A dark stain in a white history

By Tran Nguyen

Ashland Daily Tidings

A photograph taken in the 1930s shows a cafe on East Main Street in downtown Ashland with a sign reading, “All White Help.”

A Southern Oregon University professor said she was discriminated against in the 1990s from renting her first home in Ashland after the property manager found out she wasn’t white.

A Medford interracial couple was left frightened in their own home after finding the letters “KKK” and a cross etched in flame across their front lawn in 2008.

Those are some of the stories shared at housing panel Thursday night in Medford about how the state’s discriminatory past is still haunting Southern Oregon today.

The event, called “Living with the ghosts of our past,” was co-sponsored by the city of Ashland and the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, along with the city of Medford, the Southern Oregon Historical Society and the Oregon Historical Society, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Congress passing the Fair Housing Act.

Attended by roughly 25 people, the panel of three current and former SOU professors and member of Fair Housing Council of Oregon Louise Dix laid out some of prejudicial aspects in the history of Southern Oregon — an area that was once proud to be “a white men country” — and how they shaped the local population today.

“We want to remind people of what our history was,” Dix said. “Because much of it is recurring.”

Oregon has a defiant history of discriminating against people who are non-Caucasian.

Following the Oregon trail in 1800s, white settlers passed an exclusion law in 1844 against all black people within Oregon territory. The law was later modified to prevent black people from settling here.

Then came the Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850, which permitted white settlers — and “American half-breed Indians” — to claim lands between 320 acres to 640 acres without regard to legal subdivisions. Within five years, the act produced more than 7,000 of land patents to mainly white settlers.

When Oregon entered the Union in 1859 it did so as a “whites-only” state, the only free state to do so. The statute wasn’t repealed until 1927.

“This region — without a hint of embarrassment — claimed to be a white men country,” historian and SOU professor Jeff LaLande said. “And it led to the direct result of the kind of people who tend to settle here: lots of people who had a southern background — white.”

Those settlers, LaLande said, hated slavery for economic reasons. “And they hated blacks just as much, if not more.”

SOU Professor Chelsea Rose, an historical archaeologist who specializes in the settlement and development of the American West, said the discriminatory history in Southern Oregon extended beyond the African American population.
“People tend to overlook these stories of the Chinese immigrants migrating as an economic plot that really paid off for a lot of them, as they were often seen as desperate immigrants, ” Rose said. “The history of Chinese Americans in Oregon is the history of Oregon — it’s not an exotic footnote.”

Roughly 400,000 young Chinese men migrated to the U.S. as a part of the trade network in the 1850s, she said.

Ordinary stories of the lives of Chinese people in the area — what they ate here, how they lived, what they do for entertainment — got lost in the narrative that considered them as “desperate immigrants“ who were “dirty,” Rose said.

The Chinese — referred only by the slur “Chinamen” then — weren’t allowed to work in mines, own property or testify against a white person for a number of years in Oregon.

A Chinese neighborhood in Jacksonville started to form in the 1850s. Without the right to own property and the lack of incentives from local government, the neighborhood quickly turned into slums, leaving hundreds of Chinese people to live in substandard housing.

The Chinese Exclusion Act — the first major law restricting immigration in the U.S. — was passed in 1882 and made permanent in 1902.

The law made the deepest impact on the local population as it directly ramped up the discrimination and violence against the Chinese in rural areas such Southern Oregon, Rose said.

“Obstacles like these made it hard for folks to stay in rural areas such as Southern Oregon,” Rose said. “A lot of folks ended up moving to urban centers where there was safety in numbers or moving home to China.”

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was also a “powerful force” in Southern Oregon — Oregon was the largest KKK organization west of the Mississippi River at the time — who carried out three mock lynching incidents as an intimidating tactic, LaLande said.

“The majority of Jackson County residents were among those few Oregonians who voted in 1926 to keep the (racial exclusion law) in the state constitution,” LaLande said. “The policy of white supremacy … crippled the rights of not only black people, but also the Chinese population.”

The Japanese who migrated as a labor force in agriculture also faced the same derogatory attitude, as they were met with much resentment from white farmers in the 1900s, Dix said.

More than 4,000 Japanese in Oregon — including American-Japaneses — then faced the Executive Order 9066 during World War II which incarcerated them in concentration camps with squalid housing, poor sanitation and inadequate health care, Dix said.

German and Italian war prisoners were also brought in to Tulelake Internment Camp, but were kept separately and allowed to interact with the locals, Dix said.

“After the war, some of they came back and settled down here because many residents had welcomed them,” Dix said. “The Japanese didn’t.”

History repeated itself for the Mexican immigrants in Medford and Klamath Falls between 1942 and 1947, SOU Professor Alma Rose Alvarez said.

More than 15,000 Mexican men came to Oregon as part of the bracero program to serve as a labor force. They were promised decent living conditions but ended up sleeping in tents and facing a risk of food poisoning.

They didn’t receive public accommodation, as most businesses declined to serve nonwhites, Alvarez said.

Mexican families also went on circuit trips, where they moved from one location to another to work on the field seasonally.

“It left a deep consequence on the migrant population — a type of invisibility,” she said. “The perception of Mexicans in the Valley is that we are foreigners and that we don’t belong.”

As they started to settle down in the area, Alvarez added, the white neighbors started to clash.

“They would ask, ‘What are these folks doing here?’ ‘Aren’t they supposed to be on some kind of a circuit?” she said. It was also the beginning of conflicts in local school districts such as the Eagle Point School District.

“Operation Wetback” then took placed in 1954, where millions of Mexican and Mexican American were rounded up, put on buses and left in the desert at the border.

Decades after the operation, Alvarez said Mexican students in Southern Oregon still share with her how they are being called “wetback” and “beaners” — a derogatory term used against Mexicans and people of Mexican descent.

All panelists said that the discriminatory attacks at the local level, in addition to being excluded from public accommodations and benefits for decades, drove non-Caucasians out of Southern Oregon.

Oregon passed its Fair Housing Law in 1959 — almost a decade before the federal Fair Housing Act was passed. The federal and state laws were then amended a number of times to include different types of discrimination, giving the laws “some teeth” to be enforced, Dix said.

But things remained the same in many ways.

Hotels in the area didn’t allow black people for a number of years — except for the Umpqua Hotel in Roseburg, where the Harlem Globetrotters stayed when the group performed in Medford.

Informal and unwritten “sundown laws” were enforced on people of color, requiring they leave town by sunset throughout Oregon history.

An establishment called the Palace Cafe had its prejudicial sign — “All White Help” — displayed for years on East Main Street of Ashland. A different sign with the similar message in Grants Pass wasn’t taken down until 1965.

“Realtors continued to steer,” Alvarez said, citing her own experience when she first came to Ashland in the 1990s. “Discrimination continues. … People don’t put up signs anymore, but it’s a more subtle form of discrimination.”

In celebration of the 50th year of the Fair Housing Act, Dix said Oregon — and Southern Oregon — has to “continue fighting the good fight.”

“Report any fair housing, fair lending violations, help increase awareness, get involved in your community,” she said.

“Making sure that we are protected is vital if we want people to thrive as a community,” Alvarez said.
—Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or [email protected]. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.

Morning Brief Newsletter
Sign up today for our daily newsletter, a quick overview of top local stories and Oregon breaking news delivered directly to your inbox
You can unsubscribe at any time
Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.