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Winter 2019, 120:4

This special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly features articles that explore the history of White supremacy and resistance in Oregon. Authors discuss topics including Whiteness, settler colonialism, racial exclusion and land ownership, abolitionism and anti-slavery politics, violence, labor and organizing, White supremacist organizations, and forms of resistance to White supremacy.

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In this Issue

Expectation and Exclusion: An Introduction to Whiteness, White Supremacy, and Resistance in Oregon

by Carmen P. Thompson

In this introduction to the Oregon Historical Quarterly’sWinter 2019 special on the history of White supremacy and resistance in Oregon, Dr. Carmen P. Thompson discusses the concept of Whiteness ­— “an expectation (sometimes an unconscious expectation) that the government will maintain laws and policies generally benefitting White people.” Through the interdisciplinary field of Critical Whiteness Studies, scholars, including Thompson, have explored the concept of Whiteness and “exposed a racialized system that overall, has been detrimental to the masses.” Thompson provides an analysis of critical scholarship in the field and makes connections between the articles in this issue and “two core characteristics of Whiteness that are present in Oregon’s White supremacist history — expectation and exclusion.”

White American Violence on Tribal Peoples of the Oregon Coast

by David G. Lewis and Thomas J. Connolly

In this Oregon Voices essay, David G. Lewis and Thomas J. Connolly discuss how “acts of physical injury, murder, and trauma” against Native people “provide insight into how White supremacy was institutionalized in Oregon.” Beginning with the fur-trade era in Oregon Country, Lewis and Connolly use primary sources and secondary scholarship to document how people of European descent established new laws and customs in the region, ignoring tribal governance that had existed long before their arrival. That violence was marked on the landscape through battles and removal, in the legal system that provided no justice for Native people, and on paper with written words. Lewis and Connolly argue that “bearing witness to this violence is crucial to understanding” the foundations of White supremacy and “is important to the process of recovery and healing efforts of Native people” — a process that is still young.

“We were at our journey’s end”: Settler Sovereignty Formation in Oregon

by Katrine Barber

When Esther Bell Hanna migrated to Oregon Territory in September 1852 and documented in her diary her first glimpse of the Columbia River, “she looked out over a landscape that contained relationships both legible and illegible to her.” In this research article, Barber explores those relationships through the lens of settler colonialism and White supremacy that “alienated Indigenous people from their lands through ordinary acts of fencing and plowing fields” and “disorganized terror and calculated war.” Barber also discusses acts of disruption and resistance to White supremacy, and argues that “to grapple with the foundations, legacies, and persistent characteristics of settler colonialism and its twin — White supremacy — is to grapple with the inequities that shape Oregon’s history, present, and future in ways both symbolic and material.”

“We’ll all Start at Even”: White Egalitarianism and the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act

by Kenneth R. Coleman

Kenneth R. Coleman examines the 1850 Oregon Donation Land Claim Act, a bill unprecedented in its generous land distribution and unique in that it was the only federal land-distribution act that specifically limited land grants by race. Oregon’s early political leaders “repeatedly invoked a Jacksonian vision of egalitarianism rooted in White supremacy to justify their actions” and successfully lobbied Congress to allow White settlers to seize Indigenous lands before they were ceded through federal treaties. The DCLA allowed privatization of over 2.5 million acres of Oregon land and influenced future land-distribution legislation, such as the 1863 Homestead Act. In using land as a tool of racial exclusion, Coleman argues that “Oregon’s early political leaders initiated a pattern that continued well into the twentieth century,” and “any serious attempt to challenge White supremacy in Oregon must engage with the economic legacy of institutionalized racism limiting access to real estate and, as such, wealth and social power.”

The Colored Brother’s Few Defenders: Oregon Abolitionists and their Followers

by Jim M. Labbe

In this research article, Jim M. Labbe documents little-known abolitionists who migrated to Oregon in 1851 and anti-slavery politics in Oregon leading up to statehood. According to Labbe, “the emergence and growth of the American abolitionist movement between 1830 and the Civil War closely paralleled the overland migration to Oregon.” As abolitionists entered the political arena — rejecting slavery in favor of greater racial equality — anti-slavery politics in Oregon were rooted in White supremacy. Through anti-slavery arguments prominent leaders in Oregon “amplified anti-Black prejudice, dismissed abolitionists as fanatics, and fortified assumptions about the purity the White race and its exclusive claims to the region.” Labbe argues that “the political marginalization of abolitionists during Oregon’s founding partially explains their loss to historical memory,” and that “better understanding these voices of dissent in Oregon’s past can enlighten and inspire the related choices and actions we face today.”

Constitutionalizing Racism: George H. Williams’s Appeal for a White Utopia

by Philip Thoennes and Jack Landau

On July 28, 1857, the Oregon Statesman published an editorial written by George H. Williams, a delegate to the Oregon Constitutional Convention and Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, that made powerful arguments for rejecting Oregon as a slave state — to preserve the region as a White utopia. In this Primary Document article, Philip Thoennes and Jack Landau provide context for Williams’s letter to the editor, published just days before the constitutional convention, which also reprinted in its original form. Thoennes and Landau assert that the letter “offers valuable insight to the logic that prevailed in Oregon’s founding as a state that excluded both slavery and free Black people.”

White Right and Labor Organizing in Oregon’s “Hindu City”

by Johanna Ogden

In March 1910, anti-Indian violence erupted in St. John’s, then a city just outside Portland, Oregon, perpetrated by a crowd of two hundred White laborers joined by the mayor, police chief, and two police officers. While the 1910 St. Johns riot is not well known, Johanna Ogden situates it within a growing anti-Asian movement along the West coast that “rocked towns from California to British Columbia and targeted Indian, Japanese, and Chinese shopkeepers and laborers.” The Indians fought back the night of the riot and, with the backing of the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and the British Consulate, demanded prosecution of the rioters. Ogden provides an account of the riot and how the Indian community in the region “became a center of anti-colonial organizing” in forming Ghadar, a global movement to free India from British rule.

Liberty Ships and Jim Crow Shipyards: Racial Discrimination in Kaiser’s Portland Shipyards, 1940–1945

by John Linder

During World War II, the Black population Portland-Vancouver region in Oregon grew tenfold. New arrivals sought work in war industries, particularly in the three large Kaiser Company shipyards where a majority of skilled jobs were under the jurisdiction of the Local 72 of the Boilermakers Union, which refused to admit Black members. John Linder describes how during a time when shipyards needed skilled workers, “qualified Black workers were consigned to laboring jobs or forced to join a segregated and powerless ‘auxiliary local’.” Linder’s article sheds light on some of that systemic discrimination reinforced by corporations and ignored by the federal government that has had lasting effects into the present. It also highlights that “significant victories were won by Black workers and organizers who relied on mass action rather than the promises and proclamations of government and company officials.

“They can’t come in through the front door because you won’t let them”: An Oral History of the Struggle to Admit African Americans into ILWU Local 8

by Sandy Polishuk

In this Oregon Voices essay, Sandy Polishuk excerpts oral history interviews she conducted with several participants in a 1968 struggle to admit African American workers as Class A workers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 8. Although the International ILWU at its founding declared its opposition to discrimination in any form — whether political, economic, racial, or nationality — some ILWU locals, including Portland’s Local 8 failed to fully comply. Polishuk’s interviews include perspectives from Black workers, White workers, and two lawyers who represented the plaintiffs and the ILWU Local 8.

From Nativism to White Power: Mid-Twentieth Century White Supremacist Movements in Oregon

by Shane Burley and Alexander Reid Ross

Two document cases in the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) Research Library’s George Rennar papers contain significant documentation of White supremacist organizations that developed in Oregon during the period between World War I and World War II. In this Research Files article, Shane Burley and Alexander Reid Ross highlight connections found within the collection between the variety of interlinked, racist, and nationalist organizations during that time period. Burley and Ross argue that while “membership numbers remained relatively small, these organizations provided a crucial link to the development of radical right-wing groups during the postwar era.”

White Supremacy and Hatred in the Streets of Portland: The Murder of Mulugeta Seraw

by Elden Rosenthal

In November 1988, in Southeast Portland, Oregon, three neo-Nazi skinheads murdered Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant, with a baseball bat. The murderers had been recruited to commit violence against people of color by members of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), a White supremacist group founded in southern California. A few months after the murder, Elden Rosenthal, a Portland attorney, was asked by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to serve as local counsel on a civil suit they were bringing against WAR founder Tom Metzger for inciting violence that led to Seraw’s death. In this Oregon Voices essay, Rosenthal relays a personal account of the trial and makes connections between White supremacist rhetoric during the 1980s and 1990s in Portland and the resurgence of that rhetoric and hate crimes in recent years.

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