Go West, Young (White) Man!


Let’s talk about Oregon. You know Oregon…the hipster’s paradise, where great coffee is served in eco-friendly cups and everyone wears flannel all the time because comfort > style. Oregon, where saving the planet, rejecting consumerism, and creating a just and verdant future for our children is first priority…after doing some yoga outside in a pleasant mist.

Oregon brought us Portlandia, and the dopest computer game in history, and Nike, and Bill Gates, and a well-respected college football team whose mascot is the Ducks. Thank you, Oregon. Thank you.

There is one little issue I’d like to bring up, at your earliest convenience, Oregon. Honestly, no rush, but if you have a second between food truck Friday and homeschooling Zooey Deschanel, maybe we could chat about your state’s horrifying history of racial exclusion?


Credit where credit is due: in 1859, when the state went to vote on the newly-written and mostly-plagiarized constitution, 75 percent of residents said no to slavery. Section 34 of the state constitution enshrines that verdict:

“There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in the State, otherwise than as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Great work, Oregon! Let’s pack it in and go drink some homemade IPAs. Oh, wait, what’s that? You weren’t finished? There’s a Section 35 of the constitution? Do tell.

“No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein.”

Oh. So, no slavery, because slavery meant black people, and Oregon wanted nothing to do with any of that. Slave, free, didn’t matter. In that same anti-slavery vote, 89 percent of residents approved Section 35.

Section 35 wasn’t repealed until 1926. It was illegal for a black person to live in Oregon until NINETEEN TWENTY SIX. Now, if you recall, between 1859 and 1926, a few things happened on the race front in this country. We fought a war over “states rights.” We freed the slaves. And everyone ratified the 14th Amendment, making all non-whites citizens.

Oops, wait, hang on. That last sentence isn’t entirely true, much like the statement, “Oregon is for everyone!” According to Cheryl Brooks, a historian of Oregon law, the state had a bit of a tussle over the 14th Amendment in 1868.

There was a concern in Oregon that the 14th Amendment violated the state’s constitution, because you can’t bar legal citizens from living in your state.  After much debate, the legislature did vote to ratify the amendment by a close margin, 25-22 in the House. Non-whites were now citizens, and could live freely in Oregon.

For 48 hours. Almost immediately after that vote, two of the state’s representatives were ousted from office. They had been elected under suspicious circumstances (one of them was the local elections official in charge of certifying the winner…) and were replaced by the actual winners. The newly instated legislators had been hoping to vote against the 14th Amendment, so in 1868, after it had been adopted by Congress, Oregon rescinded their ratification.

They also tried to oppose the 15th Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote, but missed their chance: it was approved by most of the states before Oregon got around to discussing the issue. Confident they had made their stance on black people clear, Oregon spent much of the next few decades oppressing Asians instead.

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In 1972, William McCoy was elected to the state legislature, the first black person to serve in that role. He raised the issue of the un-ratified 14th Amendment. Obviously, as an existing federal law, it didn’t really matter if Oregon had ratified it or not. But McCoy felt it was a bit…awkward. His fellow legislators agreed, most expressing shock that the state hadn’t passed it in the first place.

On May 21, 1973, Oregon quietly re-ratified the 14th amendment. There was no fanfare and limited press coverage. (The Oregonian covered it on page 30…back when newspapers had 30 pages.) McCoy, who went on to be Oregon’s longest serving state representative, wasn’t even credited with this victory in his obituary.

Today, Oregon is a very different place than it was a hundred years ago. No one is kicked out based on their race. Anyone can marry anyone. And the occasional armed wildlife preserve standoff ends peacefully after 41 days.

And yet, the state is still only 2 percent black, among the least diverse in the nation. It’s true: beneath that crunchy granola exterior is a molten core of straight vanilla.

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