JD Chandler's Hidden History of Portland, Oregon (History Press, 190 pages, $19.99) isn't the usual cult Portland chronicle of Shanghai Tunnels or tittered-about former brothels. Rather, it's a locally focused people's history in the vein of Howard Zinn, a thin volume dedicated to dredging up Oregon's long history of racism, sexism and thumping of the poor—and to lionizing those who fought against such injustices.
The Lovejoys and Starks—the industrialists and power brokers whose names are memorialized on Portland's street signs in dim, half-legible paint—make only passing appearances in Chandler's book. Instead, Chandler trumpets C.E.S. Wood, a poet and U.S. Army lieutenant who had a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion to the cause of Native Americans while escorting members of the Nez Perce tribe to internment at Fort Vancouver; his family and that of Nez Perce Chief Joseph remain friends to this day.
Chandler also devotes a good deal of space to the bristling charm of early feminist pioneer Abigail Scott Duniway—and to her feuds with national figures Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But Duniway's distinctive (and well-documented) voice doesn't get much airtime, with few passages in her own words.
The book is at its best when it offers up the results of specific research that challenges vague accepted histories, such as when Chandler documents the only two known cases in which Oregon's African-American exclusion laws were enforced. He also brings to light long-buried instances of early activism, such as a turn-of-the-century racial discrimination lawsuit against Star Theater, and protests by African-American activist Beatrice Morrow Cannady against showings of D.W. Griffith's infamously racist The Birth of a Nation.
But Chandler also suffers from a troubling inclination to air his opinions and conclusions more than his work. He cites a general's cultural arrogance or the "cultural bias" of a bar exam without allowing readers to examine the primary documents and quotations that might allow them to reach the same conclusions as the author.
Each activist is assumed virtuous, and the powers that be are often monolithically villainous. While our shared values have certainly proved this out in broad strokes, the book's brevity makes it difficult for Chandler to show us the complexity and specificity of either the civil-rights struggles or their participants.
As such, the work often reads as a breezy polemic of the same sort as the triumphalist schoolbooks it's meant to correct. History is written by victors of all sorts, not just the ones who win wars; Chandler's book perhaps congratulates us a bit much for our current presumed enlightenment.
READ IT: Hidden History of Portland, Oregon is available at bookstores.