Yes, there were black slaves in the Pacific Northwest. Historians are making the region confront it.

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, book, Pacific Northwest, historian

In August, The New York Times Magazine published a special edition devoted to the centrality of African slavery in American history. Slavery “is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin,” wrote Editor Jake Silverstein in the preamble to the magazine, “but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.” The Pacific Northwest is no exception. Most people are unaware that African slavery came to this region in its earliest stages and contributed significantly to our political and cultural landscape. It is part of our region’s origin, one that writers and scholars in recent years are bringing to light and asking Northwesterners, especially those of us who are white, to more fully acknowledge and reckon with.

R. Gregory Nokes is a white native Oregonian whose ancestors came out on the Oregon Trail. He traveled the world as a reporter with the Associated Press and the Oregonian. In his post-journalism retirement he has devoted himself to Oregon history, but not the kind he was taught in Portland’s public schools in the 1950s. His two most recent books are deep and sometimes shocking dives into a dark corner of our region’s past: the reality of African American slaves in the region, the people who brought them here, and those who sought to banish anyone of their race.

The story is personal for Nokes. Some years back his brother suggested he write about Reuben Shipley. Who is that? Nokes wondered. It turns out one of Nokes’ ancestors, Robert Shipley, brought with him a slave named Reuben when he came West by covered wagon from Missouri in 1853. Robert promised Reuben his freedom if he helped him start a farm in the Oregon Country. But to do so Reuben would have to leave his own enslaved family behind, which he did.

Nokes, who had always been proud of his family’s pioneer roots, was stunned. He had no idea. “Gosh, I’ve been fooled,” he says now about the history he never learned and the blank pages he’s been working to fill in. He’s not alone. Many of us brought up in the Northwest learned nothing about such things. The teaching of Northwest history in public schools has conveniently avoided or minimalized such history. Even today, recommended social studies courses that teach Washington state history are confined within a unit in fourth grade and one in middle or high school. Social studies in general must split time with geography, civics, economics, world history and other subjects. Because of this, our understanding of the region is often antiquated, shallow or utterly absent.

Read entire article at Crosscut