“My Heart Belongs Where the Trees Are”

A road trip to Eastern Oregon with The Blacktastic Adventure

Photos by Intisar Abioto

Growing up in Lake Oswego, a town nicknamed “Lake No Negro,” I got used to people asking me why I, as a Black person, would live there. I often struggled to come up with a sincere answer. More often than not, I would retreat to some version of “At least it’s not rural Oregon.”

In the fall of 2014, I traveled to Eastern Oregon with Intisar Abioto, an acclaimed photographer and frequent collaborator of mine, to do case studies for the Urban League of Portland’s State of Black Oregon 2015, a comprehensive report on various aspects of Black life in the state. Perhaps as much as any region we traveled to for the project, Eastern Oregon exemplified the glaring juxtaposition between vast natural beauty and anti-Black ghost stories—and the rich Black history hidden behind it all. For example, despite La Grande’s reputation as the unofficial Ku Klux Klan capital of the state (former Oregon governor Walter Pierce, once endorsed by the Klan, lived on a ranch here in the 1920s), the town is home to one of the oldest Black churches in Oregon, Boyd Memorial Baptist Church. Now named Amazing Grace Fellowship, the church was created, in large part, to serve the Black community that came to the region during the Great Migration, seeking work in the logging industry. 

As in other parts of Eastern Oregon, this rich Black history is tucked away amid the more eye-catching attractions like the Columbia River Gorge and the Wallowa Mountains, or else it is obscured by the noticeable increase in Thin Blue Line flags and aggressive displays of so-called patriotism.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2022. My YouTube series, The Blacktastic Adventure, which highlights the variety of stories about Black life in Oregon, was headed to the eastern part of the state for a road trip episode. The crew (myself, Intisar, Ifanyi Bell, and Tiara Darnell) set out for Pendleton and Joseph with plenty of questions. Mainly, we wondered: Why would a Black person live in this part of the state? And conversely, by asking that question, were we stereotyping in reverse?   

 

Our trip began in Portland, at the Open Signal media arts center, where the crew met to gather equipment and pack the van before hitting the road. I was initially struck by just how much gear Ifanyi had checked out for the trip: cameras, microphones, all types of lights and heavy steel stands, and tripods in every size. I’d never driven a van before, so I was entering the impending four-hour drive with both excitement and anxiety. The latter emotion threatened to be overwhelming. 

Thankfully the trip through the Columbia River Gorge was as calming as I remembered it being back in 2014. As the largest designated National Scenic Area in the US, the Gorge is certainly well known. But since Eastern Oregon is one of the unwritten places Black people don’t visit unless it’s for business, we don’t often get to appreciate the area, with its tree-lined canyon terrain, its waterfalls, and the winding Columbia River—especially not loudly and in the company of other Black Oregonians. Taking in the landscape with the crew and reminiscing about our past experiences in the region made the drive go by quickly. Some of our stories touched on nature; many highlighted unsettling moments, such as seeing blackface dolls casually sitting in a restaurant’s display case.

Soon we found ourselves in downtown Pendleton. No longer rolling through the Gorge, we were now on Main Street, in a town that looked to me like it belonged in a Western movie.

I first met Pendleton resident Leon Ransom on that initial trip I’d taken with Intisar in 2014, for the State of Black Oregon project. One of the most indelible pieces to come out of that trip was Intisar’s photo of Ransom: a portrait of a Black cowboy. During our first interview, Ransom had repeatedly referenced George Fletcher, a legendary Black cowboy who’d been inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 2001, nearly thirty years after his death. So it was fitting that this time we caught up with Ransom in front of the bronze statue of Fletcher on Main Street. Erected in 2014, a few months before our last visit, it was the first statue of a Black person in Pendleton.

Leon Ransom sits in front of the George Fletcher statue in downtown Pendleton.

Fletcher is most well known as the People’s Champion of the Pendleton Round-Up, a title he earned during the 1911 Northwest Saddle Bronc Championship, when the judges denied Fletcher first place, but the crowd declared him the real winner. He was a larger-than-life figure in Pendleton and was also a close friend of Ransom’s father. “He was just ‘George’ to me,” said Ransom.

Sitting in front of the statue with his wife, Kathleen, and sporting a black cowboy hat and boots, Ransom simultaneously stands out and appears completely at home. His family migrated to Pendleton from Springfield, Illinois, in 1952. His parents had worked as sharecroppers in Mississippi. When we spoke in 2014, Ransom said his father had made the choice to relocate to Pendleton because “he wanted to get as far away from the cotton fields as he could.”

When Ransom’s family went back to visit Mississippi, they wouldn’t let him go into town with his siblings because he was never afraid to speak his mind, and they feared for his safety. His early confidence helped him become a standout athlete in high school. He was recognized as one of the top football prospects in the state and ended up playing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. However, his path was paved, in many ways, with the manifestation of his mother’s fears.

Prior to his senior year of high school, Ransom was caught with marijuana, and a local prosecutor named Rex Bell Jr. decided to make an example out of the confident teen by sentencing him to jail time. Ransom spent his senior year sleeping in jail at night and going to school and playing sports during the day. This same prosecutor who had gone out of his way to make an example of Ransom also happened to be a recruiter for the University of Nevada, and he convinced Ransom to take a scholarship at the school. “[Bell] was a very good man who just wanted to help,” said Ransom. “I know I gave him fits.” Eventually, the two men became friends.

Their friendship is reflective of the complicated space Ransom occupies. He has personally experienced and witnessed many racial injustices in Pendleton over the years; however, he also maintains a friendly relationship with the town’s residents, having grown up with many of them.

“If you’re mad, my mom used to tell me, you’re going to be fighting all the time. So you have to pick your battles.” Of the town’s White residents, Ransom said, “They mean well—most of them.” He laughed. While he may pick his battles when it comes to racism, he also carries himself with a confidence reminiscent of Muhammad Ali, his childhood hero, whose image sits next to portraits of Barack Obama and Ransom’s family on his living room wall.

At heart, Ransom says, he just considers himself a country guy—someone who enjoys tending to horses, hunting, and fishing, and who refuses to let others push him around, a quality he shares with his childhood family friend Fletcher. One of Fletcher’s friends, Ransom told me, was fellow Round-Up legend Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce rodeo rider. Outside of competitions, Fletcher and Sundown hunted and fished together, gaining respect throughout the region for their willingness to fight—physically—when faced with racism.

While he and his family have dealt with a lot, Ransom says he tries not to let it bother him.

A lot of it comes down to curiosity, he notes, and White people having little experience with Black people: “You get used to people looking at you and talking to you.” 

That part of the conversation stuck with me for hours after the interview ended. After filming B-roll of the plains surrounding our motel, the crew and I went to a nearby Shari’s restaurant for dinner. As we walked through the parking lot, people in the booths lining the window stared at us. Many didn’t break eye contact, even as we stared back. 

There was that juxtaposition again. On one hand, we were surrounded by the tranquil beauty of rolling hills and blue skies. And on the other, we were being stared at by numerous White people in a Shari’s, as if we had walked into the restaurant with bleeding heads on pikes.

Curious, indeed. 

 

While the Gorge and the plains in Pendleton were as breathtaking as ever, ultimately, I was still treading familiar ground. Traveling to Joseph would be a first for me.

The drive to Joseph, two hours to the east, featured winding mountain roads, even more lush plains, and one stretch in particular, Hells Canyon, which holds the distinction of being the deepest river gorge in North America. Despite being slightly out of our way, the scenery was worth the extra miles. Still, when I reflect on the drive, the thing that stands out the most isn’t any of the views, but one stretch of road: the entire main street of a small town that was lined with American flags, one every few feet. 

The sight evoked images from recent years of neo-Nazis marching through streets across the country, chanting “USA” without an awareness or care about the inherent irony. That same loud, blind patriotism is what has millions of Americans frothing at the mouth to this day when they hear the name Colin Kaepernick. And yet, it’s an atmosphere of potential danger that, as Black Americans, the members of our crew have learned to navigate. I made a mental note of the jarring sight, and we continued on.     

We arrived in Joseph later that morning. Behind Main Street, with its mountain-town buildings and familiar proliferation of American flags, were the Wallowa Mountains, nicknamed “Little Switzerland.” But we were here to visit the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, which occupies a storefront in the middle of Main Street. There, we met with the center’s founder and executive director, Gwen Trice. Inside, Trice led us on a tour of the center, starting with the main room, filled with artifacts showcasing the history of Maxville’s logging community: assorted tools, photos of crews and families, maps and historical documents, and even a baseball uniform worn by Maxville’s integrated minor league baseball team (due to segregation, the town had two teams, but combined them for regional tournaments). 

Maxville was once the largest town in Wallowa County, and it stood out from other Oregon timber communities because it employed Black loggers who had migrated from the South and Midwest in the 1920s. When she started researching Maxville, Trice was simply trying to learn more about her father, Lafayette “Lucky” Trice. He had come to Oregon with his father, both recruited for logging jobs. Lucky was fifty-six, and his logging career was long over by the time Trice was born. He rarely talked about it. The subject did come up once, she recalled, when she saw a deep scar on his shoulder and dared to ask him about it.

Trice simply knew her father as a hardworking Black man, well regarded in the community. For much of her life, she assumed he’d gotten his nickname from his success at playing cards. Later, she learned it was actually short for “lucky to be alive.”

Gwen Trice, founder and executive director of Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, points to her father, Lucky, in a photo of a Maxville logging team. 

Growing up in La Grande in the 1960s, Trice enjoyed country life and dreamed of raising horses and marrying a cowboy. Her family didn’t leave the neighborhood often. She vividly remembers the constant conversations with her parents about why she couldn’t go play with the White children from her rural grade school. Before Trice was born, White people burned a cross in her family’s yard (it was never determined whether the people who did it were neighbors, residents, or from out of town). Perhaps the most terrifying incident, Trice recalled, happened after her older brother David’s football team played against a rival school and won. Following the game, a car full of White students from the rival school chased David and the others in his car all the way to the Trice family’s driveway, where they cornered the students and shot into the car, injuring David.

As soon as she got the opportunity, Trice said, she moved to Seattle after college to work for Boeing. She had no thoughts of moving back to Eastern Oregon. Then, in 2003, Lucky passed away. Trice traveled back for the funeral and met elders in the community who showered her with stories of her father’s exploits. She learned that he’d not only had a prolific career as a logger, but had also been a pioneering Black public servant in the state, and an amateur boxer who wouldn’t hesitate to knock out a White person for calling him the N-word.

“When he got too popular and they’d knock him down, he’d just build something new,” says Trice, about her father’s various decorated careers. “That healed me, because it let me know that I’m here because I’m supposed to be and meant to be.”

Trice felt inspired to build something that would preserve the history of Maxville and teach it to others, and in 2008, she founded the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center. In addition to collecting stories about her father, she explored the history of the larger logging community, and soon she expanded her collection to include artifacts and documents along with oral histories. A few years later, she began to look for a physical space to showcase the growing collection.

The first iteration of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center opened in 2010 and was located next to the Nez Perce Visitor Center in Wallowa, Oregon. This was a strategic choice for Trice, since one of the interpretive center’s key goals is to highlight the relationship between Black Eastern Oregonians and the region’s Native American tribes. Her father had had a close relationship with members of area tribes, bonding over activities like hunting and fishing. It was important to Trice that the center honor the tribes’ ancestral connection to and true ownership of the land. 

In 2015, Trice moved the interpretive center to its current location in Joseph, where it has since become a tourist destination. Both the center and Trice’s work have earned a number of accolades, and have been featured in projects such as the OPB documentary The Logger’s Daughter and the multimedia concert From Maxville to Vanport. She’s especially proud when student groups come to visit and engage with the history.

In many ways, Trice sees her work—of sharing her appreciation and life lessons from the woods—as a way of passing on the gift she received from her parents. “A lot of people of color—a lot of kids of color—just don’t set their feet in the woods,” she says. “It makes them uncomfortable. Black people, especially—we’re taught to fear rural Oregon.” 

Trice is in the process of restoring an authentic Maxville cabin that will accommodate the center’s next expansion. This project, in partnership with Hancock Timber, Eastern Oregon University, and Clatsop Community College, will relocate and establish the cabin as a visitor’s center and permanent exhibition. Trice emphasizes that spaces like the interpretive center benefit everyone by illuminating the history of all of the ethnicities that made up the logging community: “We are Black-led, for sure, but this is really lifting up the voices of everyone that has been in this industry.”

Trice stands in front of an original Maxville cabin currently undergoing restoration. The cabin will eventually become a permanent visitor's center in Joseph. 

Over the days, I’d developed a feel for the rhythm of our trip: breathtaking natural surroundings and inspiring stories of Black determination and placemaking juxtaposed with virulent expressions of White supremacy, both historical and present-day. While driving back through the town with American flags displayed every few feet certainly kept in step with this rhythm, the nighttime drive back to our motel in Pendleton brought a plot twist: What happens when the dark element comes from nature itself? 

Driving along a sporadically lit road on a windy, rainy night was easily the biggest test of my newly acquired van-driving skills. The crew’s conversation had turned quieter than usual, so I assumed my anxiety might be overblown. Then Ifanyi broke out of character from filming to let me know I could slow down, a seemingly subtle way of saying, “Hey, Bruce, your driving is scaring the shit out of us right now!”

We ultimately made it back to Pendleton fine. At Trice’s suggestion, we’d stopped at Wallowa Lake (it was just as beautiful as she’d promised), but it was the dark, rattling drive through the mountains that made her words about finding your comfort in nature truly stick.

 

When my crew and I began the trip, we’d asked the question: Why would a Black person choose to live in Eastern Oregon? Yet as much as I would like to believe that the stretch of road lined with American flags was a feature unique to Eastern Oregon, I encountered a similar display while driving down Boones Ferry Road when I visited my parents in Lake Oswego a few days after returning. These flags were more artisanal and stylized, but they appeared just as frequently, and their message was just as clear.

I kept revisiting Trice’s words about Black people being taught to fear rural Oregon, and thinking about all she’s built there in spite of it.

The beauty of nature, Black determination, and White nationalism: these were the three prevailing themes of the trip. All three are visceral. The particularly infamous history of racism in the region and its present-day manifestations make the stories of Black determination and placemaking that much more impressive.

Asking why a Black person would choose to live in Eastern Oregon felt presumptuous before the trip. After speaking with Ransom and Trice, it felt downright arrogant. If anything, we should have left with lessons to bring back to Portland.

I’ll start with myself. My hometown of Lake Oswego has only one piece of public art depicting Black people. Meanwhile, the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center is creating a permanent home in Joseph after making an indelible impression throughout multiple Eastern Oregon towns since 2008. At the same time, Leon Ransom’s brother Kalvin, a former bull rider himself, is working on getting a street in Pendleton named after George Fletcher, to go with the bronze statue.

In the state of Oregon, where the lasting effects of anti-Black exclusion laws can still be felt, these efforts are invaluable. Beyond preserving history and building business, these stories do the necessary work of helping Black Oregonians see themselves wherever they so choose. In the case of Ransom, Trice, and their fellow Black Eastern Oregonians, that place is the country.    

“My heart,” said Trice, “belongs where the trees are, the water is, and where the wildlife is close.”   

 

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Comments

1 comments have been posted.

Thank you, Bruce, for taking on this project, for seeing and verbalizing your own truths and those of others trying to bring understanding, change, and compassion to this continuing reality of racism. As a white older woman, growing up in middle class California, going to school and working in LA during my 20's and 30's , and then moving to Portland which was white, white, white, I have a long ways to go towards any kind of true appreciation for what blacks have endured in the country. I now live in Nehalem, which should showcase a rich heritage of the many Native tribes living here before white settlers. But, alas, those voices are few are far between. Every community needs someone like Trice to push through obstacles one tree, one voice, at a time. Thank you.

Levering Thomas | January 2023 | Nehalem, Or

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