Oregon Black Pioneers, Oregon’s largest African American historical society, is committed to sharing the experiences of people of African descent in every corner of our state. To honor this commitment and ensure Oregonians in small communities have equal access to our unique resources, Oregon Black Pioneers partnered with the Libraries of Eastern Oregon and Roundhouse Foundation to tour its traveling exhibition “Black in Oregon: 1840-1870” to three libraries in some of Oregon’s most rural counties.
“It is so encouraging to see that the Trustees (of the Roundhouse Foundation) believe in the work that we do, and I am thrilled to be able to share our resources with communities all across the state,” says Oregon Black Pioneers Executive Director Zachary Stocks. “I also greatly appreciate the additional funding to support our ability to manage this traveling exhibit tour and the development of the resource guide to complement it.”
Oregon Black Pioneers’ mission is to research, recognize, and commemorate the culture and heritage of African Americans in Oregon. Their vision is to become the preeminent resource for the study of Oregon’s African American history and culture. Oregon Black Pioneers’ staff and board members work to achieve this vision through engaging exhibitions, public programs, original publications, and historical research. Additionally, they partner with local organizations to plan, interpret, and advocate for the preservation and commemoration of sites with African American historical significance statewide.
Zachary Stocks of Oregon Black Pioneers worked with Stephanie Chase of Libraries of Eastern Oregon to identify libraries in Oregon’s rural counties which have the spatial capacity for the Black in Oregon exhibit, and more importantly, which have an interest in featuring more diverse stories from our state’s heritage. After contacting libraries in her network, Stephanie identified three sites as the best potential hosts: Cook Memorial Library in La Grande, Harney County Library in Burns, and Lake County Library in Lakeview. Each library hosts Black in Oregon for three months.
“By better understanding our region’s history – both the uplifting and the challenging stories – we can learn how to be a better neighbor,” says Erin Borla, Executive Director of the Roundhouse Foundation. “The connection of this project to our rural libraries is brilliant. Libraries are a place of shared learning, a place of hope and a place of community. Oregon Black Pioneers and this exhibit provide challenges to the idea of who is a ‘pioneer’ and allow individuals to challenge their own biases as they relate to Oregon’s history.”
In addition to the exhibit itself, Oregon Black Pioneers recognizes the importance of continuing education. Oregon Black Pioneers staff provided two additional resources to support long term exploration of our state’s Black history in the counties where the exhibit is displayed. A new Oregon Black History toolkit for host sites was created which included expanded details about the exhibit content, a timeline of critical moments in the state’s Black history, an overview of Oregon’s anti-Black laws, selected biographies of Black people from Oregon’s rural counties, a list of books and articles for further reading, and contacts for available speakers.
Along with the exhibit, Oregon Black Pioneers sent each participating location a copy of Oregon Black Pioneers’ two original publications to become part of their lending collection. Those books are “Perseverance: A History of African Americans in Oregon’s Marion and Polk Counties” and “African Americans of Portland“. While these books focus on communities in the Willamette Valley and Portland Metro area, they are invaluable primers in understanding the resiliency and accomplishments of early Black Oregonians in the face of the state’s exclusion laws targeting Black individuals.
The goal for this exhibit tour is to increase awareness of Oregon’s Black history and the history of Black people in rural Oregon in particular. Oregon Black Pioneers hopes that visitors to the exhibit will better understand the circumstances which have contributed to Oregon’s contemporary racial demographics and reveal common ground between today’s mostly white rural residents and the Black rural Oregonians of the pioneer era.
Photo and logo courtesy of Oregon Black Pioneers