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SOU professor senses ‘resolve’ among board members after racist online attack

Mark Axel Tveskov, professor of anthropology at Southern Oregon University, is a member of the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation. The board fell victim to an online barrage of hate-filled messages at its most recent meeting, forcing it to end abruptly.

A Medford member of the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation is speaking out after an investigation was launched into who might have posted hateful comments during a recent virtual meeting.

For eight years, Mark Axel Tveskov, professor of the anthropology at Southern Oregon University, has served on the board that reviews all proposed National Register nominations in Oregon. But he had never seen or heard anything like comments that were written at a meeting of the committee Oct. 21-22.

The SACHP ended less than an hour into it after a public attendee began typing “racist and other hate-filled slurs, and posted personal home addresses of committee members,” a statement from the Oregon Parks Recreation Department said.

“The meetings are open to the public — and that’s usually a welcome thing — and it just took a minute to realize we were being subjected to this kind of abuse and it was extremely upsetting,” Tveskov said. “When I realized what was going on, I tried to notify staff support that this was happening.”

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Director Lisa Sumption issued a statement apologizing to committee members and the public for “having to endure this attack.”

“There is zero room in the public square for this vile behavior,” she stated.

The incident was referred to the Oregon State Police for investigation. A public information officer said early this week that there are no new details on the matter at this time.

Tveskov said the comments were not only personally harmful to the board members and people who may have been listening in, but harmed “our public discourse as a whole.”

“If people find it acceptable to say those things and say them in a public forum, that acts as a kind of feedback to contribute to more disgusting behavior that is harmful to our society and individuals,” he said.

Tveskov hoped an investigation would bring justice and wondered if the reason the board was targeted by hate speech was because it was reviewing three nominations associated with African-American resources in Portland from 1851-1973. Tveskov’s job was to review a nomination for the Golden West Hotel, the first hotel in Portland to accept African Americans.

“It’s an amazing story of a Black entrepreneur who ran a hotel that was a center of the secular African American community in Portland,” he said. “This was a time when African Americans in Oregon couldn’t stay wherever they wanted, so this was a necessary part of life in a big city. I was just so happy to read this nomination and see this building put on the National Register, potentially.”

Chris Havel, a spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, told the Mail Tribune Monday that his agency is in the process of rescheduling the meeting, but no date has been firmed up.

“We need to ensure the well-being of our committee members first,” he wrote.

Havel said there will be changes to the meeting format going forward to protect committee members and allow them to do their work.

“We're sorting through some options now, and will announce those at the same time we issue a notice rescheduling the meeting,” he wrote.

Tveskov agreed changes to the meetings would be needed.

“I think that it would be prudent to come up with some better controls. Hopefully [sometime] we’ll be back in person, where it’s not as easy to be so awful,” he said. “But I don’t think we should become more private.”

He was cautious not to speak for his counterparts, but Tveskov sensed “resolve” among the board going forward.

“This is not going to be the last word,” he said. “We’re not going to stop our business. We’re very committed to equity, diversity and inclusion in the national register process … to have underrepresented voices put on this list, which honors Oregon in all its facets. I think there’s going to be a fair amount of determination to make sure we do just that.”