A recent edition of The Bulletin included a report on parents and others who confronted the both the Bend-La Pine and Redmond school boards this past week over policies about student masking and the curriculum as related to race and gender. I’ll leave the response to questions about masking to health experts, but I’d like to speak from personal experience about the importance of teaching issues of race and gender in our schools.
I grew up in Corvallis in the 1950s. Here are some things that I did not learn in my school:
Although Oregon history classes covered the migration of white pioneers and settlers to the Oregon Territory, the focus on Native Americans was on massacres of whites such as that of the Whitmans in 1847. The fact that Native Americans died by the thousands due to diseases such as smallpox brought by the pioneers (and sometimes intentionally spread) was not mentioned. Nor was it explained that their land was forcibly taken and that events such as the Modoc War were at least partly in response to massacres of Native Americans by such American “heroes” as John C. Fremont.
Although my Oregon history classes did indeed teach that Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859 as a free state, they did not teach that Oregon had black exclusion laws dating back to 1844. Section 4 of the 1844 law states that,
When any free negro or mulatto shall have come to Oregon, he or she (as the case may be), if of the age of eighteen or upward, shall remove from and leave the country within the term of two years for males, and three for females, from the passage of this act, and that if any free negro or mulatto shall hereafter come to Oregon, if of the age aforesaid, he or she shall quite and leave the country within the term of two years for males and three for females, from his or her arrival in the county.
Section 6 of the same law lays out that the penalty for a negro or mulatto failing to quit the state shall be between 20 and 39 lashes to his or her bare back.
Reconstruction and the KKK
Although the Civil War was part of my American history class, the reality of life under slavery was eclipsed by a focus on Lincoln freeing the slaves (a vast oversimplification at best) and nothing whatsoever was taught about Southern laws to subjugate Black Americans after Reconstruction almost as fully as had been the case before the Civil War. Nor was I taught that the KKK was extremely active throughout Oregon, especially in Portland, claiming 35,000 members in 1923.
Although my social studies classes covered many aspects of the U.S. and Oregon’s constitutions and laws they did not cover the federal Chinese Exclusion Acts nor mention Oregon events such as the massacre of more than 30 Chinese miners at Deep Creek in Hells Canyon in 1887. And of course there was no mention at all of the fact that thousands of Oregon citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in 1942, in the process losing forever their land, their homes, and most other property.
I could go on, but I think the point is clear: There are many aspects of Oregon’s (and America’s) racist past that were not taught when I was a student in Corvallis public schools in the 1950s. These important things I learned about much later and with no thanks to our public school system.
Some people say that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. I’m not sure that this is true, but I am sure that those who do not study history in its entirety are indeed doomed to repeat it. Today’s young Oregonians deserve to learn the whole truth of American and Oregon history, and I applaud our state’s schools for trying to do better for this generation.