Temple exhibit shows Oregon's history of racial discrimination

Oregon entered the union as a "free state" in 1859, but its first constitution banned black people from visiting or moving into the state.

In 1921, the Ku Klux Klan established itself in Oregon and soon became the largest KKK group west of the Rocky Mountains.

Japanese immigrants coming to Oregon in the 1880s sent home for brides because a state law prohibited marriage between whites and people of other races.

In 1923, Oregon discriminated against Asian immigrants by enacting the Alien Land Law, which prevented non-citizens from owning land, and the Alien Business Restriction Law, which permitted municipal governments to refuse to grant business licenses to non-citizens and required non-citizens owning hotels and grocery stores to display signs declaring their nationality.

In the 1930s, Dr. DeNorval Unthank, one of Portland's first black doctors, moved into an all-white neighborhood, only to be presented with a petition signed by 75 people against his presence. He moved after his house was repeatedly vandalized.

These are just a few pieces of Oregon's history of discrimination that Ashlanders can learn about from "No Easy Road: Unlearning Discrimination in Oregon," a traveling exhibit created by the Oregon Area Jewish Committee that is currently displayed at Temple Emek Shalom.

In an effort to facilitate dialogue, the temple will host several discussions relating to the exhibit. Scott Nelson, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, D.C., will lead a discussion tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. On Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. a retired schoolteacher will lead a discussion geared toward youth, and the temple will host another discussion on Aug. 18 at 7 p.m. The exhibit can also be viewed for free during the temple's office hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

"Oregonians have found ways to exclude people since the first settlers made their way across the Oregon Trail," an exhibit panel states. "Harming and humiliating people is not a noble part of Oregon's history, but it cannot be ignored, particularly because it continues to be a small but sorry part of our world today."

As Oregon celebrates its sesquicentennial, it's important to remember the state's seamier history, Nelson said.

"This is really an area that a lot of people don't know much about," he said. "When I went to school in this area in the '60s and '70s, these were things that were not included in the curriculum on Oregon history."

Nelson said he will speak about how Oregon's discriminatory history relates to the U.S. Constitution and address local history, including Southern Oregon's unofficial "sundown laws" that oral history indicates lasted well into the 1950s.

"The message was conveyed that African-Americans should not spend the night in Medford or Grants Pass," he said.

Judy Visser, the temple's director of education, said the exhibit is especially relevant now because discrimination often increases in difficult economic times.

"To have this exhibit is a way to remind people that this is not acceptable," she said. "To be proactive and not wait for something to happen."

While she was installing the exhibit, Visser said she told her husband about the state's history, "and he would say, 'What year? 1922? Not 1722?'

"It's kind of shocking," she said. "These things were actually part of the (Oregon) constitution. It was codified. It wasn't just a few people that had negative feelings."

After the Civil War, the 14th and 15th amendments rendered many of the discriminatory laws unenforceable, Nelson said, but the wording remained in the constitution for decades, and the unwelcoming attitude persisted throughout much of the 20th century, likely resulting in Oregon remaining one of the least diverse states.

In 1945, the National Journal of Social Work declared Portland the most discriminatory city outside of the Deep South.

In 1953, Oregon passed the Public Accommodations Law, making it illegal for hotels, restaurants and amusement places to discriminate on the basis of race, national origin or religion — Oregon was the last West Coast state to pass such a law.

Until the 1960s, the Tualatin Country Club was the only country club to allow Jewish membership.

In 1988, a group of skinheads beat Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant, to death in Portland. In 1990, Tom Metzger, the head of the Aryan Resistance, was convicted of inciting the killers to murder.

Rabbi Marc Sirinksy said it's imperative to not sweep Oregon's discriminatory history under the table.

"It's important to look at where you've been, so you can appreciate where you've gotten to and where you want to get to," he said. "This exhibit brings that clearly to the surface. We've come a long way, but we have more to go."

The exhibit is scheduled to end Sept. 9, but Visser said if any teachers would like to bring in their students, it may be possible to keep the display up after school starts.

"It's real important, I think, for kids growing up to be aware of how quickly prejudice can spread," she said.

Temple Emek Shalom is located at 1800 E. Main St. in Ashland. For more information, call 488-2909.

Reach Kira Rubenthaler at 482-3456 ext. 225 or krubenthaler@dailytidings.com.

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