A Hidden History

A Conversation Project program reveals the stories and struggles of Oregon’s African American communities.

I eyed the thirty chairs set up in small circles around the top-floor room of North Portland Library and frowned. That Sunday in February 2012, I would be leading my Conversation Project program “Why Aren't There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History” for only the second time. The first was at Hollywood Library, where we reached the forty-person room capacity and had to turn folks away. So I figured we'd need a few more chairs at North Portland.

But as people poured into the large, open room, librarian Patricia Welch and I realized there wouldn't be enough seats for all these folks even if we grabbed every chair in the library. Finally, with the room at maximum capacity, Welch regretfully started turning people away.

That was a year and a half ago, and since then I've facilitated the program with more than a thousand Oregonians across the state. I developed my program and a timeline, excerpted on the pages that follow, to explore the history and living legacy of race, identity, and power in this state and this nation.

Race is not a topic we often discuss in public settings, at least not explicitly. We are told we are in a “postracial” landscape, yet race is the number one determinant of access to health care, home ownership, graduation rates, and income, as the data from the Urban League of Portland below show.

We can't understand these disparities without understanding history. I didn't grow up in Oregon; I moved here to attend high school. It wasn't until I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Darrell Millner, founder of Portland State University's Black Studies Department, that I learned Oregon was created as a white utopian homeland. That Oregon was the only state that entered the Union with a clause in its constitution forbidding Black people to live here. That the punishment originally meted out for violating this exclusionary law was the “Lash Law”: public whipping every six months until the Black person left the state. That this ideology shaped Oregon's entire history and was reflected in the larger history of this nation.

My goal with this program and timeline is not just to recount all the horrific wrongs done to Black people and other people of color; it is to showcase communities of color as active agents in their destinies. The only reason a Black community exists in Oregon is because of determination, creativity, and community-building.

There are so many stories: from the Black community in Salem raising money for a school in 1867 when their children were barred from attending white schools, to North Williams Avenue as a 1930s underground jazz gem, to the 2001 repeal of the state constitution's exclusionary language that was led by community leaders and organizers and supported by allies. This is a history not of victimization, but of strength and hope. One of my greatest joys has been creating a public space for people who have lived in this community all their lives to tell their stories, to be seen as the experts and change makers they are.

I always end the program with a list of organizations working across this state for racial justice, a list that grows with every program I do. Each of us has the power to learn these hidden histories, and each of us has the right and the responsibility to create the kind of state, nation, and world we all want to live in.

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Thnaks so much for doing this work and creating conversations about it. I would like to be notified of your next Humanities conversations about race and you rnext spoken workd performances. Please, Thnaks You! Reverend Teri D. Ciacchi Living Love Revolution 206-612-3511

Teri Dianne Ciacchi | February 2014 | Portland, OR

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