Home » Oregon » General

James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.



Basic Information

Type of Place
Metro Area
Politics c. 1860?
Unions, Organized Labor?

Sundown Town Status

Confirmed Sundown Town?
Was there an ordinance?
Year of Greatest Interest
Still Sundown?

Census Information

The available census data from 1860 to the present
Total White Black Asian Native Hispanic Other BHshld

Method of Exclusion

Main Ethnic Group(s)

Group(s) Excluded

  • Black
  • Asian


In 1970, among the 18 small cities between 10,000 and 50,000, 15 were overwhelmingly white and had been still whiter; several were confirmed. So I feel justified in saying more than half of OR may have been sundown towns.

Peak KKK membership in 1920s: 150,000 (Arwin Smallwood, The Atlas of African-American History and Politics (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 106)

“No free Negro, or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this state, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the Legislative Assembly shall provide penal laws for the removal, by public officers, of all such Negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the State, or employ, or harbor them.”

Repealed 2002: about 30 percent of voters voted to retain the measure.

According to an Oregon resident, when they moved to teach at Oregon State University in 1957 there were members of the Methodist Wesley Foundation actively engaged in getting clauses out of land deeds that stated no colored person other than domestic help could stay overnight on that property. He never saw any documentation.

Below is the text of a speech given by Anitra K. Rasmussen, 11th District, Oregon State Legislature. Location: Metropolitan Richmond Day, November 18, 1999, Richmond VA (from from Hope in the City website, 2/2001)

“….It is our stories, our history that brings us together this morning. History already recorded, and history waiting to be made. I come from a part of the country where written history, European American history, is very thin. We are not quite 200 years away from the great Lewis and Clark expedition to the west coast, and almost all of us are from somewhere else within the last two generations. It’s not that there isn’t history spanning millennia in my state, it’s just that it wasn’t recorded in a way that was respected by the European American settlers of the last century, and thus almost all was lost as entire tribes died due to white men’s diseases.

I enjoy thinking about history. I enjoy thinking about how it was that we came to be here now. I think that careful examination of our history gives meaning to our present lives and grounds our future choices. But not all of our history is pleasant or heroic. Our personal history, our family history, our cultural history all hold events that must be healed in order to move forward in health and wholeness. So this morning, I’m going to tell you some history. Some of it is my own personal history and some of it I must claim simply because of where I live. And then I will tell you how history was changed on one afternoon in April of last year.

….Perhaps for most of you, when you hear of my birthplace you think of forests and salmon, progressive environmental and social legislation, but there is a deep shadow in our paradise. We who are of European American heritage, have been pretty successful in keeping people of color especially African Americans out of our state.

We started this project in 1849 when the white male settlers who made up the Oregon Territorial Legislature specifically prohibited ‘negros, mulattos, and colored persons’ from our state. Now, as a white woman, I would love to be able to say that it’s all the white men’s fault. The truth is, I don’t believe that the white women of the community were standing outside the door of the room with pickets in their hand protesting the action.

…. As near as I can tell from reading the 1849 resolution, this exclusion came from a place of fear one of the worst motivators in our human emotional range. The resolution essentially reads, “We’re surrounded by Indians. We let in African Americans, they’re going to cause trouble, stir up the native Americans, and then we’ll all be dead.”

I find this statement fascinating because buried within this law is an acknowledgment that the Chinook people, the Klamath People, the Nez Pierce and all their brothers and sisters throughout the Americas might have a reason to be unhappy with the loss of their land and their way of life.

When Oregon finally came into the Union, we made a decision to be a free state rather than a slave state not so much out of a concern for the suffering of our brothers and sisters in bondage but more from a sense of just “don’t let these kinds of people here.” No black folks, no problems. Our state constitution very specifically limited the participation and presence of African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. Political and economic power was clearly to remain in European American control.

…. Last spring Senator Gordly and I were granted an opportunity to participate in a powerful and symbolic act of healing, A ceremony called the Day of Acknowledgment. It was a symbolic act by Oregon’s political leadership. The resolution — passed by both the House and the Senate — simply but clearly acknowledged Oregon’s racist history. Sen. Gordly and I worked with many others to shape and move the resolution through the process. It was not easy nor automatic. It took a great deal of sensitivity and patience. But in the end, It was an amazing, transforming, and healing event, an hour long bill signing ceremony held in the House chambers. I asked for the opportunity to introduce some of our speakers and to sit at the podium because I wanted to see the room, I wanted to see the people’s faces.

At first we reserved the desks on the floor for the members of the House and Senate and their staff. Oregonians of all ethnic and racial heritage sat on the side and in the gallery. They filled the room and overflowed to other rooms where they could watch on TV. As is the nature of legislative life, not all the members were present at the appointed hour so the speaker of the house invited the people of Oregon to come out and sit on the floor, to take their seats in the Chamber. For a moment, they hesitated, and then Oregonians — Oregonians of all colors and dress — came and took joyful possession of their chamber. For years I have seen white, economically successful men and women sit in those desks and I have known that something was missing, that the pallet was somehow too monochromatic….

Four o’clock in the afternoon of April 22, 1999 is a moment in history where change happened. And like all moments of change, it is only when we look back can we see how the forces of water and earth came together to form this new bend in the river. Citizens of Richmond Virginia — you were there. Your work with your own walk of history, your pioneering work in racial dialogues, came to Portland two years ago and showed us — at a conference on racial issues at Portland State University — that there is something we can do together to heal not only the wounds of the past but also to forge a new future. We formed dialogue groups based on the Hope in the Cities process and we were supported both financially and intellectually by Hope in the Cities as an ad hoc group of activists who came together to first plan the celebration of the Day of Acknowledgement and now to form our own non profit organization called Oregon Uniting.

We are not done. Oregon Uniting is continuing racial dialogues based on the Hope in the Cities discussion guide. We will be training 13 new facilitators in January. We will be extending our dialogue process out to the rest of the state…. We are discussing changing or adding murals to our 1930s state capitol in order to make them more inclusive of all Oregonians. We are preparing to mark our own racial history so that we can teach it to ourselves and future generations. We will encourage the passage of similar resolutions in our sister territorial states of Idaho and Washington.”

Some articles:
LaLande, Jeff. “DIXIE” OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST: SOUTHERN OREGON’S CIVIL WAR. Oregon Historical Quarterly 1999 100(1): 32 81. Abstract: Interest in Civil War events was intense among residents of the Pacific Northwest, despite their geographical isolation from the conflict. Official war correspondence and eyewitness accounts dominated the region’s newspapers. Arguments over states’ rights and slavery were especially bitter in southern Oregon whose population was comprised mainly of settlers from Missouri, Kentucky, and the conservative districts of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois where residents, fearful of a despotic central government run by abolitionist and urban capitalists, were sympathetic to the Confederacy. During this period the region’s voters gained a reputation as “prone to extremes.” Though they abhorred the idea of a strong central government, most residents were Unionists at heart.

Slavery in the Oregon Country

Although slavery was declared illegal in 1844 by the Oregon Provisional Government, many people brought slaves with them across the Oregon Trail. Due to the length and difficulty of the journey, most slave owners brought only a few slaves West often a single longtime family servant and generally no more than a family of slaves, or at least those members deemed able to survive the trip.

The ban on slavery in the Oregon Country had nothing to do with abolitionist leanings. In fact, the opposite was true: slavery was outlawed as a means of keeping the black population in Oregon to a minimum. Owning slaves was widely tolerated in the Northwest, and while some slaves successfully sued for their freedom or the freedom of loved ones, no whites were ever forced to free their slaves upon entering the Oregon Country after 1844. However, some did follow through on promises to free their slaves upon arriving in Oregon, and a small population of free blacks gradually became established in the Pacific Northwest.

Slaves were too valuable for many owners to willingly give them up. Nathaniel Ford, an emigrant of 1844, brought with him three slaves: Robin and Polly Holmes, and their daughter Mary Jane. Ford had promised to free the Holmes family after he had established himself in Oregon, but in 1850 he agreed to free only Robin, Polly, and their infant son the Fords kept three other children, including Mary Jane. After a long court battle, the other children were freed by order of the court in 1853. The judge cited the fact that slavery was illegal in the Oregon Territory as the reason for his decision. Although she had been freed, Mary Jane Holmes continued to live with the Fords until her marriage in 1857, and her husband had to pay Nathaniel Ford $750 for permission to marry her.

Not all relationships between slave and master were so antagonistic. In 1849, Rose Jackson willingly traveled the Oregon Trail inside a box in the back of a wagon, coming out only at night to stretch and get some fresh air. Her owners credited her work as a laundress with helping the family survive their first winter in Oregon.

Racism became more widespread and severe along the West Coast in the years leading up to the Civil War. The California legislature almost passed exclusion laws twice, prompting many free blacks to head north to British Columbia. Some slaves still held in the old Oregon Country escaped north, as well. In 1860, a boy held by James Tilton, Surveyor General of the Washington Territory, escaped to Victoria, BC, and was protected by the British. Nothing came of Tilton’s protests to the Secretary of State in Washington, DC.

Pro slavery groups agitated repeatedly to form a new federal Territory and eventually a new slave state out of what is now southwestern Oregon and northern California. Significant gold strikes in that area in the early 1850s lent some weight to the forces backing this plan, but the first effort in 1854 was thwarted when California refused to cede any of its land. A second attempt in 1857 also failed.

Also in 1857, a bill was proposed in the Territorial Legislature to protect the property of slave owners. While ostensibly intended to protect the interests of slave owners passing through the Territory, it was almost certainly intended to legalize slavery by allowing slave owners to keep their slaves after moving to the Oregon Territory. Forces opposed to the bill defeated it by arguing that it would grant special rights to slave owners which were not enjoyed by the citizens of Oregon.

With statehood imminent in 1858, Oregonians elected their first slate of state officers and legislators. Pro slavery forces made an excellent showing at the polls, as Governor “Honest John” Whiteaker and other officials elected that year were well known for their views on blacks. Still, Governor Whiteaker was judged to have ably guided the newly minted State of Oregon through the Civil War. One of his contemporaries, Judge Matthew Deady, said of him, “Old Whit … Wrong in the head in politics, he is honest and right in the heart.“

Oregon’s early racial politics were dominated by a wish to simply be free of the problem altogether by not allowing blacks to settle here. There was a degree of consensus between the pro slavery and abolitionist sides to ignore the problem and hope it stayed in the East. Ignoring the problem, however, gave tacit approval to scofflaws who continued to hold slaves after settling in Oregon.

Exclusion Laws

In June, 1844, the Provisional Government of Oregon enacted its first laws regarding the status of slaves, and therefore blacks, in the Oregon Country. Slavery was declared to be illegal, and settlers who currently owned slaves were required to free them within three years. Any free blacks age 18 or older had to leave the area, men within two years and women within three. Black children were permitted to stay in the Oregon Country until they reached age 18.

The original exclusion law was the infamous “Lash Law” which subjected blacks found guilty of violating the law to whippings no less than 20 and no more than 39 strokes of the lash every six months “until he or she shall quit the territory.” It was soon recognized that this punishment was far too severe, and the law was modified before it went into effect.

The new version, enacted in December, 1844, replaced the whippings with forced labor. If a black person was tried and found guilty of being in the Oregon Country illegally, he or she was to be hired out publicly to whomever would employ them for the shortest amount of time. After the period of forced labor expired, the “employer” had six months to get the black individual out of Oregon. Failure to do so was punishable by a fine of $1000. This law was to go into effect in 1846, by which time those who wrote it doubtless hoped that most blacks would have left Oregon, but it was repealed in the 1845 session of the Provisional Legislature.

Another exclusion law was passed in September, 1849, which simply forbade blacks from settling in the newly declared Oregon Territory. Any already in residence were permitted to stay. In 1851, Jacob Vanderpool, a Salem boarding house and saloon owner, became the only person known to have been exiled from the Territory under Oregon’s exclusion laws. The law under which he was charged and sentenced was repealed in 1854.

Oregon ratified its state constitution in November, 1857. On the popular ballot for the constitution, there were also two other referendum issues on which citizens were asked to vote. Oregonians rejected slavery but approved adding a new exclusion law to the constitution. This law became part of Oregon’s original Bill of Rights.

When Oregon’s constitution was submitted to Congress for approval, some Northern legislators complained about the exclusion law. However, others saw it as a structured way to avoid bloodshed over racial issues and the spread of slavery. Thus, in February, 1859, Oregon became the only state admitted to the Union with an exclusion law in its constitution. After several unsuccessful attempts, the state constitution was finally amended in 1926 to remove the exclusion law from the state Bill of Rights. Over 60,000 voters declined to vote on the issue when casting their ballots. A separate clause in Oregon’s constitution banning black suffrage was repealed the following year. Of course, these laws had long since been superseded by federal laws and amendments to the US Constitution following the Civil War, but they remained enshrined in the state constitution for 60 years.

Exclusion laws seems bizarre and reprehensible today, but they were not uncommon in the Nineteenth Century. Settlers in the Oregon Country brought the idea with them from their old homes in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Both Illinois and Indiana had exclusion laws on the books in the Nineteenth Century, and all four states denied free blacks the right to vote and restricted their ability to testify in court. Some state and local laws required blacks to post a bond to guarantee their good behavior or to produce proof of their freedom upon the demand of any white person.

The fact that exclusion laws were enacted in Oregon was attractive to some prospective emigrants. Oregon seemed so far away from the United States in the 1840s that some of the settlers probably thought that they really did have a chance to avoid the issues of race and slavery by simply legislating away people of African descent. Some Oregonians supported the laws because they feared the violence that surrounded the politics of slavery in the East; others feared that enslaved blacks would take their jobs if they were brought West in significant numbers; still others were simply out and out racists.

Following the killings at the Whitman Mission in 1847, a wave of racial paranoia swept through the Willamette Valley. Many Oregonians convinced themselves that blacks and Indians might collaborate, joining forces to wipe out all the whites in the Oregon Country. Some went so far as to argue that without the exclusion laws, African Americans and Native Americans might intermarry and eventually reduce the white population to a threatened minority. As noted, the modified “Lash Law” was repealed in 1845; the fear following the Whitman Massacre led to the exclusion law of 1848.

There was no organized abolitionist movement in Oregon the way there was in the East, but many white friends of black settlers submitted petitions to the Provisional and Territorial Legislatures asking for exemptions for their friends. In addition, there were many petitions to repeal the exclusion laws submitted through the years. They even succeeded once or twice, but the laws were never out of force for long.
[Timeline of Black History in the NW] [Black Pioneers and Settlers]

“An industrial survey taken of black workers in 1941 shows Portland Negro workers employed as follows: 98.6% railroad industry, in some capacity such as waiters, cooks, porters, redcaps, and shop laborers; 1% in private industry and domestic service; 0.4% in business and professions.” (from Lenwood Davis, Sources for History of Blacks in Oregon (Oregon History Quarterly, 73 #3, 9/1972), 207)