|One of the Negro Exclusion clauses|
in our original 1857 Oregon Constitution
State Archives and the Secretary of State have announced a "public unveiling of the newly restored Oregon Constitution
" for Monday the 6th.
That's pretty neat and all, but at this particular moment in time, what with General Lee in the news again, it's worth remembering that Oregon, while excluding slavery positively, was also explicitly established under the desire for no people of color at all. Current residents might have been grandfathered in, but the message was clear.
No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbor them.
If that's not a Constitutional provision for a system of white supremacy, just what exactly is it?
A recent essay at the Mill, "Rachel Belden Brooks and Family
," shows some of the difficulty in our interpretation.
In 1844, a strong desire to avoid racial tensions led the Oregon Provisional Government to outlaw slavery in the Oregon Country. However compassionate this may sound, it was closely followed by a ban on the settling of free blacks in the region. Both laws were designed to keep the black population at a minimum and avoid conflict. Despite these decrees, many families brought slaves on their journey west and few, if any, of the slaves were set free upon entering Oregon. Rachel Belden was one of these, and is the first known black woman of Marion County....
"Avoiding racial tensions" and "avoiding conflict" are inadequate
descriptions for the malignant impetus behind the Exclusion laws.
As it happens, it seems the Exclusion laws weren't enforced much, and our informal and ordinary understanding of our history is that we neglected and ignored them. It was bad law. We try to read this neglect in the most virtuous way possible.
But even unenforced, it was still more powerful as general culture than we would like to think. As a general rule, we don't take seriously enough the intent of the Exclusion clauses and
the pervasiveness of the racism behind them.
Of course any history on this is difficult. Most of the sources also come from white people, white men particularly, and even when they are well-intentioned, we lose the agency of non-white people, who are not able to be in charge of the stories they tell about themselves in their own words. The "real history," such as it is, is certainly both richer and more terrible than we know. Additionally, around Statehood, Salem was a tiny community, and the stories we might wish to tell are all entangled and so very ambiguous. A Pioneer or civic hero in one context turns out compromised or even vicious in another.
America Waldo and Rachel Belden come to Salem
|From Breaking Chains|
In his book, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory
, R. Gregory Nokes writes about several Salem families: