Today is June 26. For those who are not in “the know”, today is the anniversary of the Oregon territory’s decision to ban free Black people.
On June 26, 1844, the legislative committee of the territory then known as “Oregon Country” passed the first of a series of “black exclusion” laws. The law dictated that free African Americans were prohibited from moving into Oregon Country and those who violated the ban could be whipped “not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes."
Oregon Country - the territory that consisted of what we now know as the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, with segments of Wyoming and Montana - had in essence a small white population. But it was the 1800s and that population was, effectively, a white mess. Here’s the thing: white emigrants who came to and created Oregon Country during the 1840s and 1850s generally opposed slavery - but many of them also opposed living alongside Blacks. So their mentality was essentially “Be free! But be free over there!” I suppose this is ironically some white racist “woke” nonsense before it was even a thing.
Human beings sure do keep doin’ the same damn things, don’t we?
Anyhoo, the folx of Oregon Country voted on July 5, 1843, to prohibit slavery by incorporating into Oregon's 1843 Organic laws a provision of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance: "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.'' The law was amended, however, on June 26, 1844, by the Oregon provisional government's new legislative council. This council was led by Missouri immigrant Peter Burnett.
Peter Burnett…was a damn white mess. Burnett would go on to become the first elected Governor of California in 1849 but started his supremely messy political career in Oregon Country. Burnett is historically documented as a supremely racist person with nasty views on Blacks, Chinese, and Indigenous folx - and his political career played out as such from the beginning. You see, Burnett and the Oregon Country legislative council ratified an amendment that created a law that prohibited slavery, gave slaveholders a time limit to “remove” their slaves “out of the country,” and freed slaves if their owners refused to remove them.
This first consequence of this amendment was that the time limit basically legalized slavery in Oregon for three years. That’s right - the same Oregon that wanted to prohibit slavery, that opposed slavery, created their own little pocket of slavery that had a time table. And Burnett’s law gets even better. You see, once freed, a former slave could not stay in Oregon Country. Blacks were not welcome. Male slaves would have to leave after two years; female slaves after three. And if they didn’t leave? If they refused to leave? They would be subject to lashing, a provision that became known as "Peter Burnett's lash law." And Burnett’s reason for why he proposed and supported the law?
"The object is to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population [blacks]. We are in a new world, under the most favorable circumstances and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries.''
Burnett viewed Black folx as the problem, people to steer clear of. He viewed Blacks as the “most troublesome class”, as one of the “evils” of the United States. Because, you know, let’s forget that whole “kidnap and buy Blacks and use them as cheap human labor to break their backs building on and tilling stolen land in a country that isn’t theirs and isn’t even ours but we took it anyway because we believe we own and deserve everything our eyes touch ” thing that white folx did that even put Black folx in North America in the first place. Nope, it’s definitely Black folx’s faults that they were in the United States “being troublesome”. Makes perfect sense!
White supremacy is a contradictory beast, y’all.
In the end, before any Blacks could be lashed, the lashing penalty was judged to be unduly harsh by the citizens of Oregon Country. This led the legislative council to substitute a lesser penalty later that year, which ultimately led to voters rescinding the law in 1845 before anyone could be punished. This, however, was only the beginning of the woes of Black folx in Oregon.
A second exclusion law was enacted on September 21, 1849, aimed at Black seamen who might want to settle in Oregon. The law specified that “it shall not be lawful for any negro or mulatto to enter into, or reside” in Oregon, with exceptions made for those who were already in the territory. Why? There were concerns that Black folx might “intermix with Indians, instilling into their minds feelings of hostility toward the white race.'' This law was later rescinded in 1854, having received similar feedback as the “lash law”. In 1857, delegates to Oregon's constitutional convention submitted an exclusion clause to voters paired with a proposal to legalize slavery. Voters once again disapproved of slavery by a wide margin while approving the exclusion clause by a wide margin. It was added to the Oregon Bill of Rights, prohibiting Blacks from being in the state, owning property, and making contracts. This made Oregon the only free state admitted to the Union with an exclusion clause in its constitution.
It wasn’t removed from the Oregon constitution until 2002. And getting it removed created a conversation about “preserving history” akin to those we’ve seen concerning confederate statues, monuments, and flags.
Oregon is racist. And it always has been. And its racism has always been aligned with white folx who thought they were doing the right thing. And it all started on June 26, 1844.
I would say never change, Oregon, but it would be a lie because I REALLY need you to change.
The Black population in Oregon is just slightly over two percent. Those of us who live here? We often struggle as we navigate through the “wokeness” and the subtle racism we face personally and professionally every day from all of the self-proclaimed white “allies” we find ourselves surrounded by who cannot deal with Black folx telling them they are doing or saying racist things. And many of us operate with a high level of fear of the overt racism that could take our lives at any time, as it has happened in the city of Portland and state of Oregon way too regularly to be considered anomalies.
We need you to see that this is not a good anniversary to be “celebrating”. We need you to understand that the Oregon “free territory” history is a self-serving history that excluded Blacks, making it not all that free and progressive of a state. And we need you to accept that Oregon is messy and not righteous or on the right side of history, especially if you read up on and research the persistent history of racism in Oregon. A large part of evolving and being better is acknowledging the past to inform the future and to build a better, more inclusive region and state. If the current climate of the Pacific Northwest and Oregon is any indication this kind of acknowledgment and hard internal work and external discourse is long overdue. And there ain’t no microbrew, kombucha, or hot new brunch spot, that’s gonna make that magically happen.
Besides, half of that stuff benefits from gentrification and cultural appropriation anyway.
Note: For more context and information on Oregon’s racist history you can watch Walidah Imarisha’s Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon: A Hidden History. Want some more context and information? Google it. Hit your local library. Do some research y’all. Get informed.