Keeping History Alive

Spread the love

Oregon Black Pioneers marks 30 years of honoring and preserving Black heritage

By Tyler Francke, Contributing Writer | Photo credit: Courtesy Oregon Black Pioneers | Cover Illustration by Jeremy Davis

This year, Oregon Black Pioneers (OBP) celebrates a significant milestone: three decades of dedicated work in preserving and sharing the countless stories of more than 400 years of people of African descent living in Oregon. Founded in Salem in 1993, the nonprofit is Oregon’s only statewide African-American Historical Society and is committed to uncovering the history and heritage of Black people, shedding light on their contributions, struggles and triumphs. The organization’s mission is rooted in research, recognition and commemoration.

“I’m a public historian, and I just really geek out over history,” OBP Executive Director Zachary Stocks explains with a laugh. “But I’m also really inspired by the stories of people of African descent who’ve chosen to make Oregon their home — or who did not choose Oregon to be their home but made a life for themselves and their families here anyway. I find their stories really, really inspiring, and they help provide me with a sense of grounding about our place here in Oregon today and our ability to overcome what feels like tremendous odds.”

Since its establishment, OBP has worked diligently to become a central resource for understanding Oregon’s African-American history and culture. Through engaging exhibitions, public programs, original publications and thorough historical research, the nonprofit has made it its goal to ensure that these stories are not lost to time.

In a state whose early history was sadly marked by discriminatory laws and exclusion, the stories OBP brings to light are ones of resilience and determination. During the mid-1800s, African-Americans arrived in Oregon as sailors, gold miners, farmers and even slaves. Their numbers were small — an estimated 60 Black residents by 1850 – yet they managed to create communities and defy racist laws, prevailing in the face of adversity.

Zachary says there are two common myths about Oregon’s Black history that he and his organization seek to dispel. “The first myth is that Oregon’s Black history is relatively recent, that, you know, we’ve only been around here for the past 75 years, or whatever,” he says. “We see all the time that most broad tellings of Oregon history don’t even discuss people of African descent until World War II, with an influx of labor related to shipbuilding. But truthfully, there’s never been a time in Oregon’s history where there were White people here and not Black people here, going back to literally the first day.”

The other myth, Zachary explains, is that the state’s Black history is essentially synonymous with the Black history of Portland. And while the history of the state’s largest city certainly plays a large role, it “isn’t reflective of the entirety of Oregon’s Black history,” Zachary says. “There have been Black people in every county in this state.”

As part of its ongoing commitment to education, OBP has collaborated with institutions like the Oregon Historical Society, introducing new lesson plans that integrate African American history into the educational curriculum, ensuring that this essential aspect of the state’s heritage is recognized and remembered.

In addition to its educational efforts, OBP is launching a new scholarship program for college-bound Black students in Oregon as part of its 30th-anniversary celebration, further investing in the next generation and fostering a deeper understanding of their heritage.

Oregon Black Pioneers is Oregon’s only historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of African Americans statewide. To learn more, and to support this nonprofit, visit © Oregon Black Pioneers, 2023