Oregon may have a reputation among some as a liberal blue state, but a lecturer who will speak here Monday says it has a racist past that affects the makeup of the state today.

Oregon may have a reputation among some as a liberal blue state, but a lecturer who will speak here Monday says it has a racist past that affects the makeup of the state today.

In 1844, Oregon, not yet a territory, was founded as a "white homeland" that banned slavery and excluded blacks — a tenet that transferred to the state constitution and allowed punishment of African-Americans who refused to leave, said Walidah Imarisha, an adjunct professor of history at Portland State University and Oregon State University.

She will present "A Hidden History: Why Aren't There More Black People in Oregon?" at 9:30 a.m. Monday at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave. The talk is free and open to the public.

In the 19th century, blacks stayed in Oregon at their own peril.

"The law stated that governments could whip such immigrants every six months or, later in history, press them into forced labor," Imarisha says.

Such laws were struck down with amendments to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War, she adds, but while they existed, made blacks in Oregon "the first illegal aliens."

At statehood in 1859, Oregon's Constitution banned blacks from living or working in the state, owning property or voting.

It banned blacks from juries, levied black poll taxes and banned them from marrying whites, according to "The State of Black Oregon," an Urban League of Portland study cited by Imarisha. Such laws were upheld by courts until overturned by civil rights legislation in the 1950s.

An Oregon law in 1862 required all blacks, Chinese, Hawaiians and mulattos to pay a $5 annual tax or be pressed into road work at 50 cents a day, she notes.

The Ku Klux Klan blossomed in Oregon in the 1920s in greater numbers, per capita, than anywhere in the nation, says Imarisha and would march prominently in main street parades in most towns, Imarisha says, including now-liberal Ashland.

"The governor who took office in 1923, Walter Pierce, was a card-carrying member of the KKK and supported the policy changes sought by the Klan, including universal compulsory public education, so the Klan could indoctrinate all children with their racist views," she says. "It was aimed at circumventing Catholic schools and passed in Oregon, but was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court."

Oregon was noted for its "sundown laws," allowing blacks to pass through towns but requiring them to leave by sundown, but Imarisha says the laws were never on the books; they were simply communicated to black travelers.

Imarisha cites the study, "Sundown Towns," by James Loewen, which lists such towns, including Medford and Ashland, but relies mainly on oral histories, not documents.

"About Medford, it says it was a confirmed sundown town with a sign up (telling blacks to be out of town by dark)," she notes.

Seventy years ago, Oregon's black population was tiny, limited to railroad workers and domestic help, until Portland shipyards welcomed them in World War II. Today, says the Urban League, blacks face new uncertainty as neo-Nazis and skinheads push their own racist beliefs.

At least partly due to such prejudice and exclusion, blacks are only about 2 percent of the Oregon population, compared with 13 percent nationwide, she says. Citing the Urban League study, she notes 80 percent of the state's blacks live in the Portland metro area.

Imarisha will also speak on the topic at 1:30 p.m. Monday in the Student Center of Rogue Community College's Redwood Campus, 3345 Redwood Highway, Grants Pass.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.