“History is who we are and why we are the way we are”

June 2, 2020

By Eliza E. Canty-Jones

In 1981, two policemen admitted that they had placed four dead possums in front of the Burger Barn, a popular black-owned, late-night hangout at 3962 Northeast Union Avenue. The incident escalated into a major confrontation and had a long-term effect on police relationships with the community. This still from KPTV news footage shows protestors marching at a rally after the opossum incident. OHS Research Library, KPTV news film collections.

The title quote is from historian David McCullough and is a favorite of Oregon Historical Society (OHS) Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk. Such belief in history’s power to help us comprehend dangerous and fractious presents — in all their heartbreak and opportunity — is what drives so many of our colleagues in the work of preserving the past and making it accessible to everyone. That work requires vision — which for OHS includes a belief that we foster a better future through an Oregon story that is meaningful to all Oregonians — and we believe it also requires cultural humility and a willingness to change our minds, as outlined in OHS’s 2019 – 2023 Strategic Plan.  Today, looking at my state and my nation, significant questions about who we are and about why we act in particular ways are at the forefront of my mind.

Why is the impact of COVID-19 felt disproportionately by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities in Oregon and across the nation? Why has an officer of the law once again responded to a Black man’s cries of “I can’t breathe” — this time George Floyd, like Eric Garner before him (and perhaps many others not captured on video) — by continuing to choke off that man’s source of air, of life? Why did police officers break into the home of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, with a battering ram after midnight, evidently not anticipating that someone inside might view them as intruders, firing upon them and prompting, in turn, their firing upon and killing Taylor? Why have the vast majority of police officers who perpetrate such killings not been called to justice by our legal system? Why has the pain, fear, and fury at the reality of life’s being so dangerous for Black people in America once again been met with — and erupted into — rage and violence?

There are, of course, many questions about the whys of our present moment, but I am certain that I am not alone in finding that their theme is all too familiar. And, so, I turn to history. It is my good fortune that my vocation requires reading, listening to, amplifying, cultivating, and publishing the voices of scholars and community knowledge-holders. From the cornerstone of our research library and museum collections to the new scholarship we publish every three months in the Oregon Historical Quarterly to the exhibits, school group tours, and public discussions with academics, elders, and leaders — OHS is always building, protecting, and sharing history, that tremendous resource for answering the urgent and necessary questions of our time.

We share here some of the products of that work, which have been especially valuable to OHS staff-members during the past week, as we seek understanding both about how we came to be the way we are and how that knowledge might give us the tools to build a better future.

Portland police officer Bill Travis (left), one of the first deputy sheriffs hired to patrol Vanport City during the 1940s. OHS Research library, 25465.
Black officers in the Portland Police Department were rare, and their small numbers were not representative of the population in Portland. Once in the force, they faced discrimination and harrassment. Bill Travis (left) was one of the first deputy sheriffs hired to patrol Vanport City during the 1940s. He is shown here in a Portland Police Department uniform in the mid 1950s. OHS Research Library, 25465
Cover, Winter 2019 “White Supremacy & Resistance” special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly.
Winter 2019 “White Supremacy & Resistance” special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, co-guest edited by Dr. Darrell Millner and Dr. Carmen Thompson.

“Expectation and Exclusion: An Introduction to Whiteness, White Supremacy, and Resistance in Oregon History,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 120:4 (Winter 2019)

As co-guest editor of the “White Supremacy & Resistance” special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Dr. Carmen P. Thompson brings readers an accessible overview of the field of Critical Race Studies, including scholarly debates about the histories of White supremacy and Whiteness as well as her own argument regarding the genesis of American Whiteness, which “inextricably links the enslavement of African people to the European colonization of Indigenous lands in North America.” Dr. Thompson’s essay calls me to recognize the “daily expectations of privilege” — the Whiteness — buried in my subconscious through the system of White supremacy. “On a day-to-day level, the system of White supremacy repeatedly has provided advantages to White people, as demonstrated by the articles in this special issue” (p. 360). You can read this essay online, purchase a copy of the entire special issue from the OHS Museum Store, and find Dr. Thompson’s suggested reading list (and comments from her and co-guest editor Dr. Darrell Millner about why they took on this work) on our blog.

“Let’s Keep Grants Pass A White Man’s Town,” Southern Oregon Spokesman, May 24, 1924.
On May 24, 1924, the Southern Oregon Spokesman published this editorial titled “Let’s Keep Grants Pass A White Man’s Town.” This editorial is referenced in Dr. Millner’s April 2018 presentation, “Civil Rights and Anti-Black Violence in America,” and appears in the Winter 2019 special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly. The author of this editorial makes clear that the ultimate response to Blacks migrating to southern Oregon will be violence — the underlying premise of all White supremacist policies.

Civil Rights and Anti-Black Violence in America

In April 2018, Dr. Jason Morgan Ward and Dr. Darrell Millner discussed the histories of racial violence across the country. On the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Dr. Ward emphasized the national, stating: “It’s the realization that as African Americans are migrating out of the South, they’re being met with racial violence wherever they go that is the proximate cause for the organization of the NAACP.” (It is worth noting Oregonians organized the first chapter west of the Mississippi River in 1913.) On extending the lynching to the West, Dr. Millner explained that “the application of violence is not just an individual act for an individual perpetrator; it is to establish a relationship between what becomes the dominant culture and the people that are going to be dominated.” In response to an audience member’s question about today’s police forces being descended from slave patrols, Dr. Millner addressed the problem of accountability: “People who commit outrageous behavior know that there will be no consequences.”

“Untold Stories of the Civil Rights Movement” panel discussion, March 26, 2018, McMenamins Kennedy School.
“Untold Stories of the Civil Rights Movement” panel discussion with Joyce Harris, Sen. Jackie Winters, and Charlotte Rutherford, moderated by Joy Alise Davis. Presented in partnership with the Oregon Black Pioneers on March 26, 2018, at McMenamins Kennedy School in Portland, Oregon.

Untold Stories of the Civil Rights Movement

This March 2018 panel discussion with Joyce Harris, Charlotte Rutherford, and Jackie Winters, facilitated by Joy Alise Davis, was organized with Oregon Black Pioneers as part of a series of programs associated with their exhibit, Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years (now available as a virtual tour). The women spoke about activism, discrimination, sexism in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and racism in the feminist movement, education, public policy, and the importance of studying history. Jackie Winters described the impact of imagery and connected national events to Oregon:

The images that were there — whether it was the Emmett Till [lynching], whether it was the assassination of Dr. King, of the water hoses and dogs and what have you — and even though they were in other places across the country, they were vividly in your own living rooms, every night. And, so . . . you then looked around where you were, in Portland, Oregon, and you also saw — it may not have been the hoses; it may not have been the kid in the casket — but you also saw the injustices. You also saw the difference in the way the educational system was. You also saw the way the employment system was. . . . You look around, and you say, well, it may not be the same as being in that casket, but it is the same. It is the same.

Joyce Harris, who describes her activism as being “a foot-soldier for justice,” explained that she “compare[s] some of the police brutality that we have witnessed to lynching” and offered advice: “Activism is something that you come to at different points in your life around different issues, and you need to acknowledge that. . . . This is not a sprint; this is a long-distance race.” Charlotte Rutherford spoke about the need to change how history is taught and understood: “Most of us don’t know history. We’re not being taught history. And as long as we continue having Black history separate from American history, you’re going to stay ignorant.”

Trudy Rice, 1988. Photograph published in the Winter 2013 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly with permission from Trudy Rice.
Trudy Rice joined a small number of African American registered nurses (RN) in Oregon when she graduated from Portland Community College (PCC) in 1968 — a time when 95 percent of RNs in Oregon were white. In 1988, Rice’s coworkers surprised her with a birthday cake inscribed “We Love Ya Mammy.” Rice used the incident (and this photo) to help institute diversity training for the staff. This photograph was published in the Winter 2013 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly with permission from Trudy Rice.

Trudy Rice’s Story: Nursing and Race in Oregon HistoryOregon Historical Quarterly, 112:4 (Winter 2013)

This Oregon Voices article by Christin L. Hancock  consists of an introduction by Dr. Hancock followed by an edited oral history with Trudy Rice, who documents her upbringing in Portland, Oregon, her decision to become a nurse, the raising of her five children, and the successes and racial discrimination of her professional life. Rice’s stories — of being ignored, of being asked about her culture and family in group settings, of having her authority questioned, and of being faced with racist comments and imagery — are especially valuable for White people who are seeking to better understand the exhaustion caused by workplace racism, and how we may have participated in, or failed to resist, such acts.

Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes in 2018. Photograph by the Allen Temple-CME Church.
Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes is pictured here in a June 2018 Facebook invitation from the Allen Temple-CME Church to celebrate his work as a pastor, teacher, civil rights leader, counselor, and author.

Oral History with Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes by Jan Dilg

From October to December 2018, Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes — a lifelong civil rights activist and longtime co-chair of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform — recorded his oral history for the Oregon Historical Society, spending three sessions with oral historian Jan Dilg. The recordings and transcript, edited by Dr. Haynes, are available to all on the OHS Digital Collections website. Speaking on his work for police justice and reform in Portland, Dr. Haynes said:

And it’s not a matter in Portland just talking diversity because you get a lot of diversity, inclusion talk here. But when it comes to actually putting the word and deed together in action and becoming this community; that is slowly becoming as a model. . . .  I’ve always seen the Portland Police Bureau, I still think we can create a model for the nation of how to do community policing here.

There are reactionary forces that want to keep the status quo, and there are progressive folks that want to make the change. . . . And I think the small changes that have taken place is because we were able to build those coalitions and persuade the citizenry that we can actually create a different community and a different relationship between those who have been victims of police oppression and those who are within law enforcement. . . .

And even in the midst of our nation turning back to the past, and the trends moving back to the past, I still believe that the dream will never be crushed, that it will emerge again.

A man is chased by three Portland policemen during the 1967 Irving Park riot in Albina. OHS Research Library, bb005808
A man is chased by three Portland policemen during the 1967 Irving Park riot in Albina, an event that had begun as a peaceful rally by Black activists. OHS Research Library, bb005808

Black and Blue: Police-Community Relations in Portland’s Albina District, 1964–1985,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 114:1 (Spring 2013)

Leanne C. Serbulo and Karen J. Gibson  carefully document and analyze twenty years of police discrimination against African Americans in Portland, community reform efforts, deaths of Black Portlanders at the hands of police, and protests from both the police union and community members. The authors conclude that “the relationship between the Portland police and the Albina community remained contentious throughout those decades [mid 1960s to mid 1980s] because every organized attempt to reform the police was met with swift and hostile resistance.”

1982 Black United Front members protest at a school board meeting in Portland. OHS Research Library, OrHi 95005
Ron Herndon stands on a table (in white sweater) at this 1982 Black United Front school board protest. At right, behind the table, is school board member James Fenwick. Protesters are angry about the placement of Harriet Tubman Middle School. OHS Research Library, OrHi 95005

Desegregation and Multiculturalism in Portland Public Schools,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 111:1 (Spring 2010)

In this article, Ethan Johnson and Felicia Williams offer a substantial history of the Portland Black community’s work to have African American children well educated in the city’s public schools. Addressing the mid nineteenth to the end of the twentieth century, they document changes in context, tactics, and resistance to desegregation and other efforts for equality. Readers will find more information on the Baseline Essays and the Black United Front, both discussed in the “Untold Stories of the Civil Rights Movement” event described above. Ultimately, the authors conclude, “PPS [Portland Public Schools] has continued to struggle with the core issues of the Colored School experience: the school board’s desire not to alienate its Euro-American patrons, the persistence of the African-American community in fighting for a quality education for its children, and the implementation of policies that never fully addressed the concerns and needs of the African American community.”

Scholars and activists regularly link the histories of discrimination in education and public safety with discrimination in housing, a longstanding inequity in Oregon as in the rest of the United States. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Fair Housing Act in 2018 and in partnership with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, OHS hosted several programs and also published new scholarship on this history, including:

OHS staff  are deeply appreciative of the Black scholars, activists, and community leaders who have used our platforms to share their experiences, insights, and analyses. The opportunities for learning they have created are invaluable as we all work together to face the truth of how racism, White supremacy, violence, community organizing, and resistance are all undeniably parts of our history — of who we are and why we are the way we are. This sampling is not the extent of all OHS has to offer on these subjects and myriad others they intersect with, and we hope you will explore our platforms and the many other excellent resources available for learning our shared history and drawing on it to create a present and future that is more just and equitable for all.

Eliza E. Canty-Jones’s Other Posts

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