A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Eight - A Very Prejudiced State
Discrimination in Oregon 1900-1940
jamin Dennis, at Marshfield yesterday, was captured and lynched by his pursuers this morning. Immediately after hearing the report that Mrs. Dennis, the wife of Benjamin Dennis, a miner, had been brutally assaulted by a negro yesterday afternoon, a party of men started in pursuit of the fiend and instituted a search that proved successful this morning. The frenzied men searched through the long hours of the night until early this morning the black fiend was discovered, who on seeing that he had been caught began to cringe and plead for mercy. He groveled in the dust, and clasped the knees of his captors crying with all his might for them not to hang him. But the hand of justice had secured too strong a grip on the miscreant and all the pleading in the world would not have saved him from the death he so thoroughly deserved?
The Oregonian also reported the incident, using more restrained language. Alonzo Tucker was arrested the same day the crime was committed (neither newspaper questioned his guilt) and was placed in jail, escaping while officers attempted to move him to another jail. He spent the night under a wharf and was discovered the next morning. He was shot while trying to escape and died while being dragged to the scene of the crime. The rope was already around his neck, and his body was strung up over the south Marshfield bridge.
The body was cut down that afternoon and a brief inquest was conducted in the room where he had lived. The coronor's jury concluded that Tucker came to his death by a single rifle shot from an unknown person while resisting arrest and that no crime had been committed in his death. The newspaper article concluded:
The conduct of the avengers was marked throughout by quiet orderliness but deadly determination. The sentiment of the community is in sympathy with the lynchers, and it is extremely improbable any arrests will be made?
The Oregonian published two editorials concerning this incident, condemning the reporting style of the Oregon Journal article and the event itself.
The correspondent . . . did not make a point for civilization nor yet for public safety when he spoke of the criminal as a "nigger" and declared him to be a "wild beast, to kill which was a duty.'' Prejudice of this type here presented is too narrow, too wise in its own conceit, too utterly implacable, to be trusted in the jury room. In the community it is relatively harmless, since it does not in this day command the respect of any reasonable person.
The editor pointed out that white men were serving time in the state penitentiary for committing the same crime and said that it was only "simple justice" that men who had committed the same crime be treated equally, regardless of race or color.
The second editorial was directed at a correspondent's attempt to justify the lynching because laws regarding assault were inadequate. The editor pointed out that in many southern states the penalty for assault was death, and yet the numbers of lynchings in these states were high. He deplored mob action, saying:
Mobs murder prisoners not because they fear the law will not punish them, but because they enjoy the sport of murdering a wretch who has no friends. A mob is a coward, a brute and a fool . . . Mob murders are not due to the "inadequacy of the law" but to the desire of the mob to murder when it is safe to murder for the fun of it.
The Oregonian was more interested in rhetoric than action; only the New Age suggested that some attempt be made to punish the lynchers so that a similar incident would not be repeated in Oregon?
In 1924, another black resident of Marshfield, Timothy Pettis, was murdered. His mutilated body was found in the bay, and a $500 reward, plus another $100 put up by the local black community, was offered for the apprehension of the murderer. A telegram was sent from the Portland branch of the NAACP to the governor of Oregon, asking that a special investigator be assigned to the case. Lee C. Anderson also sent a letter to James Weldon Johnson, national officer, explaining the situation.
Marshfield is infested with the Ku Klux Klan, and we are of the opinion, and so are the colored people who live in Marshfield, that all efforts are being made to cover up the crime. Colored people there demanded a second autopsy of the body which revealed that the testicles had been removed and it developed that it could not have been done except by [al person or persons. The murder apparently remained unsolved; in the annual report for that year the Portland branch wrote,
The brutal murder of a colored man at Marshfield, Oregon was investigated by the organization... [it] gave us satisfaction in having accomplished our aim as far as physical power could
The phenomenon of the Klan's rapid growth in Oregon in the early 1920's had little to do with local minorities: Catholics, Jews, Chinese, and blacks were few in number and there was little radicalism or labor unrest in the state. The nation as a whole had reverted to a new conservatism: the war had failed to eradicate communism, there were race and labor riots elsewhere in the nation, and a post war recession, increased immigration, and prohibition. It was an age of national paranoia, ripe for a movement that promised to restore law, order, and 100% Americanism to the nation.
The Klan's reign in Oregon was brief, but spectacular. It conducted an open anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish campaign. Membership estimates reached as high as 200,000, and the organization was able to influence the election of 1922 and to unseat its outspoken critic, Ben Olcott, the incumbent candidate for governor. The organization was also influential in securing the passage of a bill requiring compulsory public school attendance, which would have forced the closure of all private and parochial schools. This bill was passed but later ruled unconstitutional by a 1925 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
In January, 1922, a Klan chapter was organized in Medford. Conditions favored the formation of a vigilante group: the chief of police was under heavy criticism from local churches and the W.C.T.U. for failing to prosecute local moonshiners and bootleggers. One of the first acts of the Klan was against a black man named George Arthur Burr, a bootblack in Medford. He had been released after serving a three day sentence for bootlegging, and was picked up and taken into the mountains by members of the Klan. A rope was placed around his neck, and he was told to run. This "necktie party" was apparently a dress rehearsal for the Klan's next victim, a white man named J.H. Hale, a piano dealer and bond salesman. His offense was apparently initiating a lawsuit against a man who was a known Klan member. He too was taken into the mountains, a rope was placed around his neck, he was raised off the ground three times, and then ordered to leave the county or be killed. These two incidents, neither of which resulted in the victim's death, occurred in March, 1922. In April, 1922, a second black man, Henry Johnson, a resident of Jacksonville, was treated in the same manner and ordered to leave town. A Grand Jury indicted six men in Jackson County on charges of riot and assault with a dangerous weapon. All of the persons charged (there were also sixteen "John Doe" indictments) were either acquitted or the charges against them dropped?
Charles Maxwell, a black man and proprietor of a shoeshine shop in Salem, was threatened by the Klan in 1922. He received a letter, published later by the Capital Journal, that said:
We have stood you as long as we intend to stand you, and you must unload, if you don't we will come to see you.
The letter was signed K.K.K., over a skull and crossbones. Charles Maxwell did not leave town, and in 1928 opened the "Fat Boy Barbecue" in the Hollywood district of Salem. His business was successful for a time, but after a bank foreclosure he moved to Los Angeles.
In Oregon City the following year, Perry Ellis, the only black resident of the town and the owner of a car washl was nearly lynched by men though to be members of the Klan. He had been accused of sleeping with a white woman, although charges against him were dropped when the woman failed to testify. He was called out of town, allegedly to pick up a team of horses stranded on a country road with a broken down wagon. Ellis arrived at the scene with a white friend, Ira W. Thrall, to find two parked cars across the road. A spotlight was turned on Ellis, and six men appeared wearing masks. They ordered Thrall to return to Oregon City and drove Ellis about thirty miles out in the country, where he was interrogated and the men threatened to lynch him. He denied the charges concerning the white woman and they drove him to a lake where more threats followed. They finally let him go, ordering him to leave town or he would be killed.
Although both Ellis and Thrall were able to identify at least two of the men by their voices, no charges were brought, and Ellis left Oregon City for Tacoma, Washington?2 The Portland Branch of the NAACP sent a telegram to the governor of Oregon in 1921, protesting the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon.
The Portland branch of the [NAACP] representing more than three thousand colored people in the state of Oregon, and more than four hundred thousand colored and white members of the [NAACP] with headquarters in New York City, respectfully call' your attention to the formation and rapidly spreading organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, under the pretense of promoters of law and order but aimed unquestionably at the persecution of individuals who may incur their disfavor· And to the end that all citizens may have a sense of security in their homes at night, and peaceable protection in their places of business and employment during the day, we humbly pray your honor to prevent in our State, any organization or public demonstration of the said notorious [KKK] under any pretext whatsoever.
The same year a mass meeting of black people was held and appointed a committee to visit the mayor of Portland to protest a Ku Klux Klan street parade?4 The Klan paid a visit to the Reverend Moses Riley, a Portland minister, threatening him because white people attended his church and were seen going in and out of his home. There were other threats involving black families who were moving into white neighborhoods, but the black community was armed and prepared for the Klan, and protected individuals whose property was threatened?
In 1903 an attempt was made to integrate the public schools of Coos Bay. Three black children tried to attend school but were refused admission by the principal. The school board directed him to provide a separate room where the black children could be taught, to hire a teacher, and insure, as the New Age reported,
. . that equal school privileges are provided for said Negro children as are now enjoyed by the white children of this district?
Editor Griffin predicted that the taxpayers of Coos County would not long stand for the extra expense of the separate school.
School segregation existed in the 1920's in Vernonia and Maxville, and also in Catholic schools in Portland. The black people of Vernonia had come from the South as employees of the Oregon-American Lumber Company, and their presence caused some concern in this small settlement in the Coast Range some thirty-five miles northwest of Portland. Initially, there were only five black children of school age, and as the local school would not admit them, they had to attend school in Portland. The local school district tried to set up a segregated school in a shack, but Mrs. Beatrice Cannady went to Vernonia to intercede for the black children and in 1926, one year after the black people arrived in town, their children were admitted to the public schools. One local resident, who taught in the Vernonia school in 1927, recalled that a real attempt was made to insure that the black students received fair treatment.
I had about five Negro children in first grade. One was a typical little black girl named Katie. One day as the class lined up to march in from recess she gave a healthy push to a white child and I pulled her out of line. When I asked her why she had done it, she replied: "My Mama told me not to let any old white trash push me around, and he pushed reel" I informed her we were all equals in this school and we had no trash--white or black--and told her not to do that again... I do recall that one black boy became student body president one year and they participated in May Day activities and marched with the white students at graduation. Here, they were people on a par with everyone else?
The situation in Maxville, a small town near La Grande in eastern Oregon, was similar. Bowman Hicks Lumber Company had brought people from the ~South, both white and black, to work in the lumber mill. In 1926 Mrs. Cannady received a letter from J.L. Stewart of La Grande describing the situation. The black children were not allowed to go to school during the daytime, but were taught instead by a black woman in her home. Mrs. Cannady advised the residents not to accept a segregated school, even if it meant teaching the children at home. Ellen Law lived in Maxville as a child, and attended a public school in the nearby town of Enterprise. Her father and mother had moved to Oregon from Arkansas, hoping to find better conditions, only to discover that they were the same or worse in Oregon?
Catholic schools in Portland were briefly segregated: in 1926 the Advocate printed a harsh editorial condemning segregation in parochial schools. The article was titled "The K.K.K. and the Katholics," and pointed out that in two recent attempts to enroll black children in Catholic schools in Vancouver, Washington and Portland, the children were denied admission because they were black. The Advocate wondered if it had been wise to urge its readers to vote to support parochial schools, since the Catholics, as well as the K.K.K., seemed to be hostile to black people. The article concluded:
We admit that we are puzzled over the thing and wonder if it is true that the policy of the Catholic Church is to draw the color line.
In the 1930's St. Mary's and St. Andrew's Catholic Schools in Portland admitted black children? In the NAACP annual report for 1939, three school cases of prejudice were reported. A suspension of a student was settled satisfactorily, a teacher who called a black child "nigger" and another teacher who said Marian Anderson was a communist and apologized after the NAACP intervened?
Black Portlanders recalled the difficulties of buying a home:
When we bought this place . . . the neighbors had a petition for us not to buy the place. But we did have a black neighbor across the street, and to the side of us. But they didn't want any more in here?
In the 1920's and 1930's segregated housing patterns began to form in Portland, and opposition to black people buying homes or renting apartments in white neighborhoods became more vocal. Until this time, black people lived and bought homes in all parts of the city. If necessary, realtors were bypassed and housing was secured by using a white attorney as a go-between.
In 1919 the Portland Realty Board added to its code of ethics a provision prohibiting its members from selling property in white neighborhoods to blacks or Orientals, because they believed that such sales tended to cause a drop in property values?3 In 1930, Dr. DeNorval Unthank moved into a suite in the Panama Building, where Dr. E.L. Booker, another black man, had been practicing dentistry for three years. Because of tenant opposition, Dr. Unthank was forced to find office space elsewhere, and moved his medical practice to the Commonwealth Building at 5th and Burnside Streets.
The same year an article in the Advocate predicted that if the black community was not careful it would find itself confined to an area around Williams Avenue, and pointed out the consequences.
We all know what residential segregation means. It means poor housing, bad streets, and if the streets are paved, poorly kept; deficient lighting. It also means separate schools and their attendant shortcomings. It' invites race riots, because the stronger race will feel that the weaker has no rights outside of its restricted district and any attempt on the part of the weaker to exercise its rights of liberty, at all, is met with opposition from the stronger; the trouble begins. It is segregation that is the root of all interracial troubles. We think that many of us will live to see Portland the spectacle of separate schools and all the rest of the segregation as practiced now in the South. It is reasonable to expect it in the wake of residential segregation and colored people, some wittingly and others unwittingly, are hastening this condition in Portland. If we could convince ourselves that there will be no such thing as world peace, then we would not lift our voice against the segregation of the races.
In 1930 Dr. Unthank and his wife moved into Ladd's Addition, an exclusively white neighborhood. They had been forced to move four times previously because of racist opposition. Visited by a group of citizens, they were informed of a petition signed by seventy-five people objecting to their presence in the neighborhood. Among those who, paid them a visit were two school teachers. The house was vandalized, windows were broken and garbage and even a dead cat were thrown on their lawn. The Unthanks cleaned up the mess, repaired the windows, and a few months later they were broken again. His wife accused their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Jones, of vandalizing their home and Mrs. Unthank was charged with threat to commit a felony. The charges against her were eventually dropped, and the Unthanks moved from the neighborhood.
In 1932 the Rose City Company brought a suit against Mrs. Ida Tindall, seeking to remove her from a house which she had bought in a white neighborhood. The practices continued; in 1949 a man was expelled from the Portland Realty Board for selling property to a black man in a white district. In the annual report for 1939, the local branch of the NAACP made this comment:
Still working on real estate boards discrimination to colored home buyers. They take down payment, let them clean house and then say sorry they cannot let them live there. Because a neighbor complained. Investigation says neighbor is usually blocks away.
The University of Oregon refused to allow black women to room in the college dorms with white women. Maxine Maxwell of Salem enrolled in the school in 1929, and had to live twelve blocks from campus with another black girl, Miss Franklin.4b This practice continued into the 1930's and 1940's: Ellen Torrance Law recalled her days at the University of Oregon, living in a basement room with only cold running water, stoking furnaces to pay the rent, because she was denied a room in the college dormitories.
When blacks moved to Portland, they found that job discrimination was widely practiced:
There weren't any good jobs. The only jobs here in Portland at the time we came here was if you didn't railroad, the Portland Hotel, and the women [had maid work] at Meier and Franks, and the barbershops . . . there weren't any good jobs.
When the local Laundry Workers Union refused to open their membership to black women, A.D. Griffin commented that this was worse than in the South, where black people who worked in menial jobs were protected. He also pointed out that the local Teamsters Union, and Cooks and Waiters Union refused to allow black people to join. He predicted that in the end black people would be admitted to these unions, but in the meantime,
. . as long as the Unions discriminate against our people, let us show them that they cannot expect our help or sympathy. Let us call the attention of all our friends to their attitude toward us and in the end they will be compelled to grant us our rights?
Click Here To Continue Reading Chapter 8
Return To Table of Contents