Student trip highlights Oregon’s little-known racial history

by Jennifer Johnson,

Oregon Black Pioneers nonprofit leads College Colloquium trip to Portland.

Standing in Salem Pioneer Cemetery, amid the graves of more than 40 black pioneers, Willamette students gained a historic perspective on racism.  

Some of the black people, who were among Oregon’s first pioneers and whose remains date back to the late 1800s, were buried near whites like Asahel Bush, a newspaper publisher known in the 1850s for his racist editorials. Yet, even back then, some people fought against discrimination. Also buried in the cemetery is the Rev. Obed Dickinson — an abolitionist whose wife, Charlotte, tutored black children barred from attending school.  

Luther Jessie III ’20, an undeclared major from Oakland, California, found the cemetery visit insightful. After decades of bitter history, he says, “They all ended up in the same place anyway.”

Racism yesterday and today

Jessie and other students visited the cemetery Saturday for a College Colloquium class trip led and narrated by Gwen Carr, secretary for educational nonprofit Oregon Black Pioneers. After the stop at the cemetery, students headed north to Portland, where they visited several sites that illustrate black perseverance and struggle in the predominantly white state.

The trip complemented their “Remembering Emmett Till” College Colloquium class, taught by Maegan Brooks, assistant professor of civic communication and media. Students have been exploring the history and impact of Till, a teen whose brutal death in Mississippi became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Till was lynched in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman. No one was ever convicted of his murder.

Brooks says she didn’t want students to conclude her class with the impression “racism only happened in the Mississippi delta and in the 1950s.” Discussion of recent violence — last month, bullet holes riddled a memorial site where where Till was killed — reminded students how racism can persist even over an incident that happened decades ago.

“I wanted to bring racism to the present day, not only with all these nationwide shootings of unarmed black youth but also what’s happening to Emmett Till’s memory right now,” she says. “What better way to try and understand how African-American history is remembered than to tour memorial sites in our own region?”

A story of perseverance

North of Portland, students stood in a sprawling park and raceway area once known as Vanport, a temporary housing development for shipyard workers. Black residents made up 35 percent of Vanport’s population. Their presence, as well as the dilapidated housing, caused mixed feelings among other residents until the town was destroyed by a flood in 1948.

In Portland, students visited Union Station, a key center for black employment in the late 1800s to the early 1930s, and Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church of Portland, a popular location for activism in the 1950s through today.  

Brooks arranged the tour with Oregon Black Pioneers in the hope it would encourage students to consider interning at the nonprofit or engage in related efforts.

It was also a way to educate first-year students, many of whom are from other states, about Oregon’s lesser-known history.

Brooks says, “I’m hoping to pique their interest in African-American history so they can really understand through these stories that racism is everywhere — but so is perseverance and resistance.”