A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940

Chapter Nine - Simple Justice
Civil Rights Legislation 1893-1939

The Advocate also commented on the bill's defeat.

From all appearances, it seems that after the member of the Multnomah county delegation introduced the bill, which by the way, is no feat at all they summarily forgot about it or had very little influence upon other members of the Senate. Enough members joined in introducing the bill so that when they returned home if any one jumped on them about it they would have nearly all of Multnomah delegatior to jump on and the old saying holds true, in numbers there is strength. At any rate those who voted for the bill kept their promise. And that's something, but we don't believe they went of of their way to get others to support the bill. The voters might look into this a little closer before next election?

Similar bills were introduced into the Senate in 1937 and 1939, and from then on practically every legislative session considered a public acommodations bill until one was finally approved in 1953.

In 1937 a bill was sponsored jointly by three black organizations: The NAACP, Eugene Minor, President; Portland Negro Progressive League, Wyatt Williams, President; and Edgar Williams, a black delegate from the Labor Council. The bill was introduced, not because the black community was demanding complete social equality, but "only a right to live and earn an honest living? The black delegation pointed out that this bill would not hurt the business of the more exclusive establishments because black people could not afford to patronize them. Black people, however, could never count on obtaining hotel accommodations, and this hurt the black businessman and tourist.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by Homer D. Angell, from Multnomah County, and was referred to the Judiciary Committee, where all but one member recommended that the bill be defeated. Their report was adopted, and the bill was permanently tabled.

In 1939, a similar bill, sponsored by the NAACP and the Oregon Commonwealth Federation, was introduced by a bipartisan group of five Senators and seven Representatives. All of the legislators who put their names on the bill were from Multnomah County, except for J.F. Hosh, an Independent from Deschutes County. It became Senate Bill 102, and was again referred to the Judiciary Committee. A hearing was held, and more than three hundred persons attended, including a large delegation of black people from Portland. Those who spoke in favor of the bill included Irvin M. Flowers, who testified that he had served in the armed forces in World War I, and when he returned to Portland was refused a dish of ice cream by a restaurant owner before he had taken off his uniform. Isadore Maney, a mail clerk for many years, said that he had .recently been refused hotel accommodations in Bend. Mrs. John Lewis, representing the Portland YWCA, said that delegates to a National Negro Convention in Portland had been unable to find hotel accommodations and had to sleep in Pullman cars in the railroad yard. Others who spoke in favor of the bill were Edgar Williams, Nettie Rankin Ballard, who represented the Portland High School Teachers Association, and Irvin Goodman, a white Portland attorney.

The Oregon Hotel Association and the Oregon Apartment House Owners Association sent representatives to argue against the bill. They said that mixing whites and blacks as guests' in the same hotel was bad for business, and cited cases where tenants had threatened to move from apartment houses when Chinese and black people moved in.

The Judiciary Committee sent the bill back to the floor of the Senate without recommendation. It was passed in the Senate, February 22, 1939. The vote was sixteen in favor, twelve opposed, two abstaining? The bill then went to the House, where it was assigned to the Judiciary Committee. A vote to bring it to the full House failed. The Oregon Voter commented:

Owners of hotels, eating establishments and places of recreation and amusement were in a dither, particularly after the Senate passed the bill. Should the measure become law they could see their businesses harmed by the patronage of the colored race. There was a fear that its provisions might serve to embolden colored folk to take advantage of the situation, or that the business concerns might become subject to payment of tribute to unscrupulous schemers, both white and black. The difficulty is not that many men themselves lack respect for the colored folk, but that they feel compelled for business reasons to cater to the small minority who do carry a prejudice. The hearings were interesting. Presentations by and on behalf of the colored folk were enlightening. The problems of these folk were explained so clearly as to elicit sincere sympathy for them. But in the final show-down the spirit of fellowship had to succumb before the cold unfeeling negation of mercenary considerations and the bill died in the hands of the house Judiciary committee. Efforts to bring the bill out of the hands of the committee failed?

A public accommodations bill was finally passed in 1953, and further revised in 1973. The combined vote in 1953 was 67 in favor, 20 opposed. The text of the law as it now stands is contained in the Oregon Revised Statutes, 30.670.

The westward migration of American black people began in the first fifty years of the nineteenth century. Many black people saw the West as an unsettled region where greater economic and political freedom was possible. The free states and territories in the West presented an opportunity for some to escape slavery. What these black people found when they came to the Pacific Coast states of Oregon, Washington and California were many of the same conditions and attitudes they had hoped to escape. In many ways, Oregon had the least to offer. Although the differences in the legislative record in these three states does not necessarily signify a difference in attitudes toward racial minorities, basic civil rights legislation did provide the legal clout black people needed in order to begin to attain better jobs, fair housing, and equal enjoyment of public accommodations. A comparison of the legislative record of California, Washington, and Oregon provides a significant index of the degree to which black people were able to advance their economic and social conditions, and to a lesser extent the degree of racial prejudice they had to face.

The first non-Indian occupation of California began as a result of Spanish exploration and conquest, and among those who settled in California were blacks, Zambos (half black, half Indian), and Afro-Spaniards, descendants of slaves brought to the New World to work plantations in Mexico. Many intermarried with the local population, and by 1794 nearly one-quarter of California's population was classified as mulatto. The Mexican officials did not discriminate against the black population: Manuel Victoria, Jose Figueroa, and Pico Pico, three Spanish governors of California, had some African ancestry? With the arrival of large numbers of Americans, many coming to work in the mining regions, anti-black sentiment began to surface. Settlers brought slaves to work the mines, and free black people were numerous in the mining regions. The resultant mix of free blacks, slaves, and whites was viewed with great resentment by non-slaveholding whites. In some cases, white people refused to work in areas where black people were. working, claiming that it was demeaning to work side by side with them. In one case, white miners succeeded in driving out several Texas slave owners and their slaves. Free black people faced restrictions similar to those found in the East. Often they were segregated into separate rooming houses, hotels and restaurants, particularly in the larger mining towns and in San Francisco.

Racial issues were raised at numerous meetings held to discuss the creation of a state government, and the majority opinion was anti-slavery and anti-black. When California's constitution was formulated in a state convention in 1849, national anti-slavery and anti-black sentiment had not reached the fever pitch of the mid 1850% and despite strong support for an exclusion clause the majority felt that racist statements might jeopardize California's admission to the Union. An exclusion clause was rejected. The constitution did bar blacks and Indians from voting, and banned slavery. The voters of California approved the constitution and elected as state governor Peter Burnett. He had lived in Oregon for several years prior to moving to California, and continued to press for anti-black legislation in California. He failed to gain majority support for another exclusion law, but two other anti-black bills were passed in 1850. Anyone having 1/6th Negro blood was defined as black, and barred from testifying in court against a white person. Intermarriage was also banned.

The 1852 legislature, prompted by an increase in the black population from 700 to 2,200, considered two measures to discourage further in-migration of blacks, or reduce the number of black people already there. Another exclusion law was introduced and defeated, but a fugitive slave law was approved, which allowed slaveowners to reclaim black people who had been their slaves prior to California's admission to the Union. This law was allowed to lapse in 1855, but was invoked by Burnett in his ruling in the State Supreme Court in the case of the ex-slave, Archy Lee.

In 1858 the exclusion of black people was still being proposed. The exclusion law introduced that year would have required black people to register and carry papers proving that their residence in California was legal. This bill passed in the House but was defeated in the Senate, but not before the proposal so enraged black residents that 100 of them left California to settle in British Columbia.

As early as 1852, black people organized to repeal the law that prevented them from testifying in court. The first statewide Colored Convention met in 1855, and lobbied against this law and segregation in the public schools. They continued to lobby and petition the state legislature until the anti-testimony law was repealed in 1863.

School district funds were first based on the number of white children only, and black people had to organize private schools. In 1866 school appropriations were still based on the number of white children only, but in that year black people were given the first legal recognition of their right to public education. After 1875 the dual school system gradually began to disappear. Some legislative gains were realized between 1863 and 1875, but not enough to initiate a period of racial justice and tolerance.

California, like Oregon, ratified the Thirteen and Fourteenth Amendments, but again, like Oregon, did not ratify the Fifteenth Amendment until the mid-twentieth century. The prohibition on interracial marriages was ruled unconstitutional in 1948. A civil rights act, based on the federal laws of 1875, was passed in 1897, and a public accommodations law was passed in 1905. The first black state legislator was elected in 1919, and employment opportunities for black people in education and other professional fields began to open up.

Washington did not become a state until 1889, and was not directly involved in the anti-black and anti-slavery controversy preceding the Civil War. In 1855 the territorial legislature petitioned Congress to secure the donation land claim of George Bush. In 1887 the legislature repealed the law banning intermarriage. The original state constitution contained a clause banning racial discrimination in education. In 1890 Washington adopted a civil rights law based on the federal laws of 1875, and in 1909 passed a public accommodations law.

Both California and Washington passed legislation in the twentieth century preventing members of the Ku Klux Klan from wearing hoods to conceal their identity. Oregon had no such law. Black state representatives were elected in California and Washington much earlier than in Oregon. Clearly, Oregon lagged behind its Pacific Coast neighbors in civil rights legislation before 1940. Yet all three states had large Oriental populations which received much of the brunt of racial antagonisms, and all three areas were settled by white Americans who brought their anti-slavery, anti-black racial baggage with them.

The natural resources of both California and Washington are superior to those of Oregon, which contributed to a larger population, more wealth, and the development of an urban and cosmopolitan society. Trends toward urbanization in both states are more widespread, while Oregon is still largely rural.

Oregon, progressive in many ways, resisted the necessary legislation which would correct historical inequalities in the treatment of blacks and other minorities. In the absence of a significant black population before 1940 that could effect legislation, it remained a West Coast ecological paradise with a peculiar resistance to change.

Return To Table of Contents