The history of racism in Southern Oregon: part one

MEDFORD, Ore. – In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer on Memorial Day, people across the country are talking about race in ways NBC5 hasn’t seen since the Civil Right’s Movement more than half a century ago.

In part one of a three part series NBC5 look back at Oregon’s history with race and uncover some difficult realities.

“The concept of settlers coming and settling an area that’s uninhabited is really incorrect,” said Stephanie Butler, Southern Oregon Historical Society Curator.

When white settlers came to the Oregon Territory in the 1830s, they took the land from Native Americans by force.

“They were considered to be savages, the white settlers were fearful of them,” said Butler

After the yearlong Rogue River War, tribes were removed from their home in the Southern Territory onto reservations up north. The Southern Oregon Historical Society says they wanted to keep the territory ‘pure’ from anyone dissimilar than them.

“Oregonians at that time did not want slavery, but they didn’t want blacks here either,” said Jeff Lalande, a freelance historian.

When Oregon was still a territory, in 1844, it passed its first Black Exclusionary Law. While it banned slavery, the territory wasn’t welcoming to minorities. It prohibited black people from living here for more than three years. If a black person broke that law, the consequence was 39 lashes, every six months, until they left.

“White Oregonians tried to create tried to create a white utopia here in Oregon,” said Lalande.

The rules didn’t change much when Oregon took action to become a state. Sixty delegates, all white men, met in Salem to draft a state constitution, they asked people in the territory three questions. The first question was should Oregon become a state. The second question was should the state have slavery.

“The third question they asked is, should we allow blacks in Oregon period? And by an 8-1 margin! The answer was no,” said Kerry Tymchuk, Executive Director of Oregon Historical Society.

By 1859, two years before the Civil War, Oregon was becoming the 33rd state in the nation, joining as a Union State.

“It was the only state at the time that became part of the United States that still had exclusion laws in its constitution,” said Butler.

Blacks weren’t the only minorities who weren’t welcomed in Early Oregon. The booming mining industry brought Chinese and Hawaiian immigrants to the area, but they weren’t allowed to own mining claims. They were able to mine the tailings, also known as leftovers, after white miners were finished.

“They may come to work, but it was a short-term situation. They were not allowed to remain here or raise families here,” said Butler.

While some areas enforced it more than others exclusion laws stayed in the Oregon Constitution until 1926. A time when another group was at the peak of it’s visibility and power in Oregon.

Wednesday in part two NBC5 will break down Oregon’s last 100 years. From the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, to the Civil Rights Movement, and the change that came to the Rogue Valley in the latter part of the 20th Century.


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