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Oregon History: Minorities

Abigail Scott Duniway fought for decades to advance women's rights in Oregon.

Abigail Scott Duniway fought for decades to advance women's rights in Oregon. Learn more about Duniway.

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The welcome mat was not out. Oregon's early generations defined opportunity narrowly. The land and resources were the domain of men and women of Caucasian background; others need not apply. Even when the Donation Land Act provided that women qualified for claims, brothers and brothers-in-law tried to wrest claims away from widows. Entreaties of women for fairer treatment finally led to passage of the Married Women's Property Act in 1866, the right to vote in school elections in 1878, and admission to the bar in 1886. Women were a minority in Oregon. The frontier demography, especially in mining districts and rural areas, remained predominantly male for decades. Women's efforts to gain the general franchise were repeatedly rebuffed and not realized until the 20th century.

 

African-Americans were unequivocally not wanted. Some, nevertheless, persisted quietly and settled in the state. The Census of 1850 reported in the entire Pacific Northwest either 54 or 56. The Census of 1860 identified 124 blacks and mulattoes, a tiny fraction of the more than 52,000 residents enumerated. Those who settled in Oregon took risks, but they had known prejudice and discrimination far worse in other parts of the country. Sometimes, however, racial episodes erupted. These occurred sporadically in several parts of the state over a period of 70 years. By 1890, for example, the African-American population of Coos County was 36. Most worked for the local railroad or at the Beaver Hill and Libby coal mines. Recruited in West Virginia, they had emigrated across the country and walked through the Coast Range from Roseburg to the lower Coquille River, only to find that they and their families were expected to live in leaking boxcars. The men had to work in the deep shafts reaching below sea level for 90 cents per day. When they complained, they were accused of fomenting labor strife and compelled to leave.

 

Marshfield, shown here in 1912, was the site of racial vigilantism in the early 1900s. (Photo courtesy Ralph Johnson)

Marshfield, shown here in 1912, was the site of racial vigilantism in the early 1900s. (Photo courtesy Ralph Johnson)

Alonzo Tucker was an African-American who worked as a bootblack and operator of a gym in Marshfield. In 1902 dubious charges of rape were leveled against him by a white woman. When a mob of 200 armed men marched on the jail, the marshal lost control of Tucker, who hid beneath a dock. He was twice shot the next morning and then hanged from the Fourth Street Bridge by a mob that had grown to more than 300. The coroner's inquest found no fault; the victim, the report said, had died of loss of blood from a gunshot wound. No indictments were brought. The local newspaper observed that the lynch mob was "quiet and orderly" and that the vigilante proceeding was no "unnecessary disturbance of the peace." In 1907 the Marshfield School Board instituted segregated education, alleging that the four African-American students "will materially retard the progress of the five hundred white children."

 

Not all African-Americans faced treatments like those in turn-of-the-century Coos County. Some found steady employment with the railroads, both on construction crews and on Pullman cars. Others opened restaurants, barber shops, beauty shops, and saloons. McCants Stewart in 1903 passed the Oregon bar exam and began legal practice. Dr. J.A. Merriam entered medical practice in Portland in that decade. A number entered the ministry and labored at the pulpit, in choirs, and in social halls to influence the spirituality of their families, friends, and neighbors. Outreach came in many forms. The Colored Benevolent Association of Portland, founded in 1867, fraternal lodges, baseball teams, and women's clubs were other means for African-Americans to help their communities.

 

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