This month in Oregon History
February: Black History in Oregon Month
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Blacks in Oregon
Periodically, newspaper or magazine articles appear proclaiming amazement at how white the population of Oregon and the City of Portland is compared to other parts of the country. It is not possible to argue with the figures—in 2013, there were an estimated 78,600 blacks in Oregon, about 2 percent of the population—but it is a profound mistake to think that these stories and statistics tell the story of the state's racial past. In fact, issues of race and the status and circumstances of black life in Oregon are central to understanding the history of the state, and perhaps its future as well. READ THE ESSAY
While many pioneers earned reputations as rugged individualists, George Washington Bush epitomized compassion and selflessness, traits that helped him become one of the most important leaders of the first group of American citizens to settle on the north bank of the Columbia River, in what is now Washington State. A veteran of the War of 1812, Bush traveled to the Pacific Coast in 1820, found work as a freelance trapper, and eventually became employed with the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1830, he returned to Missouri, married Isabella James, a German-American and minister’s daughter, raised five sons, and worked the family farm. Bush, who was African American, was the target of racial prejudice, a reality that inspired him to return to the West and start a new life in Oregon Territory.
In May 1844, Bush partnered with Michael Troutman Simmons, and they led a thirty-two-person party over the Oregon Trail. Although Bush and Simmons had the means to finance their journey, many of their fellow travelers did not. Demonstrating the compassion and charitable nature for which he would become known, Bush personally funded those of his party who could not afford to make it on their own. After four months, the wagon train arrived in Oregon. Unfortunately, the policies of racism against blacks had beat him to the West. In June 1844, Oregon's Provisional Government enacted the first of a series of exclusion laws, commonly known as the Lash Law. Through such legislation, citizens of Oregon Territory used community-sanctioned violence and intimidation to prohibit African Americans from owning land in the region.
Arthur “Artie” Wilson was a professional baseball player who was a longtime Portland resident. Playing for the Pacific Coast League for most of his baseball career, he was the first African American player hired on an integrated team, the Oakland Oaks. “He was an impressive gentleman,” Reverend Leroy Haynes of the Allen Temple Christian Methodist Church remembered in 2011. “I saw in him a man of purpose, a man of destiny.”
Artie Wilson, who was born on October 28, 1920, in Springfield, Alabama, grew up in Tarrant City, Alabama, and worked for the American Cast Iron Pipe Company in Birmingham. While employed at the pipe company, he joined the company’s baseball team. His talent earned him the position of shortstop with the Birmingham Black Barons, a Negro League team, from 1942 to 1948. During his last year with the Barons, the team competed in the Negro League World Series, and Wilson became the last professional baseball player to bat over 400 (.402). That year, Wilson mentored the young Willie Mays, who played for the team.
In 1949, both the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians wanted to sign Wilson. Commissioner Happy Chandler awarded his rights to the Yankees, who then sold his contract to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Wilson often heard racial slurs and taunts. "People used to yell at you,” he told the Oregonian in April 1997. “They'd call you every name in the book." Billy Martin heard the slurs and invited Wilson to be his roommate when they were on the road. In 1950, the Oakland Oaks won the PCL championship, and Wilson won the PCL batting title with a .348 average; he led the league with 47 stolen bases.
For sixteen years, he played for PCL teams—the Oakland Oaks (1949-1950; 1951), the Seattle Rainiers (1952-1954; 1956), the Sacramento Solons (1957), and the Portland Beavers (1955-1956; 1961). By the time he retired in 1962, he had won six batting titles, had over 3,000 hits, and had maintained over a .338 batting average in more than 1,900 games.