On most weekends during the warm months, you’re likely to find Zachary Stocks in buckskin pants and a linen shirt guiding visitors around Fort Clatsop, a replica of the encampment where American explorers Lewis and Clark holed up during the bitter winter of 1805. But on one chilly morning last fall, Stocks was bundled in a fleece jacket, his dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail, and a mask covered his face—protecting against both COVID and the wildfire smoke then blanketing the state.
During the workweek, Stocks is executive director of Oregon Black Pioneers, a group that documents and disseminates the African American history of a state that’s 87 percent white. On weekends he’s an interpretive guide for visitors who make their way to Astoria, Oregon’s oldest city located on its northernmost coastal tip.
Many of the visitors Stocks meets have heard of York, William Clark’s enslaved “manservant” who accompanied the explorers on their famous expedition. But what Stocks tells them is a history few native Oregonians—and even fewer of the recent wave of transplants to Portland—know.
“As long as there have been white people here, there have been Black people here,” he says. “The reason we don't talk about Black people in the larger narrative of our state’s development is because there were explicit laws placed to keep Black people out of Oregon.” Sometimes this fact makes Fort Clatsop’s visitors visibly uncomfortable.
Oregon is known today for liberal politics and residents who faintly resemble the quirky characters on the TV parody Portlandia. And since last summer Portland, the state’s largest city, has hosted the longest continuous Black Lives Matter protests in the nation. But Portland is also one of the whitest large cities in America. How did it become a hotbed of racial reckoning?
A big part of the answer lies in the state’s history. Before Oregon became a state, it fashioned itself as a whites-only utopia. When it joined the union in 1859, it was then the only state with laws specifically prohibiting certain races from legally living, working, or owning property within its borders.
Oregon’s subsequent history is peppered with violence against minority groups. In 1887 a gang of white horse thieves murdered and mutilated 34 Chinese gold miners. No one was held accountable for the massacre. By the 1920s, one in 20 Oregonians was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, the highest percentage of any state west of the Mississippi. In the 1970s separatists in the region proposed creating a white ethnostate called the “Northwest Territorial Imperative,” and in 1988 a group of white supremacists murdered an Ethiopian college student with a baseball bat, earning Portland the nickname “Skinhead City.”
Today, the state is politically divided by region. The rural east, home to cattle ranchers and farmers, is a conservative stronghold. Yet even many progressive residents in the state’s liberal western corridor—from artsy Ashland in the south to hippie Eugene in the center and hipster Portland up north—are unaware of Oregon’s dark history.