A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Nine - Simple Justice
Civil Rights Legislation 1893-1939
Black people began to go to the state legislature as early as 1893, lobbying to repeal the defunct sections of the state constitution that excluded blacks and Chinese from the state and prevented them from voting, and also to repeal the ban on intermarriage and pass a public accommodations law. Despite repeated efforts, the only successes before 1940 were the repeal of the exclusion clause and the ban on voting, clauses which had been inoperative since the Civil War.
Having no representatives in the state legislature, black people had to rely on white legislators willing to introduce bills on their behalf, on lobbying efforts and by uniting in political groups and coalitions that voiced the collective needs of the black community. This took place in a time when many black men were employed on the railroad and often out of town, or working in menial jobs, struggling to provide their families with the necessities of life; much of the work was carried out by a handful of people, as unpaid volunteers.
Oregonians have historically maintained an attitude of hostility to outsiders and minorities. The framers of the state constitution relied heavily on the constitutions of midwestern states, especially that of Indiana, but came up with some original clauses that had no precedent. It is striking that all of the important sections relating to the rights of minorities were in this category.
The original procedure for amending the constitution was lengthy and complicated, requiring approval by two successive legislatures and then referral to a general election. This procedure was modified in 1906, when only one legislative endorsement was required and any amendment had to be submitted to the voters at the next regular or special election. No amendments to the constitution were approved before 1902, when the Initiative and Referendum amendment was passed. Between 1902 and 1926, when the exclusion clause was finally deleted, nearly fifty amendments to the constitution were approved.
In the 1891 legislative session, some thought was given to amending the constitution or to creating an entirely new one. A resolution to call a constitutional convention was introduced, as
... it is the opinion of a large portion of our citizens that the constitution of Oregon is in many respects repugnant to the changed condition of affairs since that instrument was adopted...
In this and the next assembly resolutions were introduced which would give the legislative assembly the power to pass registration laws to regulate voting rights; both failed to gain majority approval.
A flurry of constitutional amendments were introduced in the 1893 session, among them three designed to correct the constitutional exclusion of blacks and Chinese, and the ban on voting. This campaign was initiated by members of Portland's black community, who met in January, 1893 to organize the campaign. Resolutions were introduced in the legislature by Representative Henry H. Northup of Multnomah County, at the request of the Reverend T. Brown, pastor of the First A.M.E. Zion Church of Portland, the spokesman for the black community. All three resolutions were approved with little'or no opposition.
The resolutions were re-introduced in the 1895 session, where only the repeal of the exclusion clause was approved. The special act required to submit amendments to a general election was overlooked in the final days of the session, so this amendment was not submitted at the next general election. The 1897 session was involved in political disputes, the House did not even organize, and it was left to the 1899 session to pass the necessary enabling bill. Finally, in 1900, the repeal of the exclusion clause was submitted to the voters.
The attitude of the press toward modifying the constitution was initially favorable. Both the Oregonian and the Oregon Statesman approved the actions of the 1893 legislature, the latter calling their actions a "Great Awakening," predicting that other amendments to the constitution would soon be approved?
The most controversial of the five amendments submitted to the voters in 1900 was a proposal allowing women to vote. The other amendments, beside the repeal of the exclusion clause, dealt with municipal indebtedness, the judicial system, and irrigation. The Oregonian printed several articles prior to election day which predicted the defeat of all of the amendments.
It is not necessary to amend the constitution of Oregon. It is good enough and better than would be made or could be made now... The more we amend it the more likely we are to worsen it.
The Oregonian particularly encouraged its readers to vote against women's suffrage.
Many voters, however, ignored the amendments entirely, and did not cast a vote on them. All of the amendments were defeated; the amendment to repeal the exclusion clause received the smallest number of votes. Defeat was by a painfully small margin?
In an editorial published shortly after the election, the New Age speculated that the measure was defeated because Oregonians felt that the state constitution was superior to the federal constitution.
The result of the vote on repealing the section in the constitution placing restrictions on the rights of Negroes and Mulattoes in the matter of residence and the holding of property in this state showed a woeful lack of intelligence on the part of a majority of the voters when they voted against the repealing of that section for admitting, as The Oregonian claims, that it is abrogated by the action of Congress in passing the 14th amendment of the constitution. There are still those who claim that the state is superior to the United States and if the question was ever brought to an issue would uphold the constitution of the state in preference to the constitution of the United States. And while we do not fear that this country would . . . allow such a view to stand, still it is better to have nothing in the way of a clear understanding of our rights and duties as citizens of this state?
Other resolutions to repeal the exclusion clause were passed in 1901 and 1903, without opposition. The New Age predicted that if the amendment was presented to the voters again it would be easily approved, calling the exclusion clause "a relic of ante-bellum, pro-slavery prejudice, that should be expurged from our organic law?
Such was not to be the case for many years; although the amendment was twice approved in the legislature, no enabling bill was passed and it was not included in subsequent elections.
Between 1905 and 1915, the issue of minority rights was virtually forgotten at the legislative level. Two curious bills were introduced in 1909, both "by request." One proposed to ban Chinese from practicing medicine, and the other to ban Chinese gambling games. Both were defeated.
In 1915 a novel solution to repeal the exclusion clause was proposed by Representative D.C. Lewis of St. Johns. His bill would simply prohibit the printing of that section as part of the constitution. This bill was indefinitely postponed, and suffered the same fate when it was introduced in the 1917 session.
Attempts to repeal the exclusion clause were dropped for the next seven years. In 1925, a bill to repeal the exclusion clause was introduced by William F. Woodward, Republican from Multnomah County, at the request of a black woman, Mrs. Lenora Freeman, and a delegation from the League of Women Voters of Portland? Woodward, a political maverick, had accepted the support of the K.K.K. in his campaign for election to the state legislature of 1923. This bill authorized the Secretary of State to set aside two pages in the Voter's Pamphlet for publication of arguments in support of the measure, and to appoint a committee of three legislators to prepare the arguments. It passed easily in both houses, receiving only one negative vote.
The argument prepared and printed in the Voter's Pamphlet traced the history of the exclusion clause, its nullification by the Fourteenth Amendment, and earlier attempts to remove it from the constitution. It was characterized as:
a constant reminder of intolerance and hatred, a reproach to the people of the commonwealth, a slur upon those whom it sought to proscribe... Vote for this repeal and thus uphold the spirit of Abraham Lincoln--The great Emancipator?Repeal was also urged for the sake of school children, who were expected to study and obey the constitution.
The Oregonian which for years had been opposed to widespread modification of the constitution, was critical of the number of amendments submitted that year, nineteen in all. Its readers were advised, "When in doubt, vote NO." In a later article its recommendation on the exclusion clause amendment was reversed, and approval was urged because it corrected "an absurdity in the Constitution.'' Other newspapers either endorsed the measure half-heartedly, or published lengthy articles about the history of the exclusion clause in an attempt to provide an explanation for its original inclusion in the constitution. In some cases voter ignorance and racism was cited as the cause for previous defeats. It was an easy opportunity to denounce intolerance and racism, as the amendment had no public opposition.
The Advocate published restrained articles favoring repeal, and speculated that previous failures to repeal the clause were due to "ignorance of the real status of the Negro in the State." The paper urged black people to register and vote to support the measure, reminding them that blacks in the South were denied the right to vote.
The final vote was 108,332 in favor, 64,954 opposed. 26% of those who voted, more than 60,000 people, did not cast a vote on the amendment.TM The Advocate reproached those who had voted against the amendment as being either very ignorant or very prejudiced, and wondered why, in the Republican state of Oregon, the clause had not been repealed sooner?
The first attempt to repeal the ban on voting occurred in the legislative session of 1893, although the bill was worded to repeal another section. X6 The resolution was approved in 1893, but defeated in the 1895 session. No attempt was made to repeal the ban on voting again until 1915, when Senator McBride proposed an amendment at the request of the black community, and specifically by McCants Steward, a black attorney? The resolution passed easily in both chambers, receiving only two negative votes. The amendment came before the voters in the election of 1916. The Voter's Pamphlet reprinted the full text of the resolution, and also the text of the section to be deleted from the constitution. It said in addition that it was "an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Oregon removing the discrimination against negro and mulatto citizens". The article did not point out that the section had been nullified by the Fifteenth Amendment, and no arguments in support of the measure were printed.
The press in general either ignored the amendment or favored repeal because it was obsolete and an embarrassment to the state. The Oregonian printed a short endorsement the day before the election:
It is a matter of history which we would fain forget that the state of Oregon was one of six states to reject the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. There is an opportunity this year for Oregon to retrieve its record. There is up for passage an amendment repealing the now inoperative section of the state constitution denying the right of suffrage to negroes and mulattoes. The presence of the section in the constitution is an unpleasant reminder.
The final vote was close: 100,027 voted for repeal, 100,701 against. This represented 75% of the total number of voters: 25% did not vote at all on the issue. A majority in every county except Multnomah, Benton, Washington, and Yamhill voted against repeal.
The Oregon Voter, a non-partisan political paper which had favored the amendment, ascribed defeat to race prejudice, and admitted that voter ignorance was also a factor.
Ignorance there was, no doubt, but the race prejudice was reflected nevertheless, and to our knowledgte many voted "NO" in a spirit of protest, realizing full well that the vote could have no effect on the citizenship status of the negro?
In the opening days of the session of 1927, Representative John Geisy of Salem submitted another resolution to repeal the ban on voting. Space in the Voter's Pamphlet was to be provided for arguments in support of repeal, and the actual wording on the ballot was to include a statement noting that the clause was in conflict with the federal Constitution, and repeal was necessary to complete the removal of obsolete, racist clauses. His resolution was approved, and the repeal amendment again came before the voters.
The press was restrained in its attitude toward the amendment, viewing it as an afterthought. The Advocate issued only one brief statement in its pre-election issue, saying the clause was "... a disgrace to [Oregon's] fair name.
The amendment was approved, although by a smaller margin than the vote to repeal the exclusion clause the year before. The final tally was 69,373 in favor, 41,887 opposed.
Before 1940, two attempts were made to repeal the state law banning intermarriage. In 1893, a bill was initiated by a black minister, the Reverend T. Brown, who stayed to lobby for the bill throughout the session. The bill was voted down in the Senate, where it had been introduced by O.N. Denny, from Multnomah County. The Oregonian reported that the reason for defeat was that the children of mixed marriages "retain all the vices of the parent, and do not associate with either whites or negroes.''
The only Senator to defend the bill was H.E. McGinn, from Multnomah County, who argued that black people should not be deprived of their rights and privileges "simply because that at the building of the tower of Babel some went in one way with black skins and other in another with white [skins].''23 McGinn was a colorful figure in the politics of that era. In his early years he publicly supported vice and gambling operations, and participated in them himself. As a modern historian noted,
He loved booze and women and was not afraid to admit it. Paradoxically, his voice carried authority in a community that ostensibly disdained such activiVies?
He later repented of the corrupt practices of the 1890's and early 1900's, when bribery on election day secured the victory of the party machine candidates. He died in the 1930's in his favorite brothel, and was mourned by Portland's elite.
The bill to permit intermarriage introduced in 1893 was also defeated in the Senate, by a vote of nine in favor, and twenty opposed. The proximity of this bill with others that were approved which would remove the obsolete sections of the state constitution indicated how far the legislature was willing to go on behalf of the rights of black people and other minorities. Clearly, it was acceptable to modify the state constitution in order to affirm rights guaranteed by the federal Constitution, but the legislators of Oregon were not ready to grant additional rights to minorities, including the right to marry whom they pleased.
In 1911 a curious bill on the subject of intermarriage was introduced. This bill would have added to the list of prohibited unions those between whites and Hindus or Japanese. This bill found its way to the legislative scrap heap, and a vote was never taken.
In the 1917 legislative session, D.C. Lewis, Republican from Multnomah County, introduced a bill in the house that would have allowed intermarriage.25 He defended his bill, saying, "if a white man loves a colored woman or a Chinese woman, let him marry her.'' The Oregonian recommended that the bill be defeated, saying: "It is not in line with the movement for uplift of the colored race.'' The bill was referred to the Committee on Health and Public Morals, where it was returned to the House with the recommendation that it be defeated. The House accepted the committee's recommendation, and the bill was defeated without a vote.
Before 1940, the black community did not again lobby to remove the ban on intermarriage, concentrating instead on efforts to pass a public accommodations bill. Vancouver was just across the river, and interracial marriages were not prohibited in the state of Washington.
In 1919 the Afro-American League of Portland drafted the first civil rights bill to be presented to the state legislature, persuading John B. Coffey, Republican member of the House from Multnomah County to introduce it. The bill, called "an act establishing equal rights in places of public amusement," guaranteed to all citizens equal enjoyment of public accommodations and prohibited the printing or posting of signs indicating that service would be refused to anyone on the basis of race or color? The bill included a lengthy list defining places of public accommodation, which covered virtually every kind of commercial establishment except private clubs. The penalty for violation of the law was a fine and/or a jail sentence.
The bill was originally referred to the Multnomah Delegation, who returned it with the request that it be sent to the Committee on Health and Public Morals? In this committee the bill survived various attempts to bury it. Republican D.C. Lewis wanted to have the bill delayed until the last day of the session, where it would be caught in the rush of last minute business and forgotten. This bill and two others were stolen from the committee chariman's desk, and new bills had to be drafted from the printed copies. The committee heard arguments in favor of the bill from Rev. W.L. Rowan, Micco T. Harjo, and Mrs. E.D. Cannady.
The bill was reported back to the House without recommendation, where it provided, in the words of an Oregon Journal reporter, "an hour and a half of excitement, mixed with a considerable amount of levity, before being finally killed.''
After the bill was read, a member moved for indefinite postponement. His motion was followed by a chorus of "ayes" and as the Speaker of the House was about to announce the bill's death, Representative Eugene E. Smith of Multnomah County objected, requesting the legislature to give some consideration to the black voters who had initiated the bill, who were the same voters the Republicans loved to brag about at election time. Smith was the bill's only defender.
Mrs. Alexander Thompson, a Democrat from The Dalles, said that she would vote against the bill because she was a Southerner, but no Republican could oppose it and be consistent with the party's historical attitude toward Reconstruction. Her chiding was sufficient to defeat a move for indefinite postponement, and the bill came up for a third reading, and a vote. As several members of the House were absent, a roll call was requested and taken, and D,C. Lewis was missing. Smith of Multnomah County demanded that Lewis be located, and the Sergeant-At-Arms was sent off in search of him. He returned to report that Lewis had locked himself in a third floor committee room! After some delay, Lewis returned to the floor of the House, and debate on the bill resumed. Mrs. Thompson chided Lewis, reminding him that in 1917 he had introduced a far more radical bill which would have permitted inter-marriage. Lewis claimed that he was forced to introduce that bill, but had supported it nevertheless. During the roll call vote, Lewis tried to escape again, but was brought back and cast a negative vote, claiming that the public accommodations bill was unconstitutional. In spite of the way the bill was treated, it received twenty-four favorable votes. Thirty-one negative votes defeated the bill.
A public accommodations bill was not introduced for another fourteen years? In 1933 the NAACP persuaded five Senators from Multnomah County to introduce a bill in the Senate. The bill read,
Any person who shall deny to any person because of race, creed or color the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges of any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage or amusement, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine of not less than $25.00 nor more than $100.00, or by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 90 days, or both such fine and imprisonment?
The bill was passed to the Committee on Revision of Laws, where it was reported back to the Senate without recommendation. Only one of the Senators who had introduced the bill, Dorothy M. Lee, was willing to speak in favor of passage. It came up for final vote and was defeated by a vote of nine in favor, nineteen opposed, and two absent. The Oregon Voter commented on the bill's defeat:
Race prejudice causes social discrimination against colored people and some whites. Resented, this discrimination creates a sense of inferiority which expresses itself in attempts to gain by law that which is unattainable by voluntary concession. S.B. 228 is a product of this inferiority complex. It is intended to force hotel proprietors, restaurants, auto camps, theaters and other service institutions to risk offense to the race p~ejudice of the great bulk of their patrons by admitting and seating members of races against whom these prejudices are felt. Obviously, legislation of this kind, if enforced, would merely accentuate and aggravate these prejudices, and bring into contempt the very people for whom it is sought to attain social equality.
The article points out that any attempt to legislate racial toleration would send people into "hoodlum organizations" like the K.K.K., and said it would have been better if the bill had never been introduced.
Want of tact and caution in approaching these huge problems is on the border line of irresponsibility?
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