Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Black Pioneers of the Pacific Northwest

"To those....obliged to exchange a cultured region for a howling wilderness, we recommend the western wilds....where the ploughshares of prejudice have been unable to penetrate the soil."

Over the span of a century, the black population of Alaska, Oregon and Washington grew from 200,000 to 1.8 million due to a migration of blacks to the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon Black Pioneers 1780-1990

"A Negro may have a few more doors closed to him and he may find them a little harder to open, but he can open them, he must keep trying."

DeNorval Unthank (1899-1977)

Civil Rights Leader in Portland, Oregon
Why Oregon? Many Black people first moved to Oregon to escape racism and slavery in the east.
Challenges to Freedom: Slavery was illegal, however were "Black Laws" passed in Oregon by territorial authorities that severely restricted the rights of African-Americans. One such law was the Lash Law that required that blacks be beaten twice a year. The law was later changed to forced labor instead of beatings. Another law was passed that did not include the right to own land for black people. Other exclusion laws were passed and Oregon became the first state to be admitted into the Union with exlusion laws.
DeNorval Unthank, doctor and civil rights activist, spent most of his life confronting social and institutional racism. After moving his family to an all white neighborhood in Portand, Oregon in 1929 and opening a private medical practice in Portland, he and his family were frequently targets of racial hostility with broken windows, threatening phone calls, etc. Refusing to submit to racism, he worked to overcome the economic and social barriers in Oregon.
In 1958, the Oregon Medical Society named him Doctor of the Year. For his role in bringing down racial barriers, the city of Portland named DeNorval Unthank Park in North Portland in his honor in 1969. Unthank was the recipient of several citizenship awards, the first African American member of the Portland City Club, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), cofounder of the Portland Urban League and sat on Oregon’s Committee for Equal Rights and the Council of Social Agencies.

Washington Black Pioneers 1830 - 1990
Why Washington? Many African-Americans first moved to Washington to escape the "Black Laws" passed in Oregon.

Challenges to Freedom: Could not vote
George Bush, successful Missouri farmer, set out for Oregon and switched course to Washington when he learned that black exclusionary laws were passed. After settling in the first permanent settlement on the Puget Sound, Bush built the first grist mill and saw mill in 1846 and 1847. He also quickly established a fine farm on the prairie south of the Deschutes Falls. Their right to the homestead was challenged in 1850 when the Donation Land Claim Act provided free land exclusively to white settlers. A petition signed by fifty-five members of the first Territorial Legislature in 1854, and an Act of Congress the following year, allowed Bush and his wife the right to own their land. Bush, however, was never allowed to vote.

Alaska Black Pioneers 1860 - 1990

Why Alaska? Many African-Americans first moved to Alaska during gold rush and then as soldiers. The first African-Americans in Alaska were whalest and other seamen who settled following the Alaska Purchase in 1867. Many came after the 1897 discovery of gold in the Canadian Yukon. The US was in depression and the gold rush was hope. Many stayed after that.
In the 4 years during and after the gold rush, there were 158 members of the company of the 24th infaltry were stationed at Dyea and Skagway to help preserve laws and order. Many chose to stay in Alaska after.

Challenges to Freedom: Social Racism

Bessie Couture became the first black business owner in Alaska when she opened the Balck and White Restaurant in Skagwag, Alaska.

Alaska Black Engineers - This African American-manned 95th Engineer Battalion (General Service) was formed in April 1941 at Fort Belvoir, Virginia as part of the U.S. Army buildup preceding World War II. This once forgotten group of African-American men were largely responsible for building the Alcan Highway.
"When America needed a highway through
The lads of black all ressed in brown
carved out a road from frozen ground
from dawson to delta junction
they hatched and chopped and froze their toes
to save America from its foes

Many a night they went to bed
with bodies black and blue and red
mosquitoes, black flies.....?
Hd bitten through their clothes and gotten through
in muck ad mire, brimstone and fire
Tthey buldozd thier way and didn't tire"
J. Roscoe Hurst, Poet

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