From Trails to Timber: Uncovering Black History in Oregon

By Lawana Holland-Moore posted 01-22-2021 09:29


The West is filled with stories of cowboys, loggers, pioneers, and homesteaders seeking new lives often under uncertain, tough circumstances. Now imagine if the stories and those individuals who forged new paths for themselves and their families on the frontier were Black. In 1857, the state of Oregon’s constitution set exclusion laws that did not allow Black Americans to settle, live, or own property, and over time, this led to an erasure of the state’s Black history. Today, two preservation organizations—both grantees of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF)—Oregon Black Pioneers and Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, are combatting this legacy of whiteness by bringing these untold histories of Black Americans in the Pacific Northwest to light.

Removing Barriers and Providing Resources

Created in 1993, as the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers, the Oregon Black Pioneers (OBP) changed to their current name in 2012 in order to focus specifically on Oregon’s Black American history. “[This change was] critical because these are the things that you can point to about your existence—solidly in place saying ‘Yes, I am.’ A place to show that Black people in Oregon were a critical part [of the state’s] development,” says Willie Richardson, president and co-founder. She says, “Today, Oregon has the reputation of being called the ‘whitest state in the country,’ [but Oregon’s Black history] often gets dismissed or not told, and we have such a rich [history]. This is not just an Oregon story, but a national one.”

The current Executive Director of OBP, Zachary Stocks, describes how Oregon has many buildings and historic places related to African American history that are still standing and need protection, but because of the neglected histories, these places have often been lost. From homes representing African American settlement along the Oregon Trail to early Black businesses such as Dean’s Beauty and Barber in Portland, there is a wealth of Black historic sites across the state, though the largest concentration is in the city of Portland, including the Golden West Hotel and Mount Olivet Church.

“African Americans aren’t really aware of preservation [as a field] and see it as a way of preserving white men’s history and gentrifying neighborhoods,” says Kimberley Moreland, vice president of OBP. “But Mount Olivet, for instance, is seen as a way of keeping it there as a reminder they once lived in the community.”

1857 Hannah and Eliza Gorman House, Corvallis, Oregon. Considered the oldest house built by Black Americans in Oregon. | Credit: Courtesy of Oregon Black Pioneers

One of the main challenges for OBP has been in finding the information. They have found success acting as a catalyst for researchers, as well as helping Oregon’s historical societies accurately tell the stories of their local area. As a result of Oregon Black Pioneers’ influence, Oregon History revamped their entire exhibit on the Oregon Trail and made it more inclusive, as opposed to earlier narratives which had been devoid of anyone Black or enslaved being present. Moreland says “In Oregon, we don’t really have a national figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. We are preserving the everyday life of people such as smokejumpers.”

Stocks believes Oregon Black Pioneers will invest its time and resources most heavily in three key project areas: creating a new online museum to build awareness and support for a potential future brick and mortar museum; working with statewide agencies and museum partners to commemorate Black historic sites with markers, headstones, signage, and tours; and third, a partnership with the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs to create a new speakers bureau program representing a range of diverse aspects of Oregon's African American cultural heritage.

“It is important for Oregonians, and the nation, to know that Oregon was diverse before it wasn't. For centuries, Indigenous, Pacific Islander, Chinese, Japanese, and African American residents were a ubiquitous part of every community in the state,” says Stocks. “White supremacy, embedded in Oregon's laws, created the racial homogeneity of today's Oregon, and the legacy of those oppressive policies continue to affect how BIPOC individuals in Oregon are fed, housed, educated and policed.”

“The issues haven’t changed, they’re the same,” says Moreland. “They were looking for affordable housing, education. The history of African Americans has always been about social justice. In Oregon, they didn’t have a lot of political power. The terms have changed, but the mission hasn’t.”

This is Race to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years exhibit. | Credit: Oregon Black Pioneers

With their AACHAF award, OBP hired Stocks as their first executive director. Their board was at a breaking point in terms of capacity, but now thanks to Stocks’ vision for the organization, they feel they are now able to transition from a working to a governing board. Says Moreland, “We’re going to grow together and take the organization to a new level.”

OBP is looking ahead to the work that still must be done. “To understand the history of Oregon is to understand the history of race in America,” says Stocks. “And if we want to reconcile our nation's complicated and painful legacy of racial intolerance and pursue a more equitable future, we have to first do the hard work of truth telling. Oregon Black Pioneers preserves and shares these truths.”

Creating Healing Through Heritage

Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, in the frontier city of Joseph, Oregon, was established in 2008 to preserve the history of Black loggers in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, as well as the history of people of color who were part of Oregon’s timber and railroad logging industry. In the early 1920s, Black loggers from the South were recruited to come and work there despite Oregon’s exclusion laws. “They were not part of our history’s record until we started doing this work,” says Gwendolyn Trice, Maxville’s executive director. “There was this whitewashing of history. There were no experts in Oregon. No one who could help me. The universities said they didn’t have the capacity and didn’t know the history.”

Maxville’s site is 96 acres—though the number is as large as 240 acres when including forested land. Their Action Fund grant will help them hire a new development director to assist in purchasing the site itself, which will help them accomplish their goal to restore the original administrative and meeting lodge, which has been in storage, to its original location. They also have an outdoor education center and provide outdoor tourism (in winter, Maxville is only accessible by snowmobile.) They consider themselves stewards of not only the built and archeological sites, but also of the surrounding natural lands and environment by investing in a plan for running the site.  

Trice believes preservation in Oregon for Black Americans is in its earliest stage. “The perspective from the dominant culture has wrapped it in a seed of truth. We are still wrapping our heads and hearts around [the idea of preservation] because it is moving out of memory as people are leaving us,” Trice says. However, the good news is “that Oregon passed laws that by 2021 students will be doing ethnic history, including African American history. It’s about creating change through educational curriculum.”

Maxville logger company photo, c. 1926. |  Credit: Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center

One way that Maxville is working to expand the narrative is by sending staff to tribal lands to talk about Black history and loggers of color, a deep history that they share with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde—which includes tribal bands from Kalapuya, Molalla, Chasta, Umpqua, Rogue River, Chinook, and Tillamook.

“We’re the only organization doing this outside of OBP,” Trice says. “It is important to also look back and acknowledge Native peoples who came before us. When we don’t, we’re doing what was done to us.” Maxville also works with Indigenous Oregon and Pacific Northwest tribes such as the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce), Paiute (The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs), and Walla Walla (The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation), especially the Tamástslikt Cultural Center in Pendleton. Tamástslikt has been a great hub of support, providing climate-controlled secure space for Maxville’s archaeological finds, artifacts and archives.

Maxville Executive Director Gwendolyn Trice in the original lodge during its dismantling. Credit: Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center

Maxville also tells of the women at logging camps—wives, women, and daughters who had to chop wood for water to wash and bathe, process elk, deer, fowl and fish and maintain gardens. Trice says “Everyone had a role in the logging life, and without them it wouldn’t work. We were dealing with strong pioneers who understood the value of the hours of the day.”

Maxville’s story is part of an untold one of Black Americans and similar logging towns and camps across the country. For Trice, this historic site connected her to her father, grandfather, uncles, and aunts who moved to Oregon from the South in 1923. She sees these stories being told as a form of healing and says, “It is important to do something where our children know they have a place and community, that people of color have made great strides and about the marks these logging camps left. People came out of the camps and did great things. They created impactful lives that influenced African Americans in positive ways.”

“Both Oregon Black Pioneers and Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center are determined to bring recognition to a unique Black experience in the Pacific Northwest,” says Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “By telling these untold stories of Oregon’s African American history, they are creating a new understanding that promotes dialogue and challenges past assumptions.” Through the creation of connections between our past and present, as well as reaching out to communities that share in that history, Oregon Black Pioneers and Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center are helping to rewrite the narrative and create healing for the future. 

Lawana Holland-Moore is the associate program officer of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.