“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” Robert Penn Warren
I am guilty of knowing little about the history of my adopted state. I know that much of Oregon has a rich logging past, and that the High Desert was one of the last places in this country to be settled during the western expansion, but details surrounding the founding of our state? Nope. The intentional lack of diversity in our communities? I figured it was self-selecting….and I was wrong.
During Tom DeWolf’s research for his current book, Gather at the Table (see story in the February A&E), one of the astonishing facts that emerged about Oregon’s history was the intentional “whiteness” of the state. Upon passing the state constitution, 85 percent of voters did not want African Americans to live in the state, and this statute was on the books until the 1920s. “Even after that we had many communities that were called sundown communities, where black people could be in town during the day, if they had a job, but after sundown they had to be somewhere else,” DeWolf commented. Bend’s sundown status lasted until the 1950s. In other cities around the state, until the late 60s and early 70s.
“The impact of that and the living consequences of that are what we are now,” DeWolf continued. “Oregon is not an integrated state; in some ways not a very tolerant state. There have been improvements, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Much of what DeWolf is trying to accomplish with his book is appealing to whites to realize lack of diversity. The continued racism that many African Americans face today does in fact have influence on their lives.
Whether it’s tracing genealogy, or learning more about the relatively recent history of our cities and state, we can all become better acquainted with our past. In doing so, we may be better suited to understand the present and have guidance in looking to the future.
I’ve been thinking about DeWolf’s research since we spoke. I’m not sure how I fit into the narrative of Oregon and what my role is in its future, but awareness is the first step towards change.