The Hidden Racist History of Oregon

When most people hear about Oregon, they think about this majorly progressive state, almost as progressive as California. They think about it being the only state to refuse to pass laws restricting abortion. They think about the cultural melting pot that is Portland.

Scary thing is that east of the I-5 corridor, you’d think you were walking around in the 1960s deep south. Even in places like Portland, racism is still right there, slapped all over the place. People can’t seem to scrub it away fast enough for those of us in the state to not notice it though.

During the formation of the state, the people writing up the constitution and setting up the foundations of what the state would be stated that the state would founded as a white utopia. Oregon was granted statehood in 1859 and it was the only state in the union with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working or owning property within the state. In fact, it was illegal for black people to even MOVE to the state until 1926. While we thought that segregation is over, there are still places where you can find the same style of Jim Crow signs as one would expect to see in the deep south in the 1950s, the “White trade only” type things.

Oregon’s founding constitution even stated that black people were not permitted to live within the state, that’s how bad it was. While there were a small number of black people living in the state prior to 1859, it was made clear very soon that they were not welcome. Segregation and terrorism by angry racists made it perfectly clear.

While racism was happening all over the country, as well as white supremacy movements, Oregon was pretty much the only state to be openly vocal and straightforward about their views.

In the summer of 1844, the Legislative Committee passed a provision that said any free black people who were in the state would be subject to flogging if they didn’t leave within two years. The floggings were supposed to continue every six months until they left the territory. Thankfully that was pulled in December of 1845….the flogging part at least. Instead any free black people who remained would be offered up “publicly for hire” to any white person who would kick them from the state.

When the constitution went up for vote in 1857, there were two pieces that were independently voted on. Rejection of slavery passed with 75% of voters saying no to slavery, but there was a slight problem. The second piece was whether or not to exclude black people from the state. 89% voted to pass that one.

Here is what Article 1, Section 35 of the state constitution read:

No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the Legislative Assembly shall provide by penal laws, for the removal, by public officers, of all such negroes, and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the State, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ, or harbor them.

One person, who would later become a state senator and member of the U.S. House stated that “We were building a new state on virgin ground; it’s people believed it should encourage only the best elements to come to us, and discourage others.”

See? It’s not racist!

Never mind that when the 14th amendment came around, Oregon actually attempted to rescind its ratification, or that it wouldn’t be until 1973 when people would FINALLY get Oregon to ratify the 14th amendment in their state.

While Oregon didn’t specifically label other races to be excluded, they did make it quite clear to anyone who was not white that they weren’t welcome and did what they could to drive them out. There’s going to be a lot of links for further reading for anyone interested in the history of Oregon and its relationship with racism.

So we’re now going to skip ahead a bit, past the 1923 gathering of over 1,500 KKK members at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, past the signs reading “We don’t serve Negros, Jews or dogs” in the 1960s, to the forcing of black families to move from homes THEY OWNED so that the I-5 interstate and Memorial Coliseum could be built, to within just the past few years.

An interesting question to ask people is to ask them, “Which state has arrested more people of color than any other state?” The correct answer was Oregon. Imprisonment by race/ethnicity saw white imprisonment at 366 per 100k, Hispanic imprisonment at 395 per 100k, and black imprisonment at a whopping 2,061 per 100k. We even saw a case of two men being arrested for sitting in a Starbucks back in April of 2018.

Not only that, but Portland and many other places still have “White Man Marches” and there are known groups such as the American Freedom Party, the KKK, the Aryan Brotherhood, European Kindred (EK); Rude Krude Brood; Irish Pride; All Ona Bitch (ONA); Insane Peckerwood Syndicate (IPS) and Fat Bitch Killers (FBK), Neo-Nazi groups, and many others who make Oregon their base of operations. While Oregon tries to put on the face of one of the most progressive states in the union…there’s some really ugly stuff brewing just below the surface.

Here’s some more depressing facts, brought to you by the Atlantic, which I will post below.

A 2011 audit found that landlords and leasing agents here discriminated against black and Latino renters 64 percent of the time, citing them higher rents or deposits and adding on additional fees. In area schools, African American students are suspended and expelled at a rate four to five times higher than that of their white peers.


A 2014 report by Portland State University and the Coalition of Communities of Color, a Portland non-profit, shows black families lag far behind whites in the Portland region in employment, health outcomes, and high-school graduation rates. They also lag behind black families nationally. While annual incomes for whites nationally and in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, were around $70,000 in 2009, blacks in Multnomah County made just $34,000, compared to $41,000 for blacks nationally. Almost two-thirds of black single mothers in Multnomah County with kids under five lived in poverty in 2010, compared to half of black single mothers with kids under five nationally. And just 32 percent of African Americans in Multnomah County owned homes in 2010, compared to 60 percent of whites in the county and 45 percent of blacks nationally.

Much like how people claim that the wage gap doesn’t exist, there are also arguments that there is no such thing as a racial pay gap due to the Equal Rights Amendment and regulations surrounding employment, but as can be seen above, the truth is shows us that rights on paper do not equal rights in real life many times.

Many people feel that places like Portland are exceptionally progressive due to shows like Portlandia or general tourist style views, yet racism is just as prevalent there as anywhere else in Oregon. If you want to read some of the stuff that has been reported to be said in Portland, go check out “Shit white people say to black and brown folks in PDX.”

In 2016, yes, 2016, a young man was murdered just a few days shy of his birthday by a white supremacist member of the European Kindred and his girlfriend. The people describing the crime said it looked like something from the violent Jim Crow South. The problems aren’t just in Portland and Eastern Oregon though. Back in 2008 a family in Medford had a cross and the letters KKK burned into their lawn, and that incident was the 5th local hate crime of the year…the fifth.

With the election of Don Don Trumples von Baby Hands, there has been a rise in racist activities and even outright displays of white supremacy in Oregon. In Ashland, less than 20 miles from where I live, there is a truck driving around advertising for the Neo-Nazis. My friends have sent me photographs of it from their cars and told me about seeing it around town. It’s even made it into the news a few times. Ashland (a town spoken about for being highly progressive and “green”) even made it into the Southern Poverty Law Center (again) with the Rense Radio Network.

Racism is at the core of the founding of Oregon, and it never went away. While we’re starting to see areas of Oregon becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, the racism is still exceptionally visible in all areas of life. While many white people such as myself want to speak about how progressive Oregon is, it is hard to ignore what is going on around us, especially when we see that racism played out before our very eyes. I discuss two of the events that serve as a constant reminder to myself that I am treated differently due to my skin color in my articles “Something We Need to Discuss, White People” and “What #WhitenessToldMe” regarding two incidents with the police and my husband.

I am adding in links for further reading and citations that I encourage everyone to take the time to read.

The Sentencing Project:

I Studied Oregon’s Militia Movement. Here’s 5 Things You Need to Know

Leader of white supremacist gang Krude Rude Brood sentenced to 14 years in federal prison

Exposed: The Northwest’s white supremacy problem

Oregon white supremacist mowed down black teenager with his Jeep

Anti Defamation League’s list of groups in Oregon

Oregon’s racial history, diversity explored

Oregon’s Racist History

Oregon Was Founded As A Racist Utopia

No Confederate battle flag, but Oregon has its own history of racism

The Black Laws of Oregon, 1844–1857

Looking Back In Order to Move Forward

Portland, Oregon Deemed “Most Racist” City In The United States

Black Exclusion Laws in Oregon

The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America

Oregon Was Founded As a Racist Utopia

Blacks overrepresented in every part of Multnomah County’s criminal justice system, report finds

Oregon imprisons African Americans at a higher rate than most other states

Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity

Queer|Pronouns he/they. Owner of Illuminatus Design. Degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies (GSWS, Psychology, English) & Theology (M:Div)

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