White Supremacy A Pervasive Scourge In Oregon History

Feb 10, 2020

White supremacy has made recent local news, between Jeremy Christian’s murder trial in Portland, and the presence of white nationalist groups in rallies across the state.  A special edition of the Oregon Historical Quarterly is out now, that reminds residents that the problem is actually rooted deep in state history.

KLCC’s Brian Bull talked to the journal’s editor, Eliza Canty-Jones. Bull asked how ingrained white supremacy is in Oregon’s settlement.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan march in Ashland, Oregon during the 1920s.
Credit Oregon Historical Society

Canty-Jones: It was very much in the milieu, it was very much in the politics, and it’s very clear as you can see from George Williamson’s letter laying out the argument right before the 1857 Oregon Constitutional Convention, that Oregon would be a place that neither had slavery nor free black people. And those were laws that were already in the books from the territorial government.

Obviously the founding of Oregon comes with an invasion of indigenous land and indigenous communities.  What many people refer to as the theft of that land.  And of course, the white supremacy that attends the history of 'shadow slavery' in the United States.  Even though slavery wasn’t here in Oregon, the ideology and the policies of white supremacy that attended it were very much present throughout the United States and here in Oregon in the mid-19th century when the state was being founded.

Bull: African-Americans enlisted to fight in World War II against the Third Reich, which carried the Aryan Ideal that saw all other races as subhuman, and therefore inferior.  There’s a certain irony in this isn’t there, given how blacks were treated in Oregon and across the U.S?

Canty-Jones: Because of the various reasons that people fight in war, I think what might be more looked at is the hypocrisy of the federal government, in sending people off to war, ostensibly for democracy.  And not creating and defending policies of freedom, of democracy, in a quality at home.

The violence that African-American soldiers faced after returning from World War I.  The threat that many whites felt by seeing African-American soldiers in uniform and with guns.  You hear a lot of people talk about even today, the difference between who exerts their gun rights and in what ways in the United States.  We saw photographs of armed militia members in the Kentucky state capitol (week of February 2nd).  People were reflecting on the relationship between that and armed Black Panther party members in California in the 1980s.  And what the state reactions to what those kinds of armed citizens has been.

And in Oregon of course, as you saw in the special issue, there were the signs as black military members, and shipyard workers came to the state, the “We cater to white trade only” signs that went up during World War II and that kind of thing.  There’s the political cartoons, the drawings that were in a black newspaper in Portland, showing an African-American service member walking by one of those signs and making that point.

Bull: What were some of the common signs and attractions across Oregon?  I’m talking mainly through the 1930s and 70s, where caricatures and stereotypes of people of color were brazenly displayed out in the open.

Canty-Jones: One of the most shocking ones that we have in the special issue is from the Portland restaurant: the Coon Chicken Inn, which is just a really grotesque caricature of an African-American face, used as sort of the mascot for the restaurant that was open in Portland for many years, and people would drive by that. 

And obviously today people talk about the Native American mascots, and there’s some complexity to that, in the different ways that tribes worked with local communities. But I think any time a group of people is made into a caricature…it’s degrading, it’s dehumanizing, that kind of stereotype. 

Bull: It’s been more than three decades now since members of the White Aryan Resistance murdered Mulugeta Seraw in Portland.  Now with white nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric heating up again in recent years, are we seeing parallels today that sets the stage for further violence?

Canty-Jones:  I think we’ve seen that violence, haven’t we?  You saw the murders in the Tree of Life synagogue. You saw the mass murders at the Walmart in El Paso.  We had several years ago, several victims I believe at the community college in Roseburg. Obviously the murders of the men on the MAX train that Jeremy Christian is on trial for right now. I think the violence is here, and that’s not just in the Pacific Northwest.  And it’s not just in the United States.

Bull: Eliza Canty-Jones, thank you very much for your time.

Canty-Jones: Yeah, thank you, Brian.  Have a great day, and thanks for covering this, we appreciate it.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.