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State of intolerance

Oregon joined the Union as a staunchly anti-slavery state on Feb. 14, 1859.

But that didn't mean residents were receptive to blacks.

Consider the vote held in the Oregon Territory in fall 1857 in which residents approved the newly minted constitution to govern the region.

They soundly rejected the question of slavery by 7,727 to 2,645. Yet on that same ballot, an 8-to-1 majority voted against allowing free blacks to live in Oregon.

"People often mistakenly think that if you are anti-slavery, then you would automatically be sympathetic to black people or minorities in general," observed Darrell Millner, longtime professor of black studies at Portland State University. "But most people who came to the Oregon Territory were working-class people who hated the institution of slavery simply because it represented unfair competition."

Their opposition to slavery wasn't based on a higher regard for their fellow man or woman, he said.

"They knew that if someone could buy a slave, then they wouldn't have to pay wages to anyone," he explained. "The principal reason they didn't want slavery was because it would have meant fewer jobs for them.

"People should remember during this sesquicentennial that Oregon became a state when the Union was about to erupt into a civil war. The issue of what to do with black people was a major topic of the time."

Many people moving to the Oregon Territory, and later to the new state, wanted to avoid the controversy, he said.

"For them, the issue was very clear on how to avoid interracial conflicts in the settlement of the Oregon country," he said. "You create only one race in residence. If you have that, you don't have interracial conflict.

"So how do you achieve that in a place like Oregon in the 1850s when you have a resident population of color and a migrating one? You remove the first problem by putting them (Indians) on reservations. You solve the second problem by making it illegal for black populations to accumulate in Oregon."

Article 35 of the Oregon Constitution prohibited freed black people from moving into the state.

"No free Negro or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein," it read.

And Oregon's newly elected U.S. Sens. Joseph Lane and Delazon Smith were pro-slavery Democrats.

"Oregon had a very, very negative reputation across the country," Millner said of its early-day intolerance. "Oregonians had made it very clear you were not welcome here if you were a person of color."

Yet some blacks did become Oregonians in those early years, according to an article written by Ashland author Kay Atwood in the book "Land in Common," published by the Southern Oregon Historical Society in 1993.

"The chances a black had of living safely depended on individual personality, the town's makeup and a fierce determination to survive," she wrote. "Jackson Berry, born in Tennessee and a slave, came to Jacksonville with his owner, H.A. Overbeck. In 1857, Overbeck recorded a legal agreement to free his slave, 10 years after Berry's arrival in Oregon Territory."

Berry eventually acquired a donation land claim, Atwood noted.

Shortly after the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing equal protection to all citizens under the law. By extension, that gave black people the right to live in Oregon.

However, Oregon did not drop the discriminatory language from its constitution until 1927, Millner said, adding that learning state history can help people understand why there still are relatively few minorities in Oregon.

Not only did the 1857 constitution ban freed blacks but the federal Homestead Act of 1843 prohibited black settlement, he said.

"There was a different set of values in pioneer Oregon," Millner said. "The prevailing philosophy was manifest destiny in which the white race controlled the destiny."

As a result, Oregon was ripe for the Ku Klux Klan when it first arrived in 1921, he said. Medford was the first city in the state to have an organized KKK chapter, followed shortly thereafter by Ashland, Grants Pass and Klamath Falls, he said.

It wasn't until 1953 that a public accommodation bill was passed giving blacks the right to use hotels, bowling alleys and other public facilities, he said.

"That has been the nature of the racial struggle in Oregon from the pioneer period right down to our own generation," he said, later adding, "If you were a person of color, for instance from the South or the Ohio River Valley, where would you want to locate when you come West?"

The answer, he said, was not Oregon with its historic reputation of intolerance toward minorities.

"But 150 years is a long time," he said. "Quite a bit of change can occur. And one of the things that has changed is that we are much more diverse than we used to be."

A 2007 census of Oregon demonstrates that growing diversity, although the state population remains largely white. Out of 3.57 million people, there are 376,243 Hispanics, 131,434 Asians, 63,855 blacks, 61,725 American Indians and 8,146 Pacific Islanders, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Jackson County, 92.7 percent of the population is white. Out of 191,244 residents, 16,459 are Hispanic, 1,284 black, 1,958 American Indian, 2,626 Asian, and 233 Pacific Islander.

"We've made tremendous progress," Millner said of broadening diversity and increased tolerance. "You only have to look to the last election to demonstrate that."

Oregon overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama, who will become the nation's first black president next month, reflecting a radical social change that has occurred in the last 150 years, he said. A slim majority of Jackson County residents also supported Obama.

"It's remarkable," he said. "It's perfect evidence of a changing Oregon."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Above: An unidentified black man plays a banjo in front of a Jackson County poorhouse sometime in the mid-1800s. Blacks weren’t allowed to live in the new state of Oregon until the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed equal protection to all citizens. Top left: An unidentified black woman poses for a portrait by Jacksonville pioneer photographer Peter Britt during the mid-1800s.