Oregon Black Pioneers

Did Oregon even have Black pioneers? Listen to our interview with Zachary Stocks, Executive Director of Oregon Black Pioneers (a non profit which preserves the history of Black Oregonians) to find out more about this whole topic. When did Black pioneers arrive in Oregon? What were some of the places where we ride bicycles today that were utilized by these early settlers?

Oregon Black Pioneers


Benjamin Purper 0:19
I’m Benjamin Purper, and my guest today is Zachary Stocks. He’s the executive director of Oregon Black Pioneers. They’re a nonprofit focused on preserving the history of Black Oregonians. I talked to Starks about the organization, some interesting stories about historical Black Oregonians and the trails they traveled. Zachary, thanks for joining me.

Zachary Stocks 0:38
Thanks, Ben. Good to be here.

Benjamin Purper 0:40
So first off, tell us about your organization and the history you’re working to preserve.

Zachary Stocks 0:45
So Oregon Black Pioneers is Oregon’s only statewide African-American historical society. We are a nonprofit, and we were founded in 1993 in Salem. And until January of this year, Salem was our headquarters, and we’ve recently relocated to Portland. But we are statewide in focus. We are interested in finding and sharing the stories of people of African descent who’ve lived in every part of Oregon, going back to the very first days that we have evidence right up to the turn of the last century.

Benjamin Purper 1:18
And why is this work so important then?

Zachary Stocks 1:20
I think it’s important because when you hear about the story of Oregon, you so rarely hear about Black Oregonians. And I think that people have a perception that Black history really begins in Oregon around for war, too, for example, or maybe in the 1960s. But the truth is that there’s never been a time in Oregon’s history where there have been white people here and not Black people here. Our roots go back as early as the very first day of non-native habitation of this place. And I think that that is a really interesting thing to consider when you think about who is an Oregonian and what stories are privileged in the way that we tell Oregon’s history.

Benjamin Purper 2:05
And that was kind of a unique experience, right? And the sort of Black experience and early non-Native Oregon.

Zachary Stocks 2:12
Absolutely. When you look at the history of Oregon, going back to even the provisional days before or him was a territory, there were already legislative attempts to keep Black people from coming to Oregon. And the motivations for that, they vary in in the earliest examples. People white people feared that Black individuals might align themselves with native Oregonians and form movements to take command, power or resist oppression. But in most cases, the early legislators of the provisional and territorial and later state governments of Oregon were really attempting to to create better economic positions for themselves at the expense of people of color. So they feared that the presence of Black people in Oregon in any number, would devalue the labor of agricultural workers, and that being the largest share of the workforce at the time for Oregon, it really it made white Oregonians fear that the presence of Black people would allow landowners to have to ask questions about how they would value this kind of work that could be done just as well by Black people as was currently being done by white people. And the best way to not even create a situation where the potential earnings of white yeoman farmers could be jeopardized by the presence of Black workers who would do that same work just as well, was to prevent Black people from coming at all. And they also justified this with white supremacist ideology by suggesting that Black people were not physically capable of living in the Oregon territory or that they were just inferior races and didn’t deserve to be among this privileged group of people that had participated in a manifest destiny, you know, migration across the continent to this promised land that they envisioned was for them.

Benjamin Purper 4:15
Right. So Oregon has incredible trails all over the state. Right. Do any of those stick out as particularly important to the history of Oregon’s Black pioneers?

Zachary Stocks 4:25
Well, has Black Oregonians settled in Oregon and started to make lives for themselves in the different parts of the Oregon territory? They followed existing indigenous trails to move between commercial centers and the new homesteads that they had established for themselves. The remnants of those trails might still exist, but aren’t necessarily maintained as well-traveled as, you know, tourist routes today. But one that comes to mind that I tell people about quite often is the new c2c trail, which links Corvallis and the Oregon coast, and it ends near walled port. And there’s a really prominent Black figure in Waldport. And Corvallis has history named Louis Southworth. He lived between these two communities for decades in the 19th century, and he would travel, you know, across the coast range, probably on a path not so far away from this now really well-known hiking and biking trail. So to me, I sort of think of that that route as almost like the Southworth Memorial Trail in that it bridges these two places where he spent so much of his time and takes you through the terrain that he would have seen while making this journey every year.

Benjamin Purper 5:46
So the coastline in particular is so great for cyclists and anyone visiting, really. Are there any other interesting stories about Black pioneers on the coast?

Zachary Stocks 5:54
For sure. I mean, if you think about it, the coast is where all non-native arrival to Oregon begins. And that includes Black people in Oregon as well. So if you go back to the earliest days that we have evidence of Black people here, you could point to someone like Marcus Lopez, who arrived aboard the first American ship to make landfall on the West Coast. The lady Washington in Tillamook Bay, so near Garibaldi today. A little further up the coast is Fort Stevens in Warrenton. Hammond area. And in the 1890s, the construction of the concrete batteries that you can go and visit today. Those were being constructed under the supervision of the only enlisted soldier at Fort Stevens at a time, which was which was Ordnance Sergeant Moses Williams, a former Buffalo soldier, and he was stationed there from 1895 until

1898, and then he retired in 1992 for Vancouver. And there’s stories like that throughout the Oregon coast where we have individual Black people or in some cases temporary communities of Black men and women that live for a time typically around resource extraction and then didn’t necessarily leave roots behind. And so when you think of the Oregon coast, we don’t often think of it as a very vibrant place for Black culture. But there have been these individual examples of Black history that have taken place on the north, south, central Coast, everywhere in between.

Benjamin Purper 7:29
So how can cyclists and really everybody in Oregon educate themselves more about the history of some of these routes and these individuals in history?

Zachary Stocks 7:37
I think that it just comes down to having an interest first, you know, wanting to know more about the places where you recreate. You know, who are the people who have called this place home before, before you you traveled there. And you can do that by getting connected to local history museums in these places or reading books from your your own library about the history of those communities. And soon enough, you’ll find the stories of Black men and women who’ve been part of those communities as well. It can be difficult because a lot of times the stories of Black Oregonians were not recorded, or if they were, it was incomplete. You know, some were might only be known by their first name or even by racist slurs. Right. And so that that could actually be a good way to clue someone in that there’s a story worth telling that maybe needs more research. If as you travel the state, you come across a place that has a Negro place name, that should be a clue to you that there was at some point a Black person who probably lived nearby and who that is is is up to you to and to me to do that research and figure out.

Benjamin Purper 8:43
Right. Are there any ongoing projects that Oregon Black pioneers is working on right now?

Zachary Stocks 8:48
Yeah. What are we doing right now? Sure. We have a very active traveling exhibit program, which is touring all over the States. We have three different exhibits that are on constant rotation. Would you guess? Speaking engagements. Just about every week. Myself and our public programs manager are traveling all over the state to deliver our in-person public presentations. We do work by consultation, so people hire us to develop interpretive panels or exhibit texts for their local history museums. For example, we work with school groups through lesson plans and in-person classroom activities that we can come in and facilitate. And we also have events. So we lead our own walking tours throughout the state on a quarterly basis, and we occasionally can host workshops and other activities near our office in Portland.

Benjamin Purper 9:40
Yeah. How can people learn more about all this?

Zachary Stocks 9:42
So not only is our website where you can find out more about what we have going on, but we also have a ton of free Black history learning materials on our website. So if someone is interested in finding out what is Oregon’s Black history, we’ve really built our website to be that source, right? To be the repository for these stories and not just a place where you can find out about what we are doing as an organization. So we’ve got videos there. We have our collection which is available to see. We have interactive maps and digital exhibits. Our website is really the place we hope for people to go to learn more about stories of Oregon’s Black History Oregon Black Pioneers Story.

Benjamin Purper 10:26
Is there anything else that you want to add about all this?

Zachary Stocks 10:28
No, I just say thank you again for having me on the show and getting a chance to share some of Oregon’s Black history and ways that we help to preserve it through our work.

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