Honoring the Black Pioneers and Communities of the Willamette Valley

By Matt Wastradowski

Black pioneers were leaving their mark on the Willamette Valley long before Oregon became the 33rd state in 1859. Latetia Carson, for instance, came to Oregon as an enslaved person or former enslaved person in 1845—and, just four years later, gave birth to a son, Adam, thought to be the first Black child born in Oregon. Another notable pioneer is Hannah Gorman, who arrived as an enslaved person in 1844 with her daughter, Eliza—who would become an accomplished seamstress in Benton County. 

Exterior of Hannah and Eliza Gorman House
Hannah Gorman and her daughter Eliza, who arrived in the Oregon Territory in 1844, purchased this house in Corvallis, even though Oregon’s state constitution prevented Black people from being in the state or owning property at the time.
Photo credit: Ian Poellet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When Oregon became a state in 1859, it attempted to erase these contributions with exclusion laws written to discourage Black Americans from living in the state. In fact, racist language would remain in the state constitution until 2002.

In the more than 150 years since Oregon’s founding, the state’s resilient Black communities have achieved success in a variety of momentous and important ways—many of which are chronicled in mobile apps, museum exhibits, and more throughout the Willamette Valley. 

So if you want to learn more about the past and present of Oregon’s Black communities, whether during Black History Month or all year long, here are several resources for doing just that.

Take Strides for Social Justice

In 2021, PeaceHealth partnered with the Eugene Marathon to develop Strides for Social Justice, a free, family-friendly mobile app that takes users on a walking tour of Black history in Eugene. 

The app features seven walking tours that cover the breadth of the community—downtown, the University of Oregon, and beyond. And each tour has a slightly different focus that showcases a different aspect of the community’s Black history; those include profiling student athletes at the University of Oregon, highlighting the injustices that many of the city’s Black pioneers faced, and celebrating the achievements of Lane County’s Black residents.

Strides for Social Justice app screenshot

Learn More About “Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years — The Eugene Story”

The Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon is hosting a virtual exhibit that dives deep into the community’s Black history: “Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years — The Eugene Story”.

The virtual exhibit, part of a larger exhibit on the Civil Rights movement in Oregon, was created in conjunction with Oregon Black Pioneers (a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of Black Oregonians statewide) to explore Black history in Eugene and Lane County.

The exhibit includes information on the Oregon state constitution and the struggles of the state’s earliest Black residents—but pays special attention to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Here the exhibit covers Eugene’s historically Black neighborhoods, the infamous Green Book (a travel guide, created in the 1930s and updated until 1966, that listed where Black motorists could safely travel, eat, and sleep around the United States), Black arts and culture in Eugene, and how the Civil Rights era unfolded around town.

Explore the Lives of Oregon’s Black Pioneers in “Black in Oregon: 1840-1870”

Many Black pioneers arrived in the Willamette Valley throughout the mid-1800s—and you can learn about their stories, as well as of Black pioneers throughout Oregon—in the virtual exhibit “Black in Oregon: 1840-1870”, now available on the Oregon State Archives website.

The exhibit seeks to explain the abhorrent history of how the state’s first Black residents were treated—both before and after statehood—while also spotlighting their immense contributions in the state’s earliest years. It profiles specific pioneers while also discussing the larger context of the era—such as the difficulties of researching Black pioneers and a timeline of events (in Oregon and nationally) that impacted the lives of Black pioneers.

“People of African descent are often left out of our state’s early narrative,” says Zachary Stocks, executive director at Oregon Black Pioneers. “This exhibit helps correct the record by pointing out the extraordinary legal and social inequalities that these Black individuals confronted in order to build a life for themselves and their families in Oregon.”

Read Up and “Rent” Books at Epilogue Kitchen in Salem

Interested in reading more about Black history, anti-racism, and other important topics? Epilogue Kitchen hosts a well-stocked lending library in downtown Salem. 

In addition to a wide-ranging menu that blends internationally inspired dishes with creative takes on classic comfort fare (such as Benedicts, sandwiches, and burgers), you can “rent” a wide range of books with a $15 refundable deposit.

Titles include “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe and “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as several titles by Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Octavia Butler, bell hooks, and more. In all, you’ll find more than 150 titles from essayists, poets, and even graphic novelists.