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Forging the West

Celebrating Oregon's Black pioneers and modern trail blazers

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Though often omitted from history books, African American people had feet on the ground side by side with early explorers of the Oregon Territory—from Markus Lopius, a "servant" on the Lady Washington in 1788 with Robert Gray, to York, a slave on the Lewis and Clark expedition, to Moses Harris, a free black mountain man and legend in the fur trade and later a sought-after wagon train guide. There's also James Douglas, chief factor at Fort Vancouver in the 1840s and concurrent governor on Vancouver Island and British Columbia. 

Somewhat simultaneous with Douglas' rise to political power, legislated race restrictions known as Exclusion Laws were set for Oregon Trail immigration. Racial limitations also applied with the Oregon Donation Land Law in 1850. These federally enforced restrictions, present at the inception of Oregon, created major undeniable barriers. Bearing these inequities in mind, we've set aside some ink this week to look at some of Oregon's modern and early Black trail blazers—by no means a comprehensive list of contemporary Black leaders who have molded pop culture, athletics, social change and beyond. 

Esperanza Spalding is known throughout the musical world for her creativity. - CARMEN DANESHMANDI
  • Carmen Daneshmandi
  • Esperanza Spalding is known throughout the musical world for her creativity.

Esperanza Spalding, bass, vocals and jazz musician

This Portland native's music is referred to as inexhaustibly creative and truly intoxicating. Her album, "12 Little Spells" made it to #4 on the 2018 The New York Times list of Best Albums. In 2011, she won a Grammy for Best New Artist—unprecedented for a jazz musician up against high profile hip-hop, pop and rock artists. In her own avant-garde description, she produces bass and accompanying vocals with the intention of connecting latent portals of unity consciousness and health. Furthermore, she is currently exploring music as a healing technology. 

Melissa Lowery, filmmaker 

After graduating from Pacific University with a bachelor of arts in media, Lowery wrote and directed 2014's "Black Girl in Suburbia," highlighting her own experience growing up in West Linn, Oregon. Her film, funded by Kickstarter campaigns, experienced region and national success. Shown throughout the Portland Metropolitan area, Oregon, the International Black Women's Film Festival and St. Louis International Film Festival, her film started landmark conversation about growing up as a person of color in Oregon.

Donna Maxey, educator and activist

Having spent her 35+ year career educating kindergarteners to adults, in 2005 Maxey helped pilot Courageous Conversations, a program discussing race dynamics in Portland Public Schools. It became a starting point for her future equity work, and led to the launch of Race Talks, a nonprofit that aims to unite to break the chains of racism. Race Talks' mission is to support interracial and cross-cultural communication and relationships through the development of sensitivity and understanding, and social justice activism supported by educational panels and films, good food and great discussions—all amongst total strangers. Over 20,000 participants have attended monthly meetings which are now virtual. Shaina Pomerantz, Maxey's daughter, has been working with Race Talks for the past four years as Maxey tries to transition into a real retirement.

Ashton Eaton, Olympian 

Before his outstanding and world-renowned athletic accomplishments, Eaton attended elementary school in La Pine, eventually finishing school in Bend. After setting the decathlon world record in the U.S. Olympic trials in June 2012 and then winning the gold medal at the London summer games, La Pine named a stretch of Highway 97 in Eaton's honor. At present he is a retired, two-time Olympic champion, still holding the world record in the indoor heptathlon. He was also the second decathlete ever to break the 9,000-point barrier.

Ashton Eaton, with roots in La Pine and Bend, went on to become a record-holding Olympian. - FILIP_BOSSUYT / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • filip_bossuyt / Wikimedia Commons
  • Ashton Eaton, with roots in La Pine and Bend, went on to become a record-holding Olympian.

Additional black innovators from Oregon:

Gwen Trice - Historian and museum curator

Margaret Carter – Oregon state senator 

Avel Gordly – Oregon state senator

Jackie Winters – Oregon state senator 

Danny Glover - Actor

Janice Scroggins - Pianist

Mike "Philly" Phillips - Saxophonist

Mel Brown - Jazz drummer

Julianne Johnson Weis - Jazz singer

Liv Warfield - R&B singer

Andy Stokes - R&B singer

James DePreist - Conductor 

DeNorval Unthank - Portland doctor and activist

Other Historic Oregon Trail Blazers: 

Beatrice Morrow Cannady. - OREGON SECRETARY OF STATE /COURTESY BARBARA REDWINE
  • Oregon Secretary of State /courtesy Barbara Redwine
  • Beatrice Morrow Cannady.
John Brown - First black settler and orchard farmer in Central Oregon, 1881

Oscar & Walter Anderson - First black ranchers in Harney County, in the 1910s

Beatrice Morrow Cannady - Editor, advocate, activist and co-founder and vice president of the Oregon chapter of the NAACP, 1913

William Badger - Restaurant and tourism business owner and Oregon's first black elected official, Gearhart City Council, 1934

Special thanks to Kerstin Arias for pre-editing this article at the request of the author.







Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Melissa Lowery graduated from Portland State. It is Pacific University. We regret the error.

About The Author

K.M. Collins

A native Oregonian, K.M. Collins is a geologist-gone-writer. Covering everything outdoors and a spectrum of journalism, she's a jack of all whitewater sports and her favorite beat is anything river related. Don't blow her cover as a freshwater mermaid amongst humans.

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