Welcoming Challenging Conversations: An Oregon Historical Quarterly Special Issue about White Supremacy and Resistance

December 10, 2019

By Eliza E. Canty-Jones

On May 5, 1991, White supremacists gathered outside Portland City Hall to protest the civil trial ruling against Tom Metzger, who a jury found financially liable for the recruitment of Skinheads in Portland, leading to Mulugeta Seraw’s murder in 1988. According to the Oregonian, the White supremacist group American Front organized the rally, which also had one hundred counter protesters in attendance. Dean Guernsey, photographer, Skanner News Collection, OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 1286

Today’s media frequently addresses the subject of White supremacy, with reports of mass gatherings and acts of violence filling airwaves and screens. Educators and activists have noted a marked increase in incidences of hateful speech and signage in schools and other public places. In Oregon, such racism has led to at least three violent deaths in recent years.

Larnell Bruce, Jr., a nineteen-year-old African American man, was murdered in Gresham in August 2016 by a member of the European Kindred, a White supremacist gang. Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche were murdered on a light-rail train in Portland in May 2017, after they intervened on behalf of two teenage girls who were being verbally attacked by a White supremacist, who also severely injured a third helper, Micah Fletcher.

In June 2017, two weeks after the murders on the light-rail train, the Oregon Historical Quarterly’s Editorial Advisory Board decided to respond to the increase in public displays of White supremacy by doing what our journal does best — publishing authoritative scholarship about our state’s history. Our Winter 2019 special issue, “White Supremacy & Resistance,” guest edited by Dr. Darrell Millner and Dr. Carmen Thompson, is the result of that commitment.

Hollywood Max station memorial to victims of the fatal attack on a light-rail train in Portland, Oregon, May 2017. Photograph courtesy of Jackie Labrecque.
In May 2017, a self-described White supremacist verbally attacked two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, on a light-rail train in Portland, Oregon. Three men intervened and the attacker killed two of them, Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, while severely injuring Micah Fletcher. In the days following the attack, a memorial developed at the Hollywood Max station in Portland. Jackie Labrecque, then a reporter for KATU news, captured this photograph of the powerful, tangible response from the community — and Taliesin Namkai-Meche’s final words: “Please tell everyone on this train I love them.”

Focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the special issue includes new and newly considered scholarship and primary sources that help illuminate a complex aspect of Oregon’s history. Twelve authors, supported by over twenty peer reviewers, explore themes such as settler colonialism, labor organizing, and the global color line.

The OHQ special issue is not neutral on the subject of White supremacy. Its creators believe that organizations, leaders, and public policies that advance and institutionalize the idea that people categorized as White are superior to other people are harmful, and always have been. It therefore is important to learn both about how White supremacy has been woven into many of our state’s policies and social norms and about the many diverse people who have resisted that institutionalization.

Undated November 1857 preliminary vote tally for Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties to ratify the Oregon Constitution. OHS Research Library, Mss 1227, folder 1a
On November 9, 1857, eligible Oregonians voted to ratify the Oregon Constitution. This preliminary abstract of votes from Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties includes tallies for questions about whether to approve the constitution, whether to allow slavery, and whether to allow free blacks to live in the state. All three counties voted overwhelmingly against slavery, yet also voted against allowing free blacks in the state, reinforcing the principles of White supremacy in Oregon’s founding documents. Scholarship published in the upcoming Winter 2019 special of the “Oregon Historical Quarterly” explores this complex history. OHS Research Library, Mss 1227, folder 1a

The creation of this special issue reflects many of the Oregon Historical Society’s core values, as articulated in our Strategic Plan, including: “address[ing] historical exclusion”; “exploring and embracing multiple ways of knowing”; and “welcom[ing] challenging conversations.” The special issue’s development process also continues OHS’s collaboration “with diverse community partners whose advice guides many aspects of our work.”

All issues of OHQ are the result of extensive research, peer review, revision, developmental editing and copy-editing, fact-checking, and meticulous layout and proofreading. Because of the collaborative process we used for this issue, that work has been even more extensive than usual.

Beginning in fall 2017, OHQ staff worked with a variety of advisors to hone the project’s direction. Our “design team” created a proposed table of contents, which we used to solicit proposals in early 2018.* We reached out to authors through the fall of 2018, and they submitted manuscripts in early 2019. During spring and summer 2019, the guest editors and OHQ staff reviewed peer-reviewers’ reports, discussed revision requests, reviewed and discussed revised manuscripts and associated peer-review reports, and made final decisions on editing and publication. Authors undertook manuscript revision, often multiple times, and the editorial team made decisions about additional material to include in the issue. We completed final production — including copy-editing, sourcing images, creating pages, fact-checking, and proofreading — by early December.

Twelve Black workers hired by ILWU Local 8 meet in 1986 for the twenty-second anniversary of their hire. Photograph courtesy of the ILWU Archives, photograph by Richard J. Brown
In 1964, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 8 hired these Black men due to pressure from ILWU leaders and civil rights groups. Their hiring was cause for celebration and frustration. Four years later in 1968, 26 Black ILWU Local 8 workers filed suit alleging they were not being advanced to “Class A” status after a probationary period. The men in this photograph, published in the Portland Observer in November 1986, met in Portland to celebrate their twenty-second anniversary of their 1964 hire. Photograph courtesy of the ILWU Archives, photograph by Richard J. Brown

The primary goal of this issue is to help readers understand White supremacy — what it means, what it has meant, and how it has presented itself in Oregon history. The editors and staff of this special issue of OHQ invite you to consider this scholarship with an open mind, and we look forward to continuing these challenging conversations through future programs, blog posts, and scholarship. The Oregon Historical Quarterly is a benefit of membership in the Oregon Historical Society. The Winter 2019 special issue will mail to members and be available for purchase in the OHS Museum Store in late December. 

The work of preparing this issue for publication has been both professionally satisfying and emotionally wrenching. The issue provides a substantial framework for understanding the history of White supremacy and resistance in Oregon, but it is by no means comprehensive. For the past 120 years, the Oregon Historical Society has published this journal every three months, and we expect that investigations of White supremacy will continue to fill its pages for years to come.  I recently asked co-guest editors Dr. Darrell Millner and Dr. Carmen Thompson to reflect on the project by answering a few questions. Thompson is also author of the issue’s essay, “Expectation and Exclusion: An Introduction to Whiteness, White Supremacy, and Resistance in Oregon History.”

Why did you decide to take on the work of serving as co guest editor?

Thompson: I decided to take on the work of being a guest editor to ensure people in Oregon understand the degree to which Oregon's White supremacist history is connected to our nation's and world history. Despite the perception that many people have of Oregon as this open and tolerant place, historically, this perception is wrong. This special issue corrects the narrative that the state is very open to difference by showing that such openness did not extend to non-Whites, and that non-Whites see and feel the remnants of this history of racial exclusion in Oregon today.

Millner: I have devoted my academic career over the past fifty years to bringing more honesty, accuracy, and clarity to the history of Oregon, with the hope of reforming a pervasive and formidable legacy of misinformation and miseducation. There are and have been few available opportunities and avenues to offer alternative visions and interpretations of Oregon history, especially regarding the role of racial issues in that history. The Oregon Historical Society and the Quarterly have a well-earned reputation in scholarly and academic circles for their work, which includes a commitment to the highest standards of quality and integrity. I believed that this special issue, coming from this source, would have the potential for a wide and influential impact, within this generation and far into the future. The issues raised and addressed in the special issue continue to have a profound impact on Oregon life today. I just could not miss being a part of such a rare opportunity.

Who would you like to read the issue?

Thompson: I want everyone to read this issue! Regardless of one's feelings about race and White supremacy.

What do you hope readers gain from this issue?

Thompson: I hope readers get a sense that White supremacy is part of American DNA and that it operates and has operated at every level of American life since settlement. The phenomenon of White supremacy is not accidental or coincidental; our governments and institutions have planned and proliferated it from the beginning. I also want readers to understand the concept of Whiteness — ongoing, daily expectations of privilege — and how its associated effects can be overcome, or at least mitigated, through open dialogue and acknowledgment of the cost and consequences of our nation's hierarchical racial system. This could be accomplished through a program similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission that helped that nation move forward after abolishing the system of Apartheid. 

What has surprised you about the process of creating this special issue? 

Thompson: I was surprised about the amount of work that went into producing a special issue. I have a new and enhanced appreciation for the editorial staff at the Oregon Historical Quarterly. Because of their skill, expertise, and the resources they have to draw on from Oregon Historical Society, I and I daresay the other contributors of this issue were able to fully focus on our writing and research. This was very comforting and rewarding, and it was crucial to producing such an important volume that adds to our understanding of Oregon's rich and complex history.

Millner:I can't say I was exactly surprised by the process of creating this special issue. In the past, I have worked with the Quarterly and OHS staff in other capacities: I have written articles and reviews of scholarly works, served as a peer reviewer of submitted articles, served on advisory boards, and consulted on exhibits. I have always been impressed with the dedication, talent, and professionalism of the people at OHS. But this assignment as guest editor allowed me to witness just how much good, basic, hard work and commitment goes into doing what they do. Seeing that up close and personal, being a part of that process, was a revelation and a pleasure.

How does this project connect with your other work — your teaching and/or your own scholarship?

Thompson: This project connects with my work and teaching so deeply, because my life's work is about understanding issues of race in general and the Black experience in particular. I use race, the Black experience, and Whiteness as a collective framework to help students develop critical thinking skills that allow them to understand the impact of race on the world, including how that legacy influences the future. It has been my experience — teaching people of all backgrounds, majors, and academic interests — that, because this framework overlaps and intersects with so many world issues, it prompts students to think broadly about their education, future, and life's work in a more dynamic way. I've included a suggested reading list of books and other publications that have been especially influential in my thinking about history at the end of this post.

Millner: I think my whole career, in one way or another, was just a prologue to being a guest editor on this project. To offer an alternative to the traditional, misleading narrative of Oregon and American history is a daunting challenge. I feel fortunate in this regard to have had a teammate like the Oregon Historical Society and the Quarterly staff in this effort.

What books or other publications have been especially influential in your thinking about history?

Millner: I have loved history and been involved in the process of learning and teaching it for so long it would simply be impossible for me to list all the books and influences that have been a part of my quest for knowledge and understanding. But I will mention just one that had probably the greatest impact on opening my eyes to the power and value of history. I read it as a young, miseducated, and angry college freshman way back in the 1960s — The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois, written at the turn of the twentieth century. I still think about it frequently today, and I recommend it to all.

Dr. Thompson’s Reading List

Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974)

Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001)

Joseph Inikori, ed., Forced Migration: The Impact of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982)

Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

J. D. Fage, "Slaves and Society in Western Africa," Journal of African History 21:3 (1980): 289­–310

Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005)

David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1935)

Cheryl I. Harris, "Whiteness as Property," Harvard Law Review 106:8 (June 1993): 1709–91

Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999)

George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998)

David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991)

George Yancy, ed., What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question (Great Britain: Routledge, 2004)

Herbert Blumer, "Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position," in Race Relations: Problems and Theory, ed. Jutsuichi Masuoka and Preston Valien (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 217-27

John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972)

Kimberle Crenshaw, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color," Stanford Law Review 43:6 (1991): 1241–99

Rebecca Ginsburg, "Escaping through a Black Landscape," in Cabin, Quarter, Plantation: Architecture and Landscapes for North American Slavery, ed. Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)

Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998)

Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995)

Walter Rucker, "Conjure, Magic, and Power: The Influence of Afro-Atlantic Religious Practices and Slave Resistance and Rebellion," Journal of Black Studies 32:1 (2001): 85–104

P. Sterling Stuckey, "Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery," The Massachusetts Review 9 (Summer 1968): 417–37

Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985)

* The team included: Natalia Fernández, Curator and Archivist of the Oregon Multicultural Archives and OSU Queer Archives; James Stanley Harrison, Portland Community College; Dr. David Lewis, NDN History Research; Dr. Darrell Millner, Portland State University; Scot Nakagawa, ChangeLab; Dr. Carmen Thompson, Portland State University and Portland Community College; and Eric Ward, Western States Center.

Eliza E. Canty-Jones’s Other Posts

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