For decades, Oregon legally excluded black people from settling in the region. Despite racists laws and attitudes, some came anyway. 

“Oregon’s Black Pioneers” examines the earliest African-Americans who lived and worked in the region during the mid-1800s.  They came as sailors, gold miners, farmers and slaves. Their numbers were small, by some estimates just 60 black residents in 1850, but they managed to create communities, and in some cases, take on racist laws — and win.

By most estimates there were about 50 black residents in the region in 1850, despite an Exclusion Law banning blacks from settling in the region.

The earliest known person of African descent was Markus Lopeus, a black sailor who arrived at Tillamook Bay with merchant sea captain Robert Gray in 1788. It is documented that Lopeus died during a dispute with local Native Americans. In the following years, black fur trappers and explorers came to the region. Many worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. A few led some of the first emigrant wagon trains over the Oregon Trail. But as more and more white settlers arrived in the area, they brought their own laws and prejudices with them.

“The entire region of the Northwest… criminalized the presence of black people and the first black Exclusion Law included the Lash Law that said black people would be publicly whipped every six months until they left the territory.”


Walidah Imarisha, educator and writer  

In the 1840s, the region’s provisional government forbid slavery, while also banning black people from settling in the area. When Oregon became a state in 1859, it was the only state admitted to the Union with an Exclusion Law in its constitution. That law remained until voters removed it in 1926, while the original racist language stayed on the books until 2002.

“Oregon’s Black Pioneers” explores the stories of the African-Americans who lived, worked and created communities despite the hardships. People like Robin and Polly Holmes, who sued their former owner for their children’s freedom; Letitia Carson, who successfully took a wealthy landowner to court after he stole her property; and James Douglas, who spent twenty years helping run Fort Vancouver before becoming the governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. 

“In spite of these laws which continued on the books on and off in various manners, you had blacks living all over the state.   It’s very interesting finding out who they came with, how they got here, what did they do, did they stay, did they leave, did they marry? All of these are pieces of a puzzle. You find little pieces and then you add on another piece and, before you know it, you have a real picture of what it was like to be black in Oregon prior to the 1900s.”


Gwen Carr, Oregon Black Pioneers organization

Using rare historical photographs, primary documents and expert interviews, this half-hour documentary examines the little-known history of Oregon’s black pioneers.

Resources and Information

Websites

Books

  • Coleman, Kenneth R. 2017 Dangerous Subjects: James D. Saules and the Rise of Black Exclusion in Oregon.
  •  Kirkpatrick, Jane, 2014 A Light in the Wilderness.
  •  Margolin, Phillip, 2014 Worthy Brown’s Daughter. 
  •  McFetridge, Timothy C., 2017 Rachel’s Son Jackson.
  •  McLagan, Elizabeth, 1980 A Peculiar Paradise: a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940.
  •  Meranda, Janet F., 2016 Freedom’s Light: The Letita Carson Story Begins.
  •  Meranda, Janet F. Oregon Trail Diary: Letitia Carson, 1845.
  •  Nokes, Gregory R., 2018 The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of Oregon.
  •  Nokes, Gregory R., 2014  Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory.
  •  Oregon Black Pioneers and Moreland, Kimberly Stowers, 2013 Images of African Americans of Portland.
  •  Taylor, Quintard, 1998 In Search of the Racial Frontier: African American in the American West 1528-1990.
Interviews with: Patricia Benner, co-owner of Gorman House; Gwen Carr, Oregon Black Pioneers board member; Walidah Imarsha, educator and writer; Janet Meranda, author and researcher; Darrell Millner, professor emeritus & adjunct at Portland State University; R. Gregory Nokes, author and historian; Willie Richardson, president of the Oregon Black Pioneers; and Bob Zybach, historical Ecologist and researcher