|African-American settlers in Salem
faced many difficult obstacles. Although slavery was illegal
in Oregon, it was not unheard of in the 1840s and 50s. Many
more blacks worked in menial and poorly paid jobs, and struggled
to get an education. Technically, these hard-working African-Americans
were not supposed to be in the state at all. From 1844 to 1926,
Oregons laws prohibited blacks from living in the state.
As Egbert Oliver wrote, African-Americans were essentially
illegal aliens in Oregon.
African American Exclusion
Blacks were present in Oregon in the early nineteenth
century as explorers, trappers, and setters, but they were
far outnumbered by the white settlers who poured into the
territory from the 1840s on. Many of these settlers were of
the Free Soil persuasion. They opposed expansion
of slavery to Oregon not because they believed slavery was
wrong, but because they didnt want to compete with plantations
fueled by slave labor. Many white settlers, like Salem newspaper
editor Asahel Bush, wanted to avoid the Negro Question
entirely by keeping Oregon whites-only. To discourage more
blacks from settling, they passed restrictive laws. For example,
the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850 promised 640 acres of
free land to every married couple who settled in the territory,
but African-American settlers were barred from receiving free
In 1844 the Oregon Territorial Legislature passed a bill
intended to prevent slavery, which stated that anyone who
brought slaves into Oregon must remove them within three years,
or else the slaves would be freed by the government. The bill
also stipulated that any free blacks in the territory had
to leave within two years (males) or three years (females).
Any who remained in Oregon after that time would receive
upon his or her bare back not less than 20 nor more than 39
stripes. After complaints that it was too harsh, the
whipping punishment was removed from the law. Instead, violators
would be hired out at public auction (in other words, temporarily
enslaved), and their employers would escort them out of the
state at the end of their period of service.
The exclusion laws were primarily intended to prevent blacks
from settling in Oregon, not to kick out those who were already
here. The first and only African-American to be expelled from
Oregon under the exclusion act was Jacob Vanderpool, the owner
of a saloon, restaurant, and boarding house in Salem (some
sources say Oregon City). Vanderpools neighbor reported
him for the crime of being black in Oregon, and Judge Thomas
Nelson gave him thirty days to leave the territory.
Despite the exclusion laws, African-Americans continued to
settle in Oregon. The 1850 census lists nine blacks or mulattos
(an archaic term referring to people of mixed African and
European ancestry) living in Marion county, of whom only three
were over 18 years old. One of the nine was identified as
a slave, despite the fact that slavery was illegal
in Oregon. In 1860, Marion County had 18 blacks and mulattos,
of whom six were adults. By 1870, the number had risen to
61, with 33 adults.
Slavery in the Willamette Valley
Most African-Americans who came to Oregon on the overland
trail were free, coming to Oregon hoping to get away from
the racial conflict of the east and move to a place where
they would have greater opportunitiesbut some were enslaved,
came to Oregon with their owners.
Daniel Delaney came from Tennessee with his family
and at least one slave, Rachel Beldon. Rachel worked in the
fields, garden, and house, and nursed the invalid Mrs. Delaney.
Rachel was listed in the 1850 census as a slave
of the Delaneys, and continued to live with them until the
end of the Civil War. She had two sons, Noah and Jackson,
and later married Nathan Brooks, another African-American.
They worked on Daniel Waldos farm and later moved to
Salem where they raised two other sons, Samuel and Mansfield.
Despite being a former slaveholder, Daniel Delaney had a
reputation of being friendly with blacks. In 1865, after a
dispute about some cattle, some of Delaneys neighbors
took advantage of this; they blackened their faces and went
to kill Delaney, hoping that the authorities would pin the
crime on blacks. Rachel Beldons son Jackson (also identified
as Jack De Wolf) who worked for Delaney, witnessed the murder;
his testimony helped convict the killers.
Another infamous incidence of slavery in Oregon took place
in Rickreal, about 10 miles west of Salem. Robin and Polly
Holmes, and their three-year-old daughter Mary Jane, came
to Oregon from Missouri in 1844. They were the slaves of Nathaniel
Ford, who settled in Rickreal. Robin and Polly believed that
they would be freed in Oregon, and they eventually were--after
several years of unpaid service, and after Robin went to California
and mined gold for Holmes. Robin and Polly eventually gained
their freedom, moved into their own house, and started a nursery
business in Salem, but Ford retained custody of three of their
four children. In 1852, after one of the children died in
Fords custody, Robin Holmes took Ford to court to get
custody of his children. In the first legal decision against
slavery in Oregon, Oregon Supreme Court Justice George H.
Williams granted custody to Holmes in 1853.
In spite of the courts decision, Ford apparently remained
convinced that he held some power over the Holmes children.
In 1857, when the eldest daughter Mary Jane Holmes got married,
Ford made her husband, Reuben Shipley, pay $700 for her. Mary
Jane and Reuben Shipley lived in Salem and Corvallis for many
years. After Reuben died, Mary Jane was remarried to R. G.
Drake. She died in 1925, the year before Oregons last
exclusion law overturned. Technically, Mary Jane Holmes Shipley
Drake had lived illegally in Oregon for 81 years.
In 1857, the year of Mary Janes wedding, the new Oregon
Constitution came to a vote. Oregonians had the opportunity
to voice their opinion on two pressing questions: Should Oregon
have slavery, and should free blacks be permitted in Oregon.
Statewide, 2645 people voted to legalize slavery, and 7727
voted to ban it. While Oregon was decidedly anti-slavery,
the opposition to free blacks was even stronger. 8640 voted
to exclude free blacks; only 1081 voted to allow them. Voters
in Marion County followed the same pattern: 1044 voted against
slavery, versus 214 for slavery, while 1115 voted against
free blacks, versus only 76 for free blacks.
Struggles in Salem
Not all whites in Salem embraced the racist attitudes that
were so prevalent at the time. Reverend Obed Dickinson of
the First Congregational Church and his wife Charlotte were
fervent abolitionists and advocates of black equality. Rev.
Dickinson welcomed African-Americans into his church; former
slaves Robin and Polly Holmes were among several who became
members. Because most former slaves were illiterate, Charlotte
Dickinson taught four black women in her home for two hours
every evening, with a fifth as often as her mistress
will allow. One was a grown woman with a family, and
at least two were servant girls.
In his writings, Obed Dickinson lamented that Salem had closed
the doors of all our schools against the children of these
black families dooming them to ignorance for life. He
described a William P. Johnson, who worked as a painter for
$5 a day and looked nearly white. His daughter-in-law
had grown up in slavery and never been to school, so Johnson
offered to give $500 to one of the Salem schools so that she
could learn to read and write. His offer was refused. Dickinson
also described a boy so ignorant he hardly knew his
right hand from his left who was accused of theft, captured
by a gang of men, whipped and hanged nearly to
death until he confessed. He was jailed two months before
his trial, and was finally acquitted.
On January 1, 1863, Rev. Dickinson officiated the wedding
of America Waldo and Richard Bogle and hosted the wedding
reception. A black wedding taking place in a white church
and a party attended by both blacks and whites was apparently
too much for some people to handle. The event provoked nasty
comments from Asahel Bush, first in his private letters and
then in the Oregon Statesman; eventually, the incident made
the newspapers as far away as the Portland Oregonian and the
San Francisco Bulletin.
In 1867, the African-American community in Salem raised $427.50,
which allowed them to operate a school for six months. They
placed an announcement in the newspaper, saying that Notice
is hereby given that the colored people of Salem expect to
pay all the expenses of the Evening School now being held
by them, without aid from other citizens - no person is authorized
to collect funds in our name. The following year, the
city of Salem continued what they had begun, and opened Little
Central School. This segregated school was located near Central
School on High Street between Center and Marion. Its fifteen
minority students were taught by Marie Smith and Mrs. R. Mallory.
Tuition at Little Central was $4 a term, the same that white
children paid to attend big Central School.
In January 1868, African-Americans from Salem and Albany
gathered to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Emancipation
Proclamation. In a rare display of racial harmony, the celebration
was attended by whites of both political parties. The Salem
Daily Record reported that six of the blacks at the celebration
had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1870, Oregon was one of many states that refused to ratify
the fifteenth amendment, which granted equal voting rights
to African-American men. The amendment was not ratified in
Oregon until 1959. But, amendment or no amendment, the Oregon
Supreme Court upheld the right of black men to vote in 1870.
The 20th Century
The 1920s were a time of heightened racial tension throughout
the United States, and Oregon was no exception. The Ku Klux
Klan organized in Oregon in 1921 and began terrorizing blacks
and other minorities throughout the state, including Salem.
Charles Maxwell, the owner of a shoeshine shop in Salem, received
a threatening letter which read We have stood you as
long as we intend to stand you, and you must unload, if you
dont we will come to see you. It was signed KKK
over a skull and crossbones. Maxwell refused to be bullied;
he remained in Salem and in 1928 opened the Fat Boy Barbecue
restaurant in the Hollywood section. The business was successful
until a bank foreclosure during the Depression. Maxwells
daughter Maxine was also the victim of racism; in 1929 she
was denied a room in the womens dormitory at Oregon
State University because she was black. In the 1930s, the
Maxwell family moved to California, as did many blacks from
In 1936 an NAACP officer reported that Salem has no
Negro population, except a few inmates in the Penal Institution
and Insane Hospital. All the colored people who did live here,
have all moved to Los Angeles. I know of no Negro living in
Salem at the present time. A sign at Salems Greyhound
bus station boasted that the city was 99.9 percent white.
However, a former Salem resident, David Martinez, remembers
Gordy T. "Jitterbug" Levy, a black man who worked
for the railway on Extra-Gang 23. Jitterbug was a familiar
and beloved figure at the depot in the late 1930s and for
a decade later. In Davids graduating class at high school
was another African-American, Barbara Smith, who was probably
the daughter of Calvin and "Miss Hattie" Smith,
the owners of a Salem shoeshine shop.
After World War II there was an awakening of the public consciousness
toward minorities in America. After serving in the military,
working in defense plants, laboring even more intensely in
agriculture, African-Americans expected to be treated with
more equality. Accommodation laws, allowing blacks to use
public facilities, were put in place in Oregon in the 1950s.
But discrimination still took place. One of the best known
incidences of this discrimination was when Mark Hatfield had
to drive Paul Robeson, a nationally-known black actor, singer,
and political activist, to Portland after a Salem performance
in order to find him a place to sleep overnight. Many Salem
African-Americans still remember the difficulties of travel
when motels and dining places were closed to them.
Many African-American families, like that of Jackie Winters,
came to Oregon during WWII to work in war industries. In the
1960s, other job opportunities attracted blacks to the area.
Rheola Sampson, who was interviewed in 2001 at age 92, grew
up in the South and moved to Michigan before coming to Oregon
as an agricultural worker, picking berries and cherries. Although
she was trained as a teacher, Sampson worked in the fields
because she wanted to work alongside her family. She worked
as a picker until at least age 70. Sampsons daughter,
Claudia Thomson, recalled the contributions of the Valley
Migrant League, which provided vital services such as medical
care, preschool, day care, and free lunches for the children
of field workers.
Kathy Bailey grew up on a farm in South Salem in the 1960s,
when hers was the only African-American family in the area.
She remembers both positive and negative aspects of her childhood
here. At Rosedale School she was always treated as family,
but she heard stories about other blacks being called names,
run off the road, or finding burning crosses outside their
African Americans in Salem Today
In 1995, six local citizens were interviewed for the CCTV
program, Legacy: Pioneers in Black Salem. The panel included
Kathy Bailey, David Burgess, Willie Richardson, AJ Talley,
Claudia Thompson, and Jackie Winters. They expressed a variety
of feelings about their experiences in Salem, ranging from
pride that African-Americans are now spread throughout all
areas of town and all different professions, to frustration
that, as Dave Burgess put it, Salem has not accepted
minority populations, period. He pointed out that blacks
and Latinos face the same problem of gaining recognition and
respect in a city that is still about 80 percent white.
Today, the African-American community in Salem remains small.
In the 2000 census 1750 people (1.28 percent of the total
population) identified themselves as black or African-American.
In this small group, there are many respected community leaders.
Among these are:
o Raymond Byrd, a police officer honored as Keizer officer
of the year in 1998
o Geraldine Hammond, a former public school administrator
for whom a new elementary school was named recently
o Jim Hill, Jr., state treasurer for two terms
o Lonnie Jackson, author and director of the Oregon Youth
Authority Office of Minority Affairs
o Johnny Lake, a member of the Oregon Commission for Black
o M. Lee Pelton, president of Willamette University
o Willie Richardson, a former Salem-Keizer School Board member
and owner of "Willies Fashion Hats & More"
o AJ Talley, executive director of Unity & Support Services,
Inc. and president of local NAACP
o Nellie N. and Odell Thompson, the founders of the Pauline
o S. Frank Thompson, the assistant director of the Oregon
Department of Corrections
o And Jackie Winters, a two-term representative to the Oregon
Legislature and owner of Jackies Ribs.
Many others, less well-known to the public, serve this community
in the professions and as business entrepreneurs.
Although Salems black community remains small, its
influence is growing. In recent years, local historians have
begun researching the experiences of African-Americans in
Salem. We are only beginning to rediscover the important role
that minorities played in the development of our community,
but we can be certain that they will play an equally important
role in its future.
Written by Virginia Green and Katherine Wallig
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Green, Virginia. "Hidden Citizens: Blacks in Salem Through
the Years." Historic Marion 40: 1 (Spring 2002), pp.
Hays, Dan. "Oregon's Struggle with Slavery." Statesman
Journal. July 1, 1999, pp. 1D, 8D.
Legacy Pioneers in Black Salem. Chemeketa Community Television,
Salem, Or., 1995. videocassette.
Martinis, Cheryl. "Presentation examines African-American
history in Oregon." Oregonian. Feb. 16, 2001, p. D2.
McLagan, Elizabeth. A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks
in Oregon, 1788-1940. Portland: The Georgian Press, 1980.
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July 23, 2004.
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