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by Carisa Brewster
Black History Month celebrates the significant contributions that African-Americans have made to American society in the areas of art, music, science, sports and government. But I believe that remembering we made these strides despite the hardships of both slavery and systemic discrimination well into the 20th century is the core of Black History Month.
Growing up in Philadelphia, celebrating Black History Month was as familiar to me as celebrating any other national observance. But this was not always so. In the not-too-distant past, African-Americans received little recognition, much less an entire month devoted to their part in shaping American history. Black History Month finds its origins almost a century ago, with the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, or ASALH (formerly the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History), founded by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1915. Woodson was the son of former slaves and received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago. He was also the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
There is no single way to celebrate Black History Month. All over the nation there will be tons of lectures and events; all you have to do pick one and check it out. Here are some notable ones in Portland:
Oregon Black Pioneers exhibition. Oregon Black Pioneers and the Oregon Historical Society are partnering to present “A Community on the Move,” a new exhibition that will debut February 1. The focus will be on World War II shipyards, migration from the South, the Vanport flood and urban renewal projects. For more information, go to www.oregonblackpioneers.org and www.ohs.org.
Portland Jazz Festival. PDX Jazz, in partnership with Travel Portland, produces the festival annually in celebration of Black History Month. For more information and to see the schedule of events, go to pdxjazz.com
Woodson was inspired to create ASALH by the 50th anniversary celebration of emancipation that year in Chicago, sponsored by the state of Illinois. The mission of the ASALH would be (and still is) to “promote the scientific study of black life and history.” In 1916, ASALH started publishing The Journal of Negro History. Woodson tirelessly encouraged his peers to share the information and findings published in the journal. His fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, also created Negro Achievement Week in 1924. In February 1926, Woodson sent out a press release announcing “Negro History Week.”
During the ensuing decades, there would be an overwhelmingly positive response to Negro History Week within the African-American community. According to the ASALH, newly formed black history clubs, teachers and many of the expanding black middle class clamored to get study materials from ASALH for annual celebrations. Gradually, the shift to a longer celebration began, informally, with African-Americans across the country expanding events and activities throughout the entire month of February. Then, in 1975, President Gerald Ford issued a Message on the Observance of Black History Week, saying, “It is most appropriate that Americans set aside a week to recognize the important contributions made to our nation’s life and culture by our black citizens.” In 1976, the Bicentennial year of America’s Independence, Ford issued the first proclamation for Black History Month. In 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-244, designating February 1986 as “National Black (Afro-American) History Month.” The law also called on the president to issue a proclamation “calling on the people of the United States to observe February 1986 as Black History Month, with the appropriate ceremonies and activities.” In 1996, President Clinton issued Presidential Proclamation 6863 for “National African-American History Month.” Since that year, presidents have issued annual proclamations each year. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, also devote a month to celebrating black history.
The Journal of Negro History is still in publication, but is now named The Journal of African-American History (JAAH). In its 99th volume, JAAH’s most recent issue included stories on “Women and Slavery in the Atlantic World,” “The Legacy of Malcolm X,” and “African-Americans and Movements for Reparations, Past Present and Future.”
Starting out: African-Americans in Oregon
African-Americans have just as rich a history in Oregon and as they do in other parts of the country. Predictably, that history is not without its challenges.
Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
George Washington Carver developed 300 derivative products from peanuts.
Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives.
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award for her performance in “Gone with the Wind.”
In 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to go into space aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.
Local writer and poet Elizabeth McLagan wrote “A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon,” published in 1980. She received an undergraduate degree in history from Oregon State University, with a focus on American history. However, she says, there were few black studies programs and little emphasis on African-American history, even though it was, in her opinion, a compelling subject. She accepted a paid, one-year position with the Oregon Black History Project, where she began doing research. After the year was up, she continued on her own and finished what became “A Peculiar Paradise.” The book, which can be found online, starts with Marcus Lopez, the first African-American “to set foot on Oregon soil.”
“The most surprising thing [during my research] was the fact of institutional racism, the exclusion laws that were written into territorial and constitutional law, and the struggle to have them officially removed, beginning in the 1860s and lasting well into the 20th century,” said McLagan.
A series of exclusion laws were passed during the 1840s against African-Americans to prevent them from living in Oregon. The Provisional Government of Oregon passed the first law in 1844. Curiously, this law included a ban on slavery and a requirement for slave owners to free their slaves. Sounds good, until you realize freedom meant being whip-lashed and kicked out of Oregon, if you didn’t go voluntarily. The second exclusion law in 1849 allowed remaining African-Americans residency, but prohibited newcomers. Finally, in preparation for statehood in 1857, a third exclusion law was included in Oregon’s state constitution. Under this law, African-American residents could not own real estate or enter into contracts, and were denied the right to sue in court.
After the Civil War, the 14th and 15th amendments voided the exclusion laws, but they were not officially removed from Oregon’s constitution until 1927. Unfortunately, changed or voided laws did not make life stress-free for African-American residents in Oregon (or anywhere else, for that matter). Just as in the South and many parts of the Northeast, African-Americans faced severe discrimination in the post-slavery period. Jim Crow signs were often used and the Ku Klux Klan was quite active. As stated in “A Peculiar Paradise,” African-Americans were “regularly refused admission to restaurants, theaters, and hotels. Medical care was difficult to obtain, unions barred blacks from membership, employment practices confined them to certain jobs and integrated housing was resisted.”
Even in the face of these hardships, the African-American community in Portland and surrounding areas grew, and by the early 1940s, their demands for equal treatment were getting much harder to ignore. Both the local chapter of the NAACP and the Urban League were among many organizations instrumental in advocating for change heading into the 1960s, the height of the civil rights movement.
Today, African-Americans flock to Portland for the same reasons other people do: it’s a cool place to live. Our numbers are still modest; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we comprise only 2 percent of the population. And healing our racial wounds together as a nation, no matter what state you reside in, is still a work in progress. McLagan says that from a historical perspective, it is easy to point the finger at groups like the Ku Klux Klan because it allows people to think only extremist groups practice racism.
“But from my perspective as a white person, it is the widespread and more common racist attitudes and actions that are more insidious and damaging,” she said.
I think one quote in “A Peculiar Paradise” from an African-American Portlander who lived through some of the racial turmoil is still relevant today: “I’ve had a grand life here in Portland. It’s a good place to live. What I’ve always liked about it that you could live like you wanted to. You could keep up with the crowd if you wanted or you could just live to yourself. I’m glad to see there are some good people here.”
Carisa D. Brewster is a freelance writer and homeschool mom. She lives in the Portland area with her husband and two sons.