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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 16 February 2010

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- Beneath a mossy gravestone in the far corner of Salem's historical Hayesville Cemetery are the remains of a man whose story few have heard.

But thanks to the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers, the legacy of John W. Jackson is slowly being uncovered, helping to illuminate the state's early African-American history.
The discovery of Jackson, a Black pioneer, Civil War veteran and respected farmer who lived in the Salem area in the late 1800s, may not have happened if it weren't for a chance meeting last summer at the World Beat Festival in Salem.
Gwen Carr of the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers learned that a Salem family came across references to a slave while delving through old family records for details about their ancestor Adam Stephens, a well-known pioneer who has a Salem school named after him.
A crucial piece of information family diaries indicated that Stephens had come across the Oregon Trail with a slave named Anthony prompted the historical investigation.
"I went through all of our family notes and archives and didn't find anything more on Anthony,'' Theresa (Zielinski) Taaffe said. "But I came across a poem that had been written about our ancestor, and it mentioned that he lived next door to a colored man.''
As Taaffe dug deeper, she found another reference to a "colored man'' named John W. Jackson who was a friend of Adam Stephens.
"That was more exciting in the end than our original reason for getting together, and from there Gwen and I, in particular Gwen, have done all this research to learn more about John. W. Jackson and his family,'' Taaffe said.
Both Stephens and Jackson were members of the Hayesville Farmers Club, and, as it turns out, their gravestones are not far from one another at the cemetery. There are two stones for Jackson, one that was placed by a veterans organization to honor his service in the Civil War.
"He's one of those people we're still doing a lot of research on,'' said Carr, who is the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneer's research and education chairwoman. "We'd love to know what brought him to Oregon.''
Jackson now joins a growing list of Oregon's Black pioneers, all of whom the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers plan to feature in an African-American museum in Salem.
"When you think about the history that was so unknown and now we find that we have so much that it deserves a place of its own, that's just phenomenal to me.'' Chairwoman Willie Richardson said. Clues surface
One census record and gravestone at a time, Carr and her colleagues are uncovering Oregon's Black history and learning that it extends surprisingly further than once thought.
"Most people think that it's relegated primarily to the Portland area, and for the most part it has been,'' Carr said. "But in addition to that, we are finding that it extends to every corner of the state, from the shores of Tillamook and Clatsop County all the way to the northeast to Wallowa County and even down in Southern Oregon in Malheur and Harney counties.''
The all-volunteer group, founded in 1993, has discovered that there is early African-American history in 27 of Oregon's 36 counties.
"That surprises a lot of people; frankly, it surprised us,'' Carr said. "But I think it just attests to how rich our history is here, and we find great pleasure every time we find just a tidbit of information.''
Because so much Black history research already has been done in the Portland area, she said, the group chose to focus initial efforts on the Mid-Valley. So far they've identified more than 100 Black pioneers in Oregon, with the majority in Marion and Polk counties. Those findings will be published in a book by the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers, which they hope to publish in the summer.
Last year, the group placed a gravestone at Pioneer Cemetery in Salem in memory of the 43 Black pioneers buried there. Each of their names is etched in the stone.
There never has been a large population of Black people living in Oregon. Even today, they account for about 2 percent of the population.
Although most of Oregon's Black history dates to the mid-1800s, there is a record of Black people arriving even earlier. Portland author Elizabeth McLagan describes the first recorded instance in her book "A Peculiar Paradise.''
"On Dec. 21, 1787, the Lady Washington set sail from the Cape Verde Islands, heading south and west toward Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean, then turning north to explore the coast of the North American continent. Among those on board was Marcus Lopez, the first Black person to set foot on Oregon soil.''
Interestingly, some of these early discoveries were at a time in Oregon's history when Black people weren't even allowed in the territory. By 1844, Oregon had declared both slavery and the residence of Blacks within the territory to be illegal.
Because of these rigid exclusion laws, African-American history is sort of hidden, said Amy Vandegrift, the director of library and archive collections for the Willamette Heritage Center.
"They were sort of under the radar, so there's not a lot written about them,'' Vandegrift said. "You have to look for little clues, a picture there or a sentence there that you begin to trace as you go through and look at census records. But you have to look at those one at a time.
"It's not something you can find on the Internet. This is really primary research.''
Carr and the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers have taken on the task of uncovering and preserving that little-known history. As they find more details about Black people who lived here during pioneer times, they also are commemorating Black people who represent a historical first, such as the first to graduate from a major university or the first to hold a public office.
Five years of doing research, countless hours spent at the state library and area historical societies and help from professional historians and librarians have made Carr an expert on Oregon's Black history. The stories of Jackson and others are permanently etched in her memory. This makes it easy to share her knowledge as she travels throughout the state offering presentations and rallying support for an African-American museum in Salem.
Organizers are in the process of developing plans for the museum, including identifying a location and securing grants and other fundraising opportunities, as well as collecting artifacts.
"Not everyone is willing to donate artifacts; some people might want to sell them,'' Richardson said.
The group hopes to have the museum in place within the next three to five years and is anticipating a price tag of at least$5 million, Richardson said.
It would be the first statewide African-American museum in Oregon, and organizers envision it as a full-scale operation that would attract visitors from across the nation, in a central location with ample meeting space.
"It's a huge vision that we have,'' Richardson said.
Building a museum from the ground up is no easy task.
"It's a lot of work,'' said Peter Booth, the executive director of the Mission Mill Museum of the Willamette Heritage Center.
It begins with developing a compelling subject _ something the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers already have done.
"The group is taking a lot of the necessary steps to lay the proper groundwork and putting together a strong cultural institution that's devoted to that subject,'' Booth said.
The museum will add to Salem's historical and cultural offerings, including the Willamette Heritage Area (comprising the Mission Mill Museum and the Marion County Historical Society), Deepwood Estate and Bush House.
Vandegrift of the Willamette Heritage Center thinks it's a marvelous idea.
"We've got a lot of history here, and this just adds to the mix and it explores something that really needs to be covered,'' she said.
Booth agrees.
"Salem has a rich heritage that covers several different subjects, topics and peoples, and having those areas explored in a museum format adds to the community's cultural treasures,'' Booth said. "It makes our cultural community stronger."



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