Being Black in Corvallis

Irregardless of how far we’ve evolved as a nation, there’s still an issue that—despite being a crucial thread in the fabric of our lives—is almost universally taboo to discuss. On March 28, Doug Gottlieb, a Caucasian sports analyst for CBS, during a panel discussion with four black colleagues, made the wisecrack: “I’m just here to bring diversity to this set, give kind of the white man’s perspective…” Twitter promptly exploded with condemnation. Trying to stem the tide—before Gottlieb’s inevitable apology—Charles Barkley lamented, “All those idiots on Twitter… all you people at home who’ve got no life and are talking bad about Doug Gottlieb, get a life. It’s over with. It’s no big deal.” Gottlieb was lucky to keep his job.

Less than two weeks earlier, Philadelphia Magazine published the article “Being White in Philly: Whites, Race, Class, and the Things That Never Get Said.” There was international coverage of the obligatory outcry—including an outright rebuke from the mayor of Philadelphia, who asked the city’s Human Relations Committee to admonish the magazine and the article’s author, Robert Huber. A Caucasian author had dared write an article about white people’s perspective on race in a city that’s 39 percent white and 44 percent black. While much of the media firestorm painted the article as inherently racist, reading it relays a different perspective: white people talking honestly about race—uncensored, raw, and admittedly provocative—sincerely discussing their fears and experiences, daring to break the taboo and talk.

From The Oregon Stater, April 1969
From The Oregon Stater, April 1969

Corvallis lies at the opposite end of the racial spectrum: 83.8 percent white, only 1.1 percent African American. So, what’s it like to be such a miniscule sliver of a minority in such a lily white town? David [names have been changed to protect anonymity], a third-year OSU student, when asked if he has experienced racism in Corvallis, said: “Honestly, no. From my experience, it’s a pretty accepting place.”

Breanna agreed, she’s had absolutely no racist experiences in her two years at OSU. Hugo, originally from Rwanda, spent seven years in South Carolina before moving to Corvallis three years ago. Recalling numerous incidents of racism in South Carolina—he said he “could write a book” about them—his experience in Corvallis has been quite the opposite. He was only able to recall one “potentially racist” argument between students, which happened off campus.

Kenyan, however, tells a different story. He grew up in Canada, where he said there was virtually no racism, and attended OSU from 2008 to 2012. He describes numerous experiences of being pulled over by Corvallis police for apparently no other reason than the infamous infraction DWB: Driving While Black—an experience corroborated by many other African Americans in Corvallis. Currently dating a white woman, Kenyan says his girlfriend has had numerous people chastise her for dating a black man, yet none have dared reveal their racism to him directly.

Jasmine moved to Corvallis from the East Coast a year ago, and says much of the racism she has experienced has been subtle… but palpable.

Being singled out by race isn’t always bad, however, as A.J. recounts. At the OSU Cultural Center his freshman year, a group of Asian students gathered around, curiously touching his hair. Recognizing that many of them came from cultures where they’ve never actually been around black people, he took it as a compliment, gladly obliging their inquisitive examinations.

Kevin went to a Corvallis restaurant with his family after church recently, only to see a number of white families—who arrived after them—get seated and served first, while his family waited uncomfortably.  Courtney is bi-racial, and was raised by her white mother. She laments that her father perpetuated the stereotype of an absent black father, and said there are stereotypes inherent in the black community that aren’t necessarily fictional.

Andrea has lived everywhere from Atlanta to Oakland to Seattle, and tells a curious story of how her parents, over-compensating for their own experiences with racism growing up, tried to shield her and her siblings from socializing with other blacks growing up—a curious twist on segregation.

Continuing the trend of tales of racist experiences with local law enforcement, Brandy (who self-identifies as black despite being half Spanish/Italian with light skin and eyes) recalls an incident where she was stopped by police coming home from a party because she was crying—while being consoled by a dark-skinned friend. The cop stopped them and asked if the black friend was “hurting her.”

It turns out that Oregon, Corvallis, and the university which lies at the heart of our fair town, all have quite a history of race relations. In 1788, Marcus Lopez—the first known black man in Oregon—was killed by Native Americans. In 1857, Oregonians voted against allowing slavery in the state, but also against allowing “free Negros” to live in Oregon. This raised the ire of both the North, upset at the prohibition against blacks, and the South, which was upset at the prohibition against slavery—a quandary which delayed Oregon’s admission to the Union. In 1949, an 83-year statewide ban on interracial marriage was finally repealed.

From The Oregon Stater, April 1969
From The Oregon Stater, April 1969

Locally, our most infamous dalliance with race relations was more recent. On Feb. 22, 1969, OSU Football Coach Dee Andros, during the offseason, confronted linebacker Fred Milton with an ultimatum: shave off your beard and mustache within 48 hours, or be kicked off the football team. What happened next made national headlines. Approximately 50 members of the Black Student Union staged a “walk-in” protest, interrupting the first OSU Centennial Lecture, making their case that the coach’s actions were inherently racist, intentionally singling out facial hair that was part of black heritage. The reaction from the crowd included a shout of, “Go home, you goddamned niggers,” and a professor of mathematics demanding, “Let them be heard!”  Twelve days of campus-wide protests followed. While there was miraculously no actual violence, there were a number of bomb threats, death threats against black students, and a sharply increased police presence the day a group of Black Panthers showed up on campus to lend support to the protestors. Dozens of teachers began boycotting, or otherwise showing support for the protestors. There was a “chalk-in,” with the word “STRIKE!” written on buildings and sidewalks. An underground newspaper sprung up on campus, accusing the OSU’s Daily Barometer of being a “mouthpiece for the administration.”

Counter demonstrations supporting Coach Andros were held, and he received numerous calls and letters of support from the community, even, Andros claimed, from Governor Tom McCall. Local residents took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper supporting the coach’s actions. On March 5, following a noontime rally by over 600 students, dozens of black students symbolically walked off campus, chanting the word “Freedom!” Some officially withdrew from the university, others vowed to transfer after the semester. University President James Jensen hastily created the Commission on Human Rights and Responsibilities, tasked with diffusing the situation. The Faculty Senate passed an “Administrative Proposal” which instituted a better defined appeals process for students.

While it was the most obvious example of racial tensions on campus, it was by no means the first. In 1963, State Representative Berkeley Lent, who later went on to be Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, publicly accused OSU Basketball Coach “Slats” Gill of intentionally forbidding blacks from playing on the team. One of the coach’s defenders explained: “Slats was a very moralistic man. He didn’t believe in Negroes going out with white girls… when there were enough girls of their own kind on campus, he would allow Negroes on his team.”

Fifty years later, Tonya and Daniel, both third-year OSU students from Portland, tell a tale of trying to attend a fraternity party recently with some friends, only to be turned away at the door with the brazen statement: “We already have half the basketball team here, we don’t need any more of y’all.” They stood there shocked while a group of white partygoers behind them were let into the party, and they were left outside. It shows how much times have changed, however: black students are no longer forbidden from playing OSU basketball.

Such is the evolution of being black, in Corvallis.

By Seth Aronson


Special thanks to Trevor Sandgathe and the staff of the OSU Library Special Collections for providing access to an archived April 1969 issue of The Oregon Stater (magazine of the Oregon State University Alumni Association), which provided the historical background of the 1969 protests.