This month in Oregon History


January: Activism in Oregon

"To begin with, then, we are rejoiced to see something started which will bring the women to the knowledge they can deviate from long-established customs without bringing down the heavens upon their heads. Thousands and tens of thousands of them will blockade sidewalks, interfere with municipal ordinances, sing and pray in the most public places to be seen by men, and by this means be awakened to a realizing sense of their political duties."

Abigail Scott Duniway, The New Northwest, 1874.

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East Indians of Oregon and the Ghadar Party
by Johanna Ogden

In the spring of 1913, East Indian laborers, activists, students, and intellectuals organized to form the radical nationalist Ghadar Party in Astoria. They attended Ghadar’s founding meeting in the Finnish Socialist Hall, arriving by rail, boat, and car and on foot from British Columbia, San Francisco, and communities along the Columbia River. Activists organized Ghadar in Oregon for several reasons. Oregon leaders such as newspaperman Harvey Scott and Judge Matthew Deady had developed a specific racial strategy for Oregon. By providing a safe environment, the state had attracted and prospered from Chinese laborers and, later, “Hindus,” driven out by racial violence elsewhere in the West. Deady, Scott, and others took hard stands against race riots. Consequently, especially in western Oregon, there was much less anti-Asian violence than in the rest of the West. Many of these same Oregon leaders, however, also drafted constitutional measures in 1857 to ensure that Negroes, Mulattos, women, and Chinese—and later Japanese, East Indian, and Filipino—could never become citizens or vote. Oregon’s message to Asian laborers seemed to welcome them to work but not to stay.



Louise Bryant
by Michael Munk

A poet, playwright, and society columnist, Bryant was part of Portland’s “vest pocket” Bohemia. An illustrator for the Oregon Spectator, she also submitted articles and plays to radical publications such as The Masses and volunteered as a visitor to women inmates in the county jail. Bryant was part of lecture tours in support of woman suffrage, traveling with activist Sarah Bard Field and sisters Emma and Clara Wold, who were writers, teachers, and librarians. At their home on Southwest Riverwood Road, Bryant and her husband Paul Trullinger entertained such political activists as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. She was also one of “eight pretty maidens” decorating the Rose Festival float in 1912 to celebrate Oregon women receiving the vote.


Avel Gordly
by Patricia Schechter

In 1996, Avel Louise Gordly was the first African American woman to be elected to the Oregon State Senate. A key affiliation for Gordly had been the Black United Front, a national civil rights group headquartered in Chicago. Portland’s dynamic BUF was founded in 1979 by a core group of activists, including Ronald Herndon and the Reverend John Jackson. In addition to handling media work for the group, Gordly coordinated the Front’s Saturday School, whose African American history program was tied to curriculum reform in the public education system. With the Front’s spin-off, Portlanders Organized for Southern African Freedom, and in concert with the American Friends Service Committee, Gordly helped score key anti-apartheid victories in Oregon during the 1980s, including the resignation of the South African consul from his Portland office and divestiture legislation in Salem.



Grace Wick
by Kathy Tucker

Grace Wick was a political gadfly in Portland, where she was an activist against the New Deal. While she had once been involved in mainstream politics as a supporter and friendly acquaintance of Democratic Governor Walter M. Pierce, the Great Depression crushed her economically, and she was increasingly attracted to the marginalized politics of right-wing America. Wick, who had been an actress on the East Coast, moved to Jackson County in 1922. There she actively helped Pierce in his successful 1922 gubernatorial campaign. She moved to Portland in 1927 and worked as an actress and radio producer. She continued to be politically active, and, according to biographer June Melby Benowitz, “began both a crusade against capital punishment and an attempt to destroy the political career of Governor Pierce.” Politics were personal for Wick, who turned against Pierce after he refused to pardon the son of a friend who had been sentenced to death.

Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement
by Peter Boag

Gays first began organizing in Portland in early March 1970. They advertised their cause in the pages of the Willamette Bridge, a counter-culture newspaper that began in 1968 and carried news about Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, rock concerts, alternative lifestyles, and the environment. Although the social element was important to these early activists, they immediately identified politics as central to their purpose. They outlined a plan to speak in college classes and to church and civil groups, to provide radio and television interviews, to write articles for the press, and to lobby for the abolition of legislation that oppressed gays. Gay Liberation in Portland also led to the formation of local organizations such as the Second Foundation, which on May 7, 1972, opened the first gay community center in Oregon.

pride parade

Three Sisters Wilderness
by Kevin Marsh

In 1937, the U.S. Forest Service designated 191,108 acres as the Three Sisters Primitive Area. The following year, the agency added 55,620 acres of lower-elevation, forested terrain on the west side. This addition was instigated by Bob Marshall, a Forest Service administrator and co-founder of the Wilderness Society. By 1939, the agency developed a new national category of “wilderness areas,” which further limited allowed uses. The Forest Service formally proposed to upgrade the status of the Three Sisters region to a wilderness area in 1954, but in doing so, planned to remove from protection 53,000 acres of forest lands, most of the area added in 1938. Hikers, outfitters, scientists, and local activists responded in opposition. Led by Karl Onthank, the dean of students at the University of Oregon, and his wife Ruth of the Eugene Natural History Society, they met in the Onthank's home to form the Friends of the Three Sisters Wilderness area in 1954, the first wilderness activist group in the Northwest.

  three sisters


Lizzie Weeks
by Kimberly Jensen

Lizzie Koontz Weeks was an African American activist in Portland in the years after women in Oregon had achieved the right to vote in 1912. She organized black women to empower them to be successful voters and was an early candidate for local party office. Weeks was the first female African American social worker to be employed by Multnomah County. Weeks and her colleagues focused on voter registration of African American women in Portland, urging them to vote the Republican ticket and inviting local candidates to present their positions at club meetings at the Central Library. In 1916, she took part in a citywide voter registration drive sponsored by Republican women. Two years later, in 1918, she was a candidate for Republican precinct committee member.


Industrial Workers of the World
by Adam Hodges

The Industrial Workers of the World, also known as Wobblies—founded in 1905 and crushed for its opposition to World War I—was the most active and most actively opposed revolutionary union of its time. In Oregon, the IWW was rooted in lumber camps and mills in the western part of the state and among field hands in eastern agricultural areas. Working conditions were poor in those industries, and employers strenuously fought unionization, particularly by the IWW, which refused to make agreements with capitalists and advocated sabotage on the job. The IWW had its Oregon headquarters in Portland’s North End, a neighborhood that was densely populated with poor men and home to much of the city’s vice. The itinerant workers who sometimes called the North End home did much to build IWW culture in Oregon, and that culture shared the neighborhood's fate. Political pressure swept the brothels out of the North End in 1913 and closed the saloons in 1916. The IWW lost its meeting hall after the state passed a “criminal syndicalism” law in 1919 that made revolutionary organizing illegal.



Grace Phelps
by Barbara Gaines

In 1909, Grace Phelps began an activist career that would define her significant contributions to Oregon nursing. Portland attorney Sylvanus Kingsley, her brother-in-law, would later say of her: “The betterment of conditions for nurses was in fact her primary objective in life.” Phelps's activist agenda included advocating for the registration of nurses (1909-1911), founding a professional association (now Oregon Nurses’ Association), and organizing home-nursing courses for the American Red Cross. She also advocated for baccalaureate nursing education for nurses in Oregon. In 1915, she completed a post-graduate course in hospital management at St. Luke's Hospital in San Francisco. Returning to Portland, was named superintendent of nurses at Multnomah County Hospital.


David James Duncan
by Bob Bumstead

Rivers have always fascinated Oregon author David James Duncan, who was born in east Portland in 1952. Though he now lives in Montana on an upper tributary of the Columbia, Oregon rivers run through the current of his fiction. While still a student at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Duncan read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which inspired him to dive into the world of philosophical literature and religious texts in an attempt to live by the light of an interior spark. In 1995, Duncan published a collection of autobiographical stories and environmental essays, River Teeth: Stories and Writings. His collection of twenty-two essays, My Story as Told by Water, published in 2001, solidified his reputation as one of the environmental movement's most passionate and mystical activists, dedicated to the twin beauties of love and water. In My Story as Told by Water, Duncan writes: “I mostly fish rivers these days. In doing so, movement becomes stasis, flux is the constant, and everything flows around, through, and beyond me, escaping ungrasped, unnamed, and unscathed.”

  river why


Pollution in Paradise
by William G. Robbins

KGW-TV aired Tom McCall’s one-hour documentary Pollution in Paradise on November 21, 1962. An environmental classic, the program represented McCall’s investigative skills and pressed home the powerful idea that there should be no tension between jobs and livability—Oregonians could enjoy both a robust economy and a healthy environment. Pollution in Paradise leveraged a new political spirit in Oregon, placing environmental issues at the forefront of state politics as never before. On the national stage, Pollution in Paradise paired well with other events raising the nation’s environmental consciousness, especially the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on September 27, 1962. McCall’s documentary was a tour de force, a courageous and moral call to citizen action, elevating Oregon’s most popular news commentator to Oregon’s secretary of state office in 1964 and then election as governor in 1966. As the state’s chief executive, McCall was an activist’s activist—celebrating Oregon’s beauty, its opportunities, and the independent spirit of its citizens, while successfully urging legislators to enact some of the nation’s most comprehensive environmental reforms.




Julia Ruuttila
by Sandy Polishuk

Julia Ruuttila was a labor and investigative journalist, a poet and fiction writer, and a union, peace, and justice activist who lived all but a few years of her life in Oregon.

In 1935, as a surge of union organizing hit the nation, she was living with her husband Maurice “Butch” Bertram at the Linnton sawmill where he was employed. The couple recruited mill workers for a woodworkers’ union, and she founded and headed the ladies’ auxiliary. In 1937, the union left the AFL for the CIO and became the International Woodworkers of America, precipitating an eight and half month lock out. Under her leadership, the auxiliary successfully supported the workers and their families so they could afford to maintain solidarity until their hearing before the National Labor Relations Board, where they were successful.