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July 25th, 2012 MARTY SMITH | Dr. Know
 

Dr. Know: Frontier Profiling

Was it once illegal to be African-American in Oregon?

drknowILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall

(Author’s note: Final installment for “Oregon History Month.” By now, you should almost believe it’s real.)

Was it once illegal to be African-American in Oregon? I’ve heard that black travelers headed from California to British Columbia were forced to detour through Idaho. —Aaron F.

You’ve gotta figure that any story about Oregon where Idaho is held up as a beacon of racial tolerance by comparison isn’t gonna be pretty.

Beginning in the 1840s, territorial (and, later, state) officials instituted a series of “exclusion laws,” which made it illegal for blacks to settle, own property, or enter into contracts in Oregon. (Idaho couldn’t help, either, since it didn’t yet exist.)

Were 19th-century Oregonians just dicks? It’s a tricky question. Recall that, at the time, pretty much all white people were dicks (not like now!), so the real question is not “Were they dicks?” but “Were they bigger dicks than anybody else?”

The (ahem) whitewashed version of the story says no. In this telling, our forebears were just trying to avoid the slave-state/free-state controversy that so paralyzed the nation in the years leading up to the Civil War.

They figured (the story goes) that with the exclusion laws, they could sidestep all their racial problems by simply pretending there was no such thing as black people. (In so doing, they established a long-standing Oregon tradition, but I digress.)

A major problem with this interpretation is the well-documented paranoia among settlers of the time about the prospect of free blacks joining forces with the local Native Americans to make war on Oregon’s whites.

Given this, it seems more likely our ancestors heaped the injustice of exclusion atop their previous acts of enslavement and genocide to protect themselves from a maxim that holds true in any century: Payback’s a bitch.

 
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