As a reporter for The Associated Press, R. Gregory Nokes ’59 rode on Air Force One with three presidents, interviewed Fidel Castro in Cuba and traveled to the Middle East multiple times to cover U.S. involvement in the region.
But when he retired from his 43-year journalism career to write books, the Portland native chose topics much closer to home. In fact, he plucked his latest subject right out of his own family genealogy.
A short paragraph on page 359 of the 3-inch-thick volume, compiled by his grandparents, opened his eyes to something he — and many other Oregonians — had no idea existed in the state’s history: slaves.
The Willamette University graduate’s discovery led him to four years of research that turned into a book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory,” published by Oregon State University Press in 2013. The book won him an Oregon Book Award nomination and plentiful media attention for telling the oft-forgotten story of how Oregon in the mid-1800s did not always enforce its anti-slavery law — and included a clause in its constitution prohibiting more blacks from coming to the state.
“One would not say that the history has been covered up, but it’s just been easy to forget because it’s unpleasant history,” Nokes says. “We’ve kind of been in denial and haven’t wanted to talk about it. Then if you don’t talk about it for a while, a generation goes by and it’s forgotten.”
Slaves on the Oregon Trail
Nokes, who lives in West Linn, Ore., with his wife, Candise, carried a copy of his family genealogy with him for decades. But he never read through it until his brother asked him if he knew there was a slave, Reuben Shipley, in their family’s history.
As Nokes searched for more information about Shipley in the archives of the state’s historical societies, he discovered records of an 1853 case, Holmes v. Ford, the only slavery case adjudicated in Oregon courts.
Robin Holmes, a slave from Missouri, had been promised freedom for him and his family in exchange for traveling to Oregon to help his owner, Nathaniel Ford, develop a farm in the Willamette Valley.
Ford eventually freed Holmes and his wife — albeit six years after they arrived, and despite an anti-slavery Oregon law on the books — but refused to release their children. Holmes took his former owner to court to gain custody of his children, and won.
“It’s a remarkable story because Holmes was illiterate, raised in a slave culture, bought and sold at the whim of others, and yet he managed to prevail at this trial,” Nokes says.
Nokes’s book tells the story of the trial within the context of Oregon politics at the time. Many of the state’s early leaders were pro-slavery. Plus, Nokes found evidence of at least 35 black slaves living in Oregon, and he suspects there were others who were not recorded.
Oregon also had the distinction of being the only free state admitted to the Union with a black exclusion clause in its constitution. Although the clause wasn’t enforced, it remained in the document until 1926.
“I think everybody should read this book,” says Darrell Millner, professor emeritus of black studies at Portland State University, an expert on Western black history who advised Nokes.
“We look around Oregon today and there are certain things impressed on us, such as the small number of the black population and the way our politics unfold. … These are a reflection of our earlier political decisions about race. Greg explores that and gives people a lot of information to work with, and he brings that back to the surface of our awareness.”
Beginnings as a Journalist
Long before Nokes began shedding light on Oregon’s history, he studied politics at Willamette under several notable professors, including future U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield. Willamette remained important to Nokes and his family; one of his sons, Deston ’81, also attended.
“Going to a smaller school benefited me a lot,” Nokes says. “I liked the confined geography of Willamette — smaller classes, more hands-on professors — and that worked out well for me.”
He thought he wanted to become a diplomat after graduation, but instead he took a job as a reporter at the Medford Mail Tribune in southern Oregon. In 1963, The Associated Press hired him to work in its Salt Lake City bureau — the start of a 25-year career with The AP that stationed him in New York, Puerto Rico, Argentina and Washington, D.C.
He wrote about three presidential administrations during his 15 years in Washington, where he covered the U.S. State Department, and continued to travel abroad frequently for stories. In 1986, he returned Oregon to be near his family. He worked for The Oregonian for 15 years, retiring in 2003 to start a second career as an author and lecturer.
Making a Difference
Nokes discovered his first book topic while working at The Oregonian: the long-forgotten and covered-up story of as many as 34 Chinese gold miners murdered in Hells Canyon in northeastern Oregon in 1887. Although the killers were known at the time, no one was convicted of the crime.
The story revealed in his book, “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon,” led to the site of the murders being formally designated Chinese Massacre Cove. In 2012, Nokes and others established a memorial to the Chinese at the site.
With his latest book, Nokes also hopes to create change. He’s working with a group called Beyond the Oregon Trail to revise an alternative curriculum for the state’s eighth-graders and include more about Oregon’s history with slavery and racism.
“My goals as a kid were shaped very early — one was to see the world, another was to write, and the third was to make a difference,” Nokes says. “I certainly have seen the world, I certainly have written a lot, and I like to think that I’m doing my little part to leave the world a better place than I found it.”
Nokes recently appeared on C-SPAN2’s Book TV to discuss both of his books. View the videos online.