When I thought about the rich, complex and deep-rooted history of Black people in America, Oregon didn’t come to mind. Stunning natural beauty around every corner? Definitely. Delicious and innovative restaurants popping up every month? Oh, for sure. But … Black history? That was one aspect of Oregon that was harder to grasp.
After all, a majority of the time when I enter a store or restaurant on a road trip in Oregon, I am the only Black person present. When the state of Oregon was founded in 1859, it was illegal for a Black person to even be in the state. Even after most of those exclusionary laws were repealed, racist terminology in the Oregon constitution remained until 2002. Even today, the population of Black folks in Oregon is only around 3%. But even with all of the barriers in place, Black history throughout the state runs deep.
On a recent Black-history bus tour — a special event organized by the Oregon Black Pioneers — my eyes were opened to the complex and powerful stories stemming from Oregon’s Black residents, as well as Black-owned businesses in Oregon. As described by Zachary Stocks, the executive director of the Oregon Black Pioneers, “It’s true that there are not very many Black people in Oregon today, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t made lasting contributions to our state heritage.”
You can experience some of the highlights of that tour and must-visit Black-history spots — plus support nearby Black-owned businesses — all over Oregon. Here are some of those sites.
Heritage and Black Explorers in Astoria
With its long history of exploration, trading and fishing, Astoria was one of the most diverse cities in Oregon. At Clatsop County’s Heritage Museum, visitors can learn the backstory of how immigrants from across the globe formed interwoven communities. In an exhibit developed with Oregon Black Pioneers called “Blocked Out: Race and Place in the Making of Modern Astoria,” the violence and discrimination that separated Black, Indigenous and other minority communities is depicted in honest detail.
Learn even more about particular incidents and sites on a self-guided Black History Walking Tour in Astoria and take a trip down to the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park south of downtown to read about York, the African American man enslaved by William Clark who was an invaluable member of the Corps of Discovery expedition.
While in town, be sure to stop by The Naked Lemon, a Black- and woman-owned bakery, for some of Astoria’s best freshly baked pastries and desserts.
A Mountain Named for a Blacksmith in Jacksonville
In Southern Oregon, Ben Johnson Mountain is one of just a few geographic places in Oregon named for a known Black Oregon resident, a blacksmith who lived and worked at the base of the mountain in the mid-19th century. Prior to 2020, when stakeholders successfully petitioned the Oregon Geographic Names Board to officially rename the mountain, it was known by several racially insensitive names.
Visitors can access the mountain’s 1.1-mile hiking trail via Cantrall Buckley Park in Jacksonville in the warmer months of the year. The summit will reward visitors with clear views of the Rogue Valley and the surrounding forests of southwest Oregon.
Memorials for a Lynching Victim and Miners in Coos Bay
In 1902 a white woman accused Alonzo Tucker, a Black man, of sexually assulting her in Coos Bay. In outrage, a mob hunted and lynched Tucker at the old Marshfield Bridge, as a crowd of 300 watched in broad daylight.
Nearly 120 years later, the Oregon Remembrance Project — which helps Oregon communities with reconciliation projects for historical injustices — worked with the city of Coos Bay and the Coos History Museum to create a memorial and exhibit at the museum. “We cannot change our past,” says Oregon Remembrance Project executive director Taylor Stewart, “but we can change our relationship to the past.”
Also in Coos Bay is the Beaver Hill Mine Historical Marker, dedicated to the region’s Black miners, who made up about 10% of the entire state’s Black residents, and the multicultural community residing in Beaver Hill, still an unincorporated area south of Coos Bay.
Black Rodeo Stars and Loggers in Eastern Oregon
In Pendleton a bronze statue memorializes George Fletcher, one of the greatest Black rough-stock riders in the early days of rodeo. At the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, Fletcher outperformed the other competitors and was clearly the crowd favorite. Their cheers turned to outrage when the judges gave first place of the World Title saddle bronc-riding contest to a white competitor, likely because he was a previous winner and had provided rodeo stock to the Round-Up. The city of Pendleton also has a mural dedicated to George Fletcher to forever honor the “People’s Champion.”
The story of Maxville and its community of Black loggers lives on at the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center in Joseph. Maxville was a small logging town in the northeast corner of Oregon, founded by the Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company in the early 1920s. Despite the exclusionary laws in Oregon at the time, the company hired Black workers who moved to the region to create a new life for themselves and their families. When the company closed in the 1940s, Maxville became all but a ghost town.
The town of Joseph lies along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, making a stop at the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center an easy addition to any Eastern Oregon road trip. Founded in 2008, the interpretive center collects, preserves and interprets the history of the logging community of Maxville and Black and multicultural communities throughout the West. The center is led by the descendants of the Maxville community, weaving together the stories of the Native American, African American, Asian and Anglo immigrants who tilled the soils together.
Walking Tour Through Eugene’s First Black Neighborhood
In the south Willamette Valley, the city of Eugene is a great destination to learn more of Oregon’s Black history, thanks to a self-guided walking tour developed by a coalition of neighborhood partners called Strides for Social Justice. Start at Alton Baker Park, Eugene’s largest developed park at around 400 acres. In the 1940s, this was the site of Ferry Street Village, Lane County’s first Black neighborhood.
Obstructed from living within the sundown town of Eugene, the Black residents of the area formed their own community alongside the Willamette River and lived there until the city bulldozed Ferry Street Village to create a bridge in 1949. The walking tour describes this and many other key sites of Black history in Lane County.
To fuel up for your walking tour, grab a coffee from Equiano Coffee and choose from plates piled high with freshly made baked goods at Noisette Pastry Kitchen, two businesses owned and operated by Black entrepreneurs and their families.
Black Musicians in Portland
Portland has a lot of Black-history sites throughout the city, but none quite as musical as its historic Black neighborhood Albina. Visitors can download an app to take the Albina Soul Walk, a 1-mile self-guided walking tour curated by the Albina Music Trust and focused on the 1960s-1980s. Narrated by Portland musicians Calvin Walker and Norman Sylvester, the tour brings to life the neighborhood nicknamed the Soul District for the numerous Black musicians who were barred from playing in Portland clubs but who brought their jazz, blues, soul, disco and gospel music alive in the streets.
When you’re ready to rest and recharge after the tour, stop by Concourse Coffee for a drink, and grab food from any of the delicious Black-owned restaurants in Portland. If you’re still hungry for adventure, join People of Color Outdoors for one of their monthly outdoor events.