Blacks in Oregon
Bill Long 8/21/05
Rewriting History Right Out There in the Open
I need to write these two essays because they illustrate the way that people try to hide things about their past. I suppose we all do so; we all try to cover up the scars, the embarrassing marks on the body, the visible signs of invisible hurt, because we want to give the impression that we approach the world in a strong and vigorous manner. Just as Oedipus didn't want to be reminded of his club foot, so we bury things that were inflicted upon us, hoping the things will stay interred once and for all, and we can live in peace. It is even better if you can get other people to agree to bury your past, either from excessive guilt or simply from a desire to appear "modern" and "up to date." The story of the elimination of a Constitutional provision from the State of Oregon on "Free Negroes," is one such instance. Indeed, the expungement has been so well-done that it is very difficult, unless you really know what you are doing, to discover anything substantive on the Internet about the "Free Negro" provision in the Oregon Constitution.
This problem came freshly to my mind as I was researching the history of the 14th Amendment. Here is the Oregon story on Free Negroes or, as it is popularly called today, Black Exlusion laws, both in its 19th century version and its 21st century version. First, the 19th century.
Oregon became a State in 1859, but is constitution was approved in 1857. In the original Constitution (which is faintly online, in the flowing script of that period), Article II, Sec. 6 provided that "No Negro, Chinaman or Mulatto shall have the right of suffrage." However repugnant this is to us in the 21st century, it was rather standard at the time. Only five New England states, and no other state, permitted Black suffrage before the Civil War. But more interesting to me was the way Article XVIII, the "Schedule" read. It gave the voters of Oregon (about 10,000 at the time) three questions to answer when they went to the polls in 1857 to approve the Constitution. Sec. 2 of that original Article XVIII provided as follows:
"Sec. 2. Each elector who offers to vote upon this Constitution, shall be asked by the judges of election this question:
Do you vote for the Constitution? Yes, or No.
And also this question:
Do you vote for Slavery in Oregon? Yes, or No.
And also this question:
Do you vote for free Negroes in Oregon? Yes, or No.
Voting For and Against Slavery
The same section went on to provide for the technical way that the vote would be recorded. But then Section 4 of Article XVIII went on to provide:
"If this Constitution shall be accepted by the electors, and a majority of all the votes given for, and against slavery, shall be given for slavery, then the following section shall be added to the Bill of Rights, and shall be part of this Constitution:
'Sec. ___ "Persons lawfully held as slaves in any State, Territory, or District of the United STates, under the laws thereof, may be brought into this State, and such Slaves, and their descendants may be held as slaves within this State, and shall not be emancipated without the consent of their owners.'"
Thus, if the people wanted slavery, the will of the voters would be recorded in what were called the "unnumbered" sections of Article I of the Oregon Constitution. The same section of Article XVIII went on to provide, however, that if the voters of Oregon rejected slavery, then the following wording would be added to the Oregon Constitution:
"Sec. ___ There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in the Sate, otherwise than as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."
Because the slavery provision was roundly defeated, the just-cited section was added to the Oregon Constitution as Article 1, Sec. 34.
The Question of Free Blacks
The final question put to the voters was on Free Blacks. the precise wording of original Article XVIII, Sec. 4 was:
"And if a majority of all the votes given for, and against free negroes, shall be given against free negroes, then the following section shall be added to the Bill of Rights, and shall be part of this Constitution:
"Sec. ____ no free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution [i.e., 1857], 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 by 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."
As anyone who looks at this matter for more than a few seconds can discern, this proposed Constitutional Amendment is very offensive to our ears, and was even quite radical in 1857. It almost prevented Oregon from becoming a State. In its most basic terms it excludes Blacks from the State who weren't there in 1857 (this would probably only have been a handful). Note that the three phrases "real estate/contracts/maintain any suit" of the provision are similar to the language adopted by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1866 when it provided these rights for Black Americans. The citizens of Oregon voted to exclude Free Blacks by a wide margin, and the words just indented became Article 1, Sec. 35 of the Oregon Constitution. This section was not repealed by the voters of Oregon until Nov. 2, 1926, even though it had been ignored for years.
The "problem" has now been stated: Oregon voted not to permit slavery in the State, but it also voted to exclude any "free negroes" from the State except those who had been living in Oregon in 1857. In doing things in this way, Oregon became the only State to have a Black Exclusion provision in its Constitution, much less in the Bill of Rights of its Constitution.
The next essay gives the rest of the story.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long