Slavery In My Backyard

For some of us living here in the “progressive” Pacific North West (PNW), it is easy to lull ourselves into the complacency of being in a post racial society. Even as a relatively affluent white male, let me assure you that both the vestiges and current reality of racism are still all around us. This seems like a fitting reminder to heed Micah’s exhortation for us to “Do Justice” (Micah 6:8) as we move from Reverend MLK Jr. celebrations into black history month.

Let me start in my backyard, or at least the cemetery a mere five-minute walk from my backyard. We live off of Witham Hill Drive, formerly known as Cemetery Road because that is what lays at the top of this hill overlooking Corvallis. As Scout and I were enjoying our walk through the weather worn, lichen encrusted monuments at the “Pioneer Cemetery,” we passed a rather unremarkable stone, at least until we pause to read it, “’Ame’ A slave of Mary and John Porter.”

ame.jpg

Let’s step back for a moment to the mid 1800’s when the first “pioneers” were being laid to rest here in this young state of Oregon. On the eve of the civil war, the Oregon territory was declared a “free” territory in that slavery was not permitted. The irony of course was that “free blacks” also were not permitted. In the 1844 the “Negro Exclusion Law,” that prohibited slavery, all blacks were simultaneously excluded from even entering the territory. Slave owners who had journeyed West with their slaves had two years to set their male slaves free and three years to set their female slaves free. All blacks in the territory were forced to leave, and those who were found could be arrested and beaten. They were to be lashed with no less than twenty and no more than thirty-nine stripes across their back. For those still found in the territory this process could be repeated every six months. This exclusion was then codified in the Oregon constitution when we entered the Union in 1949. While there is no recorded enforcement of these laws, they certainly had their intended affect with less than one fifth of one percent of the population recorded as black in 1860 and less than two percent of Oregon’s population identifying as black in the 2013 census. Even having laws like that on the books impacts both how blacks would be treated and their ability to live in this state.

In the reconstruction era, Oregon became a fresh start for many including former confederate supporters as they fled the devastated South and the newly freed slaves. It’s about as far from Washington DC as one could get. Many “freed” blacks were in complicated multifaceted situations where they were encouraged, coerced, or forced into following their “owners” to Oregon. Some speculate that just about every wagon train on the Oregon trail had at least one black slave. Once here, their very existence has been hidden or erased save a few snippets of recorded history. Many communities seemed to operate under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality.

We will never really know the full circumstances of what led Ame to come with her “former” owners to Corvallis and what kept her with the family. We have snippets of oral history through the white Porter family but this assuredly does not capture the complexity of what must have been Ame’s existence. What we do know, what is literally chiseled in stone, is even in death her identity was that of a slave.

A few gathered recollections about Ame can be found at:

http://offbeatoregon.com/o1110c-civil-war-didnt-end-slavery-for-oregon-woman-named-ame.html

https://www.gazettetimes.com/a-grave-history-lesson/article_6043990a-1972-52f1-b627-cf09ac23c3c9.html

Ame’s slave owner’s oral family history says she secretly snuck away leaving her own biological children in Kentucky to journey with her owners only to be discovered when turning back would be too hard.

Once in Oregon, her allegiance if not out right ownership seems to have been passed to one of the children and their new husband in 1958. Family lore tells of her being passed around the family and loaned out to neighbors when they were in need. They tell of her onerousness and guile.

A few gathered recollections about Ame can be found at:

As I look down at her tombstone, I can’t help but try to read between the lines, to speculate the inner workings of her life and to grieve her death. What was her life like as she walked this land that is now my pleasant, still mostly white, neighborhood? How has her life been distorted by the few stories that are recorded?

Let us remember Ame as the living, breathing. loving, tenacious individual that she must of been and not merely what little we know of her. Let us proclaim the Black stories of Oregon. May we live lives that honor the fullness of the community that we were and that we are called to be.

Thanks for wandering with me in “our backyard.”

 

PS A great documentary that just was released.

https://www.opb.org/television/programs/oregonexperience/segment/oregon-black-pioneers-documentary/

About WestM

Westminster House United Campus Ministry at Oregon State University
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