In 1859, Oregon was admitted to the union as a state, one whose constitution specifically banned black people from living there. Unlike the slave-holding South, the Oregonian founders didn’t believe in slavery, but that didn’t mean they wanted anything to do with their dark-skinned brethren. Racism was still very much alive in the American West. Ambitions to turn specific states into a racist white utopia weren’t uncommon.
The few black people living in the state when it gained statehood were sometimes allowed to stay, but generally endured systematic segregation and terrorism. It remained illegal for black people to move to the state as late as 1926. Racism and segregation remained an issue for much longer.
Although civil rights issues are usually framed as a problem unique to the South, cities like Portland saw similar struggles just as intense, though far less publicized, Gizmodo reports.
Historically, Oregon was often viewed as a potential utopia (a fact that inspired a fantastic book on the subject and everyone’s favorite retro-educational computer game, Oregon Trail). Those visions of utopia often excluded black people, and this wasn’t particularly unique. Many, if not most, states were opposed to black populations, but Oregon was much more open about it — at least in legal terms.
Even before Oregon was a state, lawmakers took measures to keep non-whites out, passing bills like an 1844 provision that said any black people living in the state would face flogging if they didn’t leave within two years time. Most of the Oregon constitution was lifted from other state constitutions, most of the original language either limiting state spending and racial diversity.
There was an 89 percent vote in favor of banning mixed and black people from the state, desirous to keep their new racist white utopia “pure.” Still, blacks had some sanctuaries in the state, including the Golden West Hotel in Portland, which became a hub of black entertainment and dining. Authorities continually tried to have the place shut down for whatever excuse they could come up with.
Though the racist past is mostly left behind, it’s no coincidence that Oregon still has only a two percent black population, compared to 13 percent in the US as a whole. There are countless other instances of racist tension as the state’s vision of white utopia clashed with the realities of expanding American diversity.
You can read about more of them, some incredibly tragic, at the source article on Gizmodo.