The history of racism in Southern Oregon: part three

MEDFORD, Ore. – In NBC5’s three-part exclusive documentary series about the history of racism in Southern Oregon we dive into present day conversations about race in Rogue Valley. Previously, NBC5 revealed how Oregon was created to be a white utopia and how the Ku Klux Klan was so powerful a century ago candidates for office wanted the hate groups endorsement.

Back in 2000, Oregon’s Black communities and their allies attempted to get racist language out of the state constitution.

“Remove this language and show us this is not the kind of place you want to be. Oregon refused and reaffirmed that, actually, this is the kind of place we want to be,” said Walidah Imarisha, Black studies educator and writer.

In 2002, the issue went to Oregonians. While voters decided to take the language out of the constitution, 3 in 10 voters wanted it to stay.

“Thirty percent of voters said that they wanted to keep this Black Exclusion Law language in the constitution. And that one of the main reasons was wanting to preserve Oregon’s history,” said Imarisha.

Imarisha says it is yet another sign of how unwelcome some Black Oregonians feel in the state.

“Just because a sign comes down, just because a law finally comes off the books does not mean it is a safe or welcoming place for people of color,” said Imarisha.

However, the Black community isn’t alone in feeling like an outcast in Oregon.

While the Latinx population has grown, many have been the victim of outright racism in the Rogue Valley.

“They don’t want us here. You know, we had five families leave this valley. Five families left this valley! I couldn’t say to them, don’t leave, [because] I understood,” said Virginia Camberos, Rogue Valley Regional Director for Unite Oregon.

The social justice organization focuses on immigration and poverty within communities. Camberos moved to the Rogue Valley from Los Angeles in 2002. In 2006, she found a white bed sheet in front of her home.

“There was writing on it. And I spread it open, I kid you not, it said ‘wetbacks must be bled like rodents. White supreme forever.’ Oh my gosh, I just felt this punch in my stomach. I just started to cry,” said Camberos.

This is not a unique situation. DL Richardson, a longtime Ashland resident and Board Member of the Black Southern Oregon Alliance has seen ugly racism himself. Someone yelled the n-word at him on the golf course, and in a restaurant. It shocked his white friends, but not him.

“That’s the hard part, when you’re sitting there, you’re not surprised. Southern Oregon is Southern Oregon in that sense,” said Richardson.

Medford resident, Geneva Craig has lived in the Rogue Valley for about 20 years. She grew up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement and even marched on Bloody Sunday as a teenager in Selma, Ala. The peaceful protest turned violent when protesters were brutalized by police. What happened this year from the deaths of Breonna Taylor to George Floyd have brought her to tears.

“Lord what is it? How can today we’re beyond the 60s when I was stepping out there and we were getting beat. I said, that they can kill these young men and young women and nothing be done,” said Craig.

Despite the heartbreak she’s amazed at the diversity of the people marching for equality and justice for all.

“Oh my God, I call it the rainbow coalition for sure. The colors on the skin. My God! Then in Southern Oregon there’s some places you don’t see one Black person. Totally white! And what are they saying ‘Black lives matter’,” said Craig.

Richardson also grew up in Selma, Ala. While he was too young to march, he says he noticed the difference of how he was treated early on.

“I hear you telling me all lives matter, but there was a point where my life didn’t matter because of the color of my skin. When I was growing up I had that mindset. Your life could be taken away because of the way you look or because of the way you look at another person,” said Richardson.

As protesters nationwide rally against systemic racism, Craig says there’s a differences between the Civil Rights Movement and what’s happening today.

“We used songs to strengthen us, we used songs to pass messages to one another, we used the song to keep us moving forward,” said Craig.

Rather than singing, the current movement chants statements like, “No justice, no peace”. No matter if advocates sing or chant, Craig says the message comes from the heart.

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