Racial politics that far precede the Civil Rights Movement are evident around the country, as well as in Oregon, despite Oregon having an extremely small black population. Racial attitudes from home states were brought out West to the Oregon territory, right along with a family’s personal belongings. Throughout the early 1800s, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri, where most of Oregon’s population originated, had all passed laws that restricted the rights of African Americans. This is possible foreshadowing of a series of legislative actions in the territory.
In the summer of 1844, in the legislative committee for the provisional government of Oregon, Peter Burnett introduced a bill “to prevent slavery”. This bill would exclude all African Americans from the territory altogether, under the guise of respecting the status of Oregon as a free state. This was the founding of the Exclusion law or what became known as one of the Black Laws of Oregon. The next summer saw yet another meeting of the legislative committee and a repeal of the Exclusion law, thanks to the advocating of the more fair-minded Jesse Applegate. Applegate came from Maine, which had been a free state since 1820 and was less hostile to African Americans, making him a more likely advocate of the states African American population than the Missouri-born Burnett. Despite Applegate’s advocacy, four years later, another Exclusion bill was passed, with the amendment that any African Americans who were already Oregon residents were allowed to remain in the state. An oversight during an 1853 legislative “housecleaning” and codification initiative omitted the exclusion law, resulting in its automatic repeal. Legislators believed that any replacement legislation would not be enforced, so the bill was forgotten about for the time being. However, in November 1857 when Oregonians were preparing for the reception of statehood by creating their state Constitution, Ninety percent of voters approved the Exclusion law stipulating that “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.”
The Exclusion law remained in the state constitution until 1926, when it was finally repealed. This tremendous and long needed event did not occur due to the significant growth of Oregon’s black population preceding the repeal. Instead, the black population in Oregon built up a congregation of white and black advocates who worked both in the community and political spheres to remove several racist laws from the Constitution. This specific repeal has support from the NAACP, both locally and nationally. Surprisingly, several reputable Oregon newspapers also lent support by publishing articles right before the vote in favor of the repeal. The Corvallis Gazette Times blamed the legislators for the continued existence of the law, saying that it “showed up the idiocy of the initiative and referendum.” The Eugene Guard, in an attempt to make Oregonians aware of what the history of their state included, proclaimed that the Exclusion law “ ‘was the shame of Oregon,’ and that it demonstrated nothing but ‘intolerance and prejudice.’ ”
At the request of Mrs. Lenore Freeman, a black member of the League of Women Voters of Portland, William F. Woodward, a white state representative, introduced the bill for the repeal, which made the eventual repeal possible. Another surprising thing about this support is that Woodward was elected based on campaign backing from local Ku Klux Klan contributions and support. On November 2, 1926, Oregonians were presented nineteen issues to vote on, one of which was the repeal of the Exclusion law. Of the nineteen issues, “the repeal measure was passed with the highest number of favorable votes.” The repeal of the Exclusion law passed with a final vote of 108,332 to 64, 954.
The discriminatory treatment of African Americans in Oregon, like the discriminatory treatment of African Americans throughout the country was not always backed by legislation. A lot of discrimination that African Americans faced was based in racist social conventions, customs, or traditions that pass from person to person, and generation to generation. Housing discrimination in the early 20th century, that many African Americans were victims of, is an example of this type of discrimination that is not ground in legal precedence, but rather the culmination of racist attitudes in whites and a lack of power for African Americans.
This racism and lack of power meant that African Americans would be restricted to certain neighborhoods by restrictive zoning practices. Real estate agencies as well as individual landlords also often refused to sell or rent to African Americans. Home improvement in African American neighborhoods, like Albina in Portland, was made nearly impossible when most local banks refused to give loans to African American homeowners. This was seen by the African American community as a detriment to their ability to truly integrate into the city as a whole, which was explained poignantly by an editors note in The Advocate in 1924. “Honesty, civic pride, and home buying are three things that will command the respect and consideration of people in all walks of life”. The African American people of Portland were socially barred from many aspects of normal life that the white people of Portland could do easily.
Another such form of discrimination that African Americans faced was Sundown Laws. These laws refer to the town ordinances that numerous cities across the country recognized that communicated that African Americans and sometimes other minorities such as Latinos and Asians were not to still be in the city limits when the sun had set. Like housing discrimination, there was not always a law on the books but that did not necessarily soften the force of the discrimination. Not all Sundown Towns were the same; some Sundown Laws were barely enforced due to a low population of non-white residents, while others were enforced with threats and violence. There is almost no literature on the subject so it is discovered almost entirely through oral histories. Historian and author James Loewen who researched Sundown Towns extensively to write a book and shed light on the exclusionary tendencies of our country, found that where he has confirmed Sundown Towns, even in the most elaborate histories of these town, only about 1 percent of [them] mention their town’s racial policies” and that “local historians omit the fact intentionally. Oregon alone has 24 towns that are either suspected or confirmed Sundown Towns based on oral histories and archival research of people like James Loewen.
There were many ways of creating Sundown Towns, including a freeze-out, in which African Americans are ignored and refused all services completely until they must move and buying out African Americans of their homes and businesses, but the two that were most common in Oregon were passing an ordinance or violence or the threat of violence. In the 1920s in Oregon, when the KKK membership was flourishing, the Klan was often used to threaten African Americans into leaving town either temporarily or permanently. Loewen reports a story about an African American resident of Oregon City, Perry Ellis who was the only black man in the town and after being accused of sleeping with a white woman, was almost lynched. He was warned of the impending lynching and left town for Tacoma, Washington. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Oregon City had another black resident after Ellis left.
The Negro Motorists Green Book was intended to supplement some of the safety that African American travelers severely lacked despite where they came from and where they were going, due to discrimination and racial turmoil. It was published from 1936 until 1964, when the passage of the Civil Rights Act deemed it no longer as necessary. The 1949 edition reminds travels to always carry their green book with them and borrows the Mark Twain quote that in this instance is more poignant and sobering that intended, “Travel is fatal to prejudice”. The Green Book warned African American travelers to avoid Sundown Towns and also provided travelers with a variety of accommodations including garages, service stations, hotels, motels, and restaurants that would treat them courteously. This expanded the ability of the African American to travel throughout the 20th century and helped them lead more normalized lives.
 Franz Schneider, “The Black Laws of Oregon” (PhD diss., University of Santa Clara, 1970) 6.
 Schneider, “The Black Laws of Oregon”, 10.
 Schneider, “The Black Laws of Oregon”, 20.
 Schneider, “The Black Laws of Oregon”, 21.
 Schneider, “The Black Laws of Oregon”, 35.
 Corvallis Gazette Times, October 6, 1926, 2, in Schneider, “The Black Laws of Oregon”, 93.
 Eugene Guard, October 8, 1926, 2, in Schneider, “The Black Laws of Oregon”, 94.
 Schneider, “The Black Laws of Oregon”, 95.
 “Editors Note,” The Advocate, September 6, 1924, 4.
 Loewen, James W. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. New York: New Press, 2005, 5.
 Loewen, “Sundown Towns”, 99.
 Goodavage, Maria. “‘Green Book’ Helped Keep African Americans Safe on the Road.” PBS. January 10, 2013.