Documentary: Oregon’s Black Pioneers

“Oregon’s Black Pioneers,” an OPB documentary by Oregon Experience, aired this past week online and at select screenings including one at the Corvallis LaSells Center. Arriving at the close of Black History Month, the documentary, along with featured online clips, are aiding in our acknowledgement and understanding of the brave and resilient black pioneers, families, and individuals who managed to survive and thrive in Oregon, despite socio-political efforts to whitewash the state. This whitewashing went so far as to encompass state-constituted Exclusion Laws, excluding black migration and land ownership in Oregon up until 1926. The first exclusion law was met with a lash law in 1844, which mandated whippings of black persons found residing in the area. Even though historians have found no documented enforcements of the lash law, members of volunteer nonprofit The Oregon Black Pioneers, featured in the documentary, spoke to how much of Oregon’s black history remains a mystery, especially in the age of pioneers, when black slaves and individuals were namelessly documented or given new names upon enslavement. 

The documentary does an exceptional job of revealing the experiences of black individuals, in their relationships to the land, their families, and communities. A robust history reveals itself at times, in spite of a white agenda. In some cases, positive relationships and victories prevail — from one Portland petition with 225 signatures demanding non-exclusion for black neighbors Abner and Lynda Francis, to the adored Hannah and Eliza of the still-standing Gorman House in Corvallis where the two maintained a successful laundering business. And let’s not forget Letitia Carson, who won two lawsuits against neighbor Greenberry Smith, who took claim to Letitia’s land following the death of her children’s father (and presumed partner). 

These stories demand our attention. Not only that, they show us what’s possible. As the documentary comes to a close, the message rings loud and clear: We can’t change or ignore what happened (or what’s happening today); We must seek to learn and embrace these truths every day in order to move forward. 

Each month, day, and moment we share is shaped by those who came before us — by the triumphs and hardships of our ancestors and landcestors alike. Let’s cherish the knowledge gained by carefully examining the past, and pay homage to those throughout history who fought tirelessly for their freedoms, dignity, and recognition.

To watch “Oregon’s Black Pioneers” and to learn more about Oregon’s black history, visit https://www.opb.org/ and search “black pioneers”.

By Stevie Beisswanger