School program looks at Oregon's racial history


Portland Public Schools will be Oregon's first district to use a textbook to explore the state's racial history. And some of it isn't too pretty.

"This is not your traditional Oregon history kids may have learned in social studies class in fourth grade," said Marcia Arganbright, district director of curriculum and instruction.

"Beyond the Oregon Trail: Oregon's Untold History" is one of four books recommended for eighth-graders.

She said the district didn't seek a curriculum dealing with racism but found that "Beyond the Oregon Trail" met the goals of seeing history in a different way.

Some of the state's racial history has been glossed over, and likely will provoke strong feelings and discussion.

For example: After slavery was declared illegal by the provisional government of what is now Oregon in 1844, residents passed the "Lash Law" requiring African Americans to be whipped if they refused to leave. Whipping was changed to forced labor six months later, although there is only one record of a person leaving because of it.

The law was changed in 1862 to charge African Americans, Chinese, Hawaiians and multiracial people an annual tax of $5 to live in the state, about $770 in today's money.

"We had to create a safe space to talk about this so everyone leaves with their dignity intact," said Shauna Adams, co-author, consultant and trainer on cultural competence.

"We wanted to make sure it wasn't blaming language, but we have to be willing to look at the ways we can participate in bias, even unknowingly. That's something young people can understand if we offer it up to them in ways they can hear it."

The concept was created by Oregon Uniting, a community group that worked to initiate dialogue about race in Oregon. The group received a grant to create a curriculum to help students better understand Oregon's racial past.

Co-author Keisha Edwards said they had a specific mission in mind.

"A lot of multicultural curriculum has dealt with celebrating differences," said Edwards, a consultant and curriculum developer for the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory.

Instead, the class will visit where it hurt""the racism, sexism, classism, homophobia.

In 2004, Oregon Uniting merged with another organization to form Uniting to Understand Racism to promote understanding of racism through education and conversation.

Sheila Griffie, executive director of Uniting to Understand Racism, said the new curriculum sprang from the organization's dialogues on racism with community groups and corporations.

"The school curriculum is a history that gives young people a more full picture of what Oregon is about. ... It's not just Lewis and Clark."

Over 188 years, federal and Oregon governments passed more than 30 racial discriminatory laws.

Many dozed for years in the statute books, forgotten and unused.

There were three exclusion laws banning blacks from the state that passed before statehood in 1859.

In 1849 it was ruled illegal for blacks to settle in the new Oregon Territory at all, a law that remained until 1854.

Oregon became the first state admitted to the union with an exclusion law in its constitution. It was removed in 1926.

"Whites and half-breed Indians" could claim land under the 1850 Donation Land Act. Blacks could not.

In 1866 the state rejected the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to blacks, and extended the marriage ban to anybody a quarter or more Chinese or Hawaiian or half or more Indian. That was state law until 1951.

In 1883 an attempt to amend the state constitution to remove the ban on black voting failed, and it didn't pass until 1927. Oregon voters got around to ratifying the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which did the same thing, in 1959.

Joyce Harris of the Maryland-based National Association for Multicultural Education said the adoption of material such as "Beyond the Oregon Trail" would help debunk the idea that truth and history come from only one source.

"If we think of truth as being the sum of multiple perspectives, then we get a more accurate picture of history and a more accurate, equitable and just picture of today," Harris said.

Share This Story