activists say it doesn’t know its own history.

Cleo Davis and Kayin Talton Davis are artists and activists who have made it their mission to preserve and celebrate African American history in Portland. Here, their daughter, Ifetayo Davis, stands with her father and sisters outside their home.
Photograph by Diana Markosian, National Geographic

On most weekends during the warm months, you’re likely to find Zachary Stocks in buckskin pants and a linen shirt guiding visitors around Fort Clatsop, a replica of the encampment where American explorers Lewis and Clark holed up during the bitter winter of 1805. But on one chilly morning last fall, Stocks was bundled in a fleece jacket, his dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail, and a mask covered his face—protecting against both COVID and the wildfire smoke then blanketing the state.

During the workweek, Stocks is executive director of Oregon Black Pioneers, a group that documents and disseminates the African American history of a state that’s 87 percent white. On weekends he’s an interpretive guide for visitors who make their way to Astoria, Oregon’s oldest city located on its northernmost coastal tip.

Many of the visitors Stocks meets have heard of York, William Clark’s enslaved “manservant” who accompanied the explorers on their famous expedition. But what Stocks tells them is a history few native Oregonians—and even fewer of the recent wave of transplants to Portland—know. 

“As long as there have been white people here, there have been Black people here,” he says. “The reason we don't talk about Black people in the larger narrative of our state’s development is because there were explicit laws placed to keep Black people out of Oregon.” Sometimes this fact makes Fort Clatsop’s visitors visibly uncomfortable.

Oregon is known today for liberal politics and residents who faintly resemble the quirky characters on the TV parody Portlandia. And since last summer Portland, the state’s largest city, has hosted the longest continuous Black Lives Matter protests in the nation. But Portland is also one of the whitest large cities in America. How did it become a hotbed of racial reckoning?

A big part of the answer lies in the state’s history. Before Oregon became a state, it fashioned itself as a whites-only utopia. When it joined the union in 1859, it was then the only state with laws specifically prohibiting certain races from legally living, working, or owning property within its borders.

Oregon’s subsequent history is peppered with violence against minority groups. In 1887 a gang of white horse thieves murdered and mutilated 34 Chinese gold miners. No one was held accountable for the massacre. By the 1920s, one in 20 Oregonians was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, the highest percentage of any state west of the Mississippi. In the 1970s separatists in the region proposed creating a white ethnostate called the “Northwest Territorial Imperative,” and in 1988 a group of white supremacists murdered an Ethiopian college student with a baseball bat, earning Portland the nickname “Skinhead City.”

Today, the state is politically divided by region. The rural east, home to cattle ranchers and farmers, is a conservative stronghold. Yet even many progressive residents in the state’s liberal western corridor—from artsy Ashland in the south to hippie Eugene in the center and hipster Portland up north—are unaware of Oregon’s dark history.

Stocks is part of a movement of Black Oregonians who have something to say about how the racist history of their state has been glossed over, and who are taking it upon themselves to make the real story known. And as Stocks tells it, that story starts with the tale of a shipwrecked sailor.

Built on exclusion

In 1841 the U.S.S. Peacock, an American scientific exploration vessel, shipwrecked in the choppy coastal waters at the mouth of the Columbia River. The entire crew, including a Black cook named James Saules, was rescued. While most of the crew rejoined the expedition, Saules decided to stay.

Black sailors may have landed in what would become Oregon as early as 1578, with Sir Francis Drake’s expedition. But by the time Saules arrived more than 250 years later, there were perhaps only two dozen Black residents.

In 1844 Saules was living in Oregon City, a growing hub at the end of the Oregon Trail, when he was unwittingly thrust into a fracas over the sale of a horse. An ensuing fight that Saules was likely not involved in left two white settlers and a Native man dead. Not long after, he was accused by a white neighbor of conspiring to destroy his property, and a federal agent for Indian affairs sent a letter to Washington describing Saules and “every other negro” as “dangerous subjects.” He wrote: “Until we have some further means of protection, their immigration ought to be prohibited. Can this be done?”

According to Stocks, Oregon’s settlers were afraid that Black people would conspire with Native tribes to threaten their growing monopoly over the land, and that their presence might also lead to slavery, which, ironically, the settlers were overwhelmingly against. They felt, says Stocks, that “it would devalue white labor to have Black labor here.”

That same year Oregon’s provisional government passed the Black Exclusion Bill, which included a section known as the “Lash Law.” It prohibited African Americans from entering the state, and required all former slaves who had settled in Oregon to leave. Those who failed to obey the order would be publicly flogged with "not less than 20 nor more than 39 stripes.”

When delegates later sat down to write the state’s constitution, they had to settle a thorny question: Should Oregon allow free Blacks to live in the state? Of some 10,000 white men allowed to vote on the matter, more than 8,500 said no. So it was that in 1859, Oregon became the first and only state to enter into the United States with such a prohibition in its constitution.

There are no known incidents of the lash law being enforced, and eventually it was struck from the books. Even so, historians agree that it dissuaded Black people from coming to Oregon.

But there was another, even more effective, deterrent for African Americans moving west.

In 1850 the U.S. Congress had passed the Oregon Donation Land Act, offering up to 320 acres of free land in the territory to any white settler who would cultivate it—an offer not extended to Native Americans, African Americans, and Hawaiians. It was likely the most generous offering at the time, and within a decade Oregon's population had risen six fold. But more than a few Black settlers arrived, took note of the racist laws, and continued on to California or Washington.

“When you think of the Oregon Trail, there’s a reason that narrative doesn't include Black people in your mind,” says Stocks. “Because they were excluded from the Manifest Destiny that brought people out here.”

A city underwater

Manifest Destiny didn’t bring Ed Washington’s family to Oregon, but the call for World War II shipyard workers did.

Like Stocks, Washington is a guide to Oregon’s hidden history. For the past 12 years he has been leading bus tours run by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. Attendees—who add their names to a two-year waitlist—get to see and hear about the displacement, redlining, and economic gentrification that shaped the city of Portland.

By 1940, there were fewer than 2,500 Blacks among Oregon’s 1.5 million residents. When the next wave of migrants arrived in the state to build ships during World War II, Washington’s family was among them. Seeing nowhere for African American workers to live in segregated Portland, the head of Kaiser Shipyards built a new town on the outskirts of Portland: Vanport.

Few Portlanders today have heard of Vanport, but in the 1940s it was the second largest city in Oregon. It was one of the only places Black people could live, and though the housing was segregated, the shipyard workers' children all went to the same school. Today it’s an empty field, speckled with purple wildflowers and abuzz with bees. A golf course sits next to it. Washington, now 83, points to a sign describing the wildlife in the wetlands—this is where his father claimed a house for his wife and their five children.

On Memorial Day 1948, Washington stood on the hill where a four-lane highway now runs and watched as a wave of water from a failed dam crashed through Vanport. People and dogs scurried onto the roofs of their houses. The structures had been built on wooden platforms, not foundations, and the land was a floodplain. The water lifted up the homes and in 45 minutes most of Vanport had washed away.

With Vanport gone, Washington’s family and their Black neighbors only had two choices: move to a housing project called Guiles Lake, or to the neighborhood of Albina. Oregon’s first Black community had emerged in downtown Portland in the 1880s. As the city grew, many Blacks moved into a swampy incorporated town across the river called Albina. In a practice called redlining, realtors and bankers would not sell property or provide loans to minorities seeking to live in white neighborhoods. Soon, 80 percent of Black Portlanders lived in Albina.

Washington’s eyes flit across the field of weeds. The entirety of Vanport covered just 650 acres, he notes. If, in 1850, a white man and his wife moved to Oregon, they could have jointly claimed nearly the same acreage. But when his parents moved here almost a century later, Black people were still struggling to put down roots in Oregon. “You can extrapolate,” he says. “If people could come and get that land, the legacy is that it was an opportunity for a lot of people to develop wealth.” Instead, nearly every new generation of Black Oregonians has had to start from scratch.

The Black Broadway

Today, people walking along North Williams Avenue in north Portland may mistake it for an average commercial strip peppered with yoga studios and new condos. Unless, that is, they notice the colorful signposts marching up the street. These markers commemorate everything from Black manufacturing contributions in World War II, to the day Paul Knauls, the dapper proprietor of the Cotton Club, shut down the street and threw a parade to celebrate the Trail Blazer’s NBA championship win.

In 2012, artists Cleo Davis and Kayin Talton Davis won a city grant to commemorate the Black history of North Williams Avenue. The neighborhood had become unrecognizable to its former residents. In its mid-century heyday, there were more than 100 Black-owned businesses, from cobblers to record stores. Now there are maybe five. “What we wanted to say was: You might not live here, but this is the community your ancestors built,” says Talton. “Look at Portland’s landscape and all the ways the Black community has been pushed out of generational wealth.”

For decades the center of Albina, and of African American life in Portland, was North Williams Avenue. With jazz cabarets and social clubs, it was called the Black Broadway. But in the 1950s, parts of the neighborhood were razed to expand Portland’s highways, and projects like the Memorial Coliseum, an indoor arena, displaced residents. The government refused to insure home loans, and the neighborhood began to deteriorate. By the 1970s the city was seizing and demolishing older structures under blight and nuisance laws.

But later, Portland’s public tram was extended toward Albina and new construction began to rise. Between 1990 and 2010, a wave of gentrification displaced an estimated 10,000 residents, according to the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.

Today Albina is prime real estate, filled by Oregon’s newest migrants: millennials drawn by the laid-back image of the city presented in shows such as Portlandia, and by the “Keep Portland weird” motto that’s often on full display with naked bike rides, buskers, and quirky boutiques.

“When you go to North Williams and see the million-dollar condos there with BLM signs, you have to wonder if these folks know that history,” says Allan Lazo, the Fair Housing Council’s executive director. “Because there certainly was a time in that area when Black lives didn’t matter. This hasn’t been a utopia for lots of folks.”

Something in return

On a quiet side street off North Williams Avenue, there’s a small white house that ensures the memory of Albina’s Black history won’t disappear behind yoga studios and condos. It hovers on stilts five feet above the ground.

On a warm fall day, Cleo Davis props a blown-up archival photograph against a fence encircling the house. It shows the original structure that sat on this land—a seven-unit apartment building. In 1982, not long after Davis’ grandmother purchased the property, a red tag was placed on it, marking it as blight and nuisance. His uncle, a structural engineer, was denied permits to bring the building up to code. After a two year legal battle, it was bulldozed.

But this story has a twist: In 2018, Davis went to the city council and described how the city had made it impossible for Black families like his to build generational wealth. He calculated that his family had lost $2.5 million in rental income on the property. In exchange for what was taken, he said, he wanted a house that was slated for demolition down the street moved onto the property, and $40,000 in permit and relocation fees waived. The city agreed.

Today, its windows are obscured by old newspapers and the front porch paint is peeling. But Davis and Talton envision the house as an arts hub and archive for the neighborhood, where students can study property rights and creative activism. For Davis, the house represents the dismantling and rebuilding of his community. “After redlining, two things—blight laws and civil forfeiture—took down Black communities across the U.S.,” he says. “This property has seen both and beaten both. It’s huge to me.”

Oregon has been slow to correct its historic wrongdoings. The Black exclusion clause wasn't removed from its constitution until 1926, and the state didn’t ratify the 15th Amendment, giving Black citizens the right to vote, until 1959—nearly a century after it was added to the U.S. Constitution. Not until 1973 did Oregon fully ratify the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, granting citizenship and equal protection to African Americans.

Compensating disenfranchised groups for historical suffering—a concept known as reparations—has been at the forefront of the racial reckoning discourse in the United States. In January, the Portland City Council announced it would lobby the federal government to pay reparations to the descendants of Black slaves and Native Americans. Locally, the city housing bureau’s “right to return” policy gives affordable housing priority to residents who can show that their families were displaced by redevelopment projects and discriminatory policy.

Talton and Davis have a residency with the city archives to help the city think about reparations. Another project they’re involved with, the Albina Vision Trust, has plans to redevelop parts of the neighborhood that were bulldozed for development. But to truly fix the system, Davis says, the city needs to “make laws so it doesn’t happen again.” 

A summer of protests

That Portland, one of the whitest large cities in America, became a center of Black Lives Matter protests last summer was unexpected even for those who know its activist leanings. On July 4, federal troops were dispatched to quell protestors in Portland, spurring thousands more to march each night.

For some, the unique, twisted history of race in Portland, and Oregon as a whole, had been brought to the streets. For others, the crowd of mostly white protestors clashing with police in a blaze of smoke and tear gas raised more questions than answers. No other city sustained its protests—which still continue on a much smaller scale—for so long.

All summer and into the fall, Dr. Anita Randolph would leave her shift as a psychiatry fellow at Oregon Health and Science University at 7 p.m., and rendezvous at her house with mutual aid groups like “The Ewoks” and “The Witches.” They’d take from a stockpile of medical supplies and protective gear in her basement and distribute them at the protests until midnight.

But once the federal troops left—and with them the bulk of the protestors—Randolph, who led the team of volunteer medics, grew disillusioned. “People don't know what they’re there for,” she says. “You ask and get one million answers. You need an answer to the question: Why is it so bad in Portland? You need to know your history.”

Randolph came to Portland in 2019 by way of Georgia, Texas, and Alabama. But Oregon, she says, is the most racist place she’s lived. “I fought really hard to get out here,” she says. “I watched Portlandia and thought that’s what it’d be like.” It wasn’t. She rattles off a few of her most degrading moments as a new, Black Portland resident: her new colleagues questioned her credentials, the police were called to confirm her presence on campus, she was chased with a broom while trying to access her office.

In the fall, Randolph accepted a job in Minneapolis and began packing up her life in Oregon.

“In the South, people tell you they’re racist,” she says. “In Portland, it’s so insidious. Do you prefer the liberal fox or the snarling wolf?”

An Oregon for everyone

Back at Fort Clatsop, ravens swoop across a small clearing in the fir trees and a few visitors wander by as Stocks reflects on his new job. He began as executive director of Oregon Black Pioneers last June, during the thick of the protests. He came with years of experience in history and museum studies, but never before had a racial reckoning so deeply shaken the state.

As the organization’s only employee, Stocks gives lectures, advocates for the protection of historical sites connected to early Black settlers, and curates exhibits spanning 400 years of Black Oregon history. There’s a lot of work to do, he says.

“I’ve had the chance to see every corner of this state and I think it’s just fantastic. The small towns are amazing. People are so friendly. Which is what makes it so discouraging when you see the backlash to racial equality. It’s sort of like getting kicked in the gut.”

He leaves his post and walks toward the log structure that sits on the site where Lewis, Clark, York, and the rest of the expedition spent their nights, just a few decades before a trail of settlers would seize Native lands, pass laws to keep Black people out, and become a state. Oregon’s dark history is unfortunate, Stocks says. “But it doesn’t mean I want to leave here. It just means I need to work harder at my job. And let people know this is a place for everyone.”

Diana Markosian is a conceptual and documentary photographer who takes an intimate approach to storytelling. To see more of her work, follow her on Instagram.

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