The history of racism in Southern Oregon: part two

MEDFORD, Ore. – Wednesday, NBC5 News continued an exclusive series on Oregon’s history with race. In part one of the series, NBC5 News shared how even before the state was formed minorities weren’t allowed to settle in the territory. Oregon banned slavery, and while thousands of it’s soldiers fought for the union in the Civil War, the state prohibited black people from living here. The talk of race didn’t stop after the early white settlement. In Oregon’s last 100 years, from the Ku Klux Klan’s powerful political influence to the turn of the 21st century played a part in discrimination within Southern Oregon.

“They were not welcome here. So the majority of those people whether they were Hawaiian, or they were Chinese or Blacks actually left the state,” said Stephanie Butler, Curator of Southern Oregon Historical Society.

With many minorities in Oregon leaving the state by the early 20th century, a power hungry group, with roots in the South, the Ku Klux Klan began to exert it’s influence.

“The Klan of the 1920s was strong. It was strong in Medford, it was strong in Ashland, but it was strong throughout the state, including in Portland,” said Jeff Lalande, local historian.

The groups political influence was even desired by Oregon’s top political leaders.

“Candidates for governor and offices sought their endorsement because they were worried they couldn’t get elected without their endorsement,” said Kerry Tymchuk, Executive Director of Oregon Historical Society.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the 1920s, 97% of Oregon’s population was white, only 2% of residents were Asian, Native Americans made up 1%, and 0.1% were Black.

“The Klan of the 1920s, yes they were very anti-Black, anti-Jewish, but most especially anti-Catholic and anti-Foreign immigrant,” said Lalande.

The KKK’s influence helped create the Compulsory Education Act in 1922, also known as the Oregon School Law, which banned private K-12 schools. The hate group hoped it would shut down private Catholic and Jewish schools, keeping Oregon ‘pure’ from any non-Protestant religions.

“It was never enforced because it was challenged in the courts. And the U.S. Supreme Court threw it out as blandly unconstitutional,” said Tymchuk, “But the fact that it passed shows the power the KKK had”.

By the early 1930’s the KKK lost sway within Oregon politics, but some chapters remained throughout the state. So did the racism with Sundown Towns. Those are parts of the state where there are unwritten rules that African Americans and other minorities couldn’t be out in public after sunset.

“It said we do not want your presence here. And you will be harassed and brutalized and possibly murdered until you leave,” said Walidah Imarisha, a Black studies educator and writer.

While Sundown Towns aren’t unique to Oregon, historians say they were prevalent statewide for decades in the 20th century, even in communities like Ashland.

“It was very racist people, attitudes at that time,” said Lalande.

Oregon’s southernmost city changed in a more progressive direction after World War 2. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, while born in the 1930’s, became more nationally recognized, bringing more tourists to Southern Oregon.

“The indoor theater having been built in 1970, that enabled an almost total tourist economy,” said Lalande.

The growth of what is now Southern Oregon University also helped to bring more diversity to the Rogue Valley.

“There’s just a lot of things that came together for Ashland,” said Lalande, “It’s kind of a little paradise”.

In the mix of the Civil Rights Movement, black communities and allies protested discrimination across the country. Sympathy marches even took place in Portland. The Portland chapter of the Black Panthers even opened 2 healthcare clinics directed toward low income and impoverished people. But there’s little information about what was happening in Southern Oregon’s small communities of color during this time.

“I would be hard pressed to believe that there’s no real organizing happening in communities of color because that’s always happened,” said Imarisha.

While Oregon wasn’t battling with Jim Crow laws, like the South, the state still had issues with race.

“Oregon was clearly ahead of the south, as far as, integrating schools. But still there was- no one can deny that there was discrimination,” said Tymchuk.

Issues activists within the state are still fighting to this day, in a different light.

Thursday in the finale of NBC5’s exclusive 3-part series about race in Oregon, we’ll look at how minorities feel they’re treated in the Rogue Valley.

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