INDEPENDENCE — The Independence Heritage Museum is hosting a pop-up exhibit about the Oregon civil rights movement through August. On Thursday, Gwen Carr, of the Oregon Black Pioneers will give a presentation.
“Most times when you talk to people about the civil rights movement, they tend to think about it happening in the south — Alabama, Mississippi. Everybody knows about Martin Luther King,” Carr said.
Oregon had a civil rights movement of its own, she said.
“There were reasons for that,” Carr said. “Historically, Oregon had a poor racial history, including a very large Klan presence here in the 1920s, and the legacy of discrimination all the way up into the ‘60s and beyond, frankly.”
Most of Carr’s lecture will cover a period of time before the civil rights movement, she said.
“That’s early Oregon history, that most people in Oregon — black or white — don’t even know about,” Carr said.
That includes discussion of black people, those who were slaves and those who were free, who came on the Oregon Trail, she said.
“That’s who was in the Willamette Valley and various parts of Oregon in the 1800s, in spite of some black exclusion laws,” Carr said.
The Oregon Secretary of State’s website lists 1844 as the year Oregon’s Provisional Government passed the first black exclusion law: It states that black people who tried to settle in Oregon would be publicly whipped — 39 lashes, repeated every six months — until they left Oregon.
“In the lecture I’m sort of bringing the audience forward to the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Carr said. “It helps to understand why the civil rights movement was necessary in Oregon, because people living here now don’t even know about it in Oregon. They say, ‘Oh everything is fine here.’ Well, it wasn’t always fine.”
The pop-up, which is 10-feet long and about 8-feet high, is a smaller version of a 3,000-square-foot exhibit that OBP had at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland last year.
“Most smaller museums really can’t accommodate that,” Carr said. “Other places that had asked us to come and bring exhibits, libraries and schools and things like that, they’re just really smaller than what we had. We decided that we were going to do a pop-up version of it.”
Carly Annable, Independence Heritage Museum manager, saw the exhibit in Portland and is excited to have a portion of it locally.
“A lot of the informal feedback we’ve been getting is just people are excited that we’re bringing this quality of an exhibit and lecturer to Independence,” Annable said. “There are not a lot of opportunities to get this kind of experience. And I’m really kind of excited because I was aware of the Oregon Black Pioneers for the last year or so and all the good work that they’ve been doing, and excited that I was able to play a part in bringing the exhibit and Gwen here to speak as well.”
Annable hopes visitors see that Oregon’s history is more than the Oregon Trail, she said.
“It’s a vital portion of what makes Oregon what it is, but there’s so much more that happened before that and afterwards,” she said. “I want visitors that are coming and experiencing this to realize they can get this kind of information and this kind of an experience locally in Independence.”
Carr hopes that people will be curious enough to do their own research and will be engaged in learning their own local history.
“I would recommend the library,” she said. “Libraries have been wonderful resources for us; the local historical society. The heritage museum.”
Other museums have been helpful to OBP, Carr said.
“In some cases, they have the information about black history, but they really haven’t known how to present it or what to do with it,” Carr said.
That has led to some collaboration.
“We worked with (the Brownsville museum) several years ago because they were interested in finding out about black history in Linn County,” Carr said.
“They’d done a little research and they knew we had done a little research so we kind of put our heads together to see what we had collectively. The more we talked about it and learned about the people who were in Linn County, we realized that we didn’t want them to have a separate little black history section. These are community members.”
That museum is set up vocationally, Carr said, so it was easy to incorporate the history of community members who were black into the existing interpretation.
“We worked with them because we wanted to highlight the black history, but we didn’t want it singled out like in a section,” Carr said. “You can go down there right now and, lowe and behold, here’s the story of this guy who had a barber shop in downtown Brownsville, and he just happens to be in that whole section where they’re talking about barber shops.”
Annable said she “loves” OBPs idea of “helping museums realize the history of their area instead of being a standalone museum.”
She said that over the course of the next year, the Independence museum plans to “include a more accurate reflection of the diversity within the community. This is one of those first kind of steps and just the timing worked out absolutely perfectly.”
Eventually there will be space in the museum devoted to talking about the diverse history of the area, she said, including the Bracero program.
“We really just want it so that when people come into the museum and they start at that exhibit, it gives context into the community but it also gives context for when they go back out into Independence,” Annable said. “The diversity of this community is one of its strongest assets.”
Carr hopes people will come to appreciate that different ethnic groups contributed to the growing of Oregon, she said.
“A lot of them were here from the earliest of days, including black people,” Carr said. “It doesn’t take away from the history that we already know about. It adds to it. It makes it deeper and richer. And for me, more interesting.”
See the exhibit
Gwen Carr will give a presentation at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 at the The Independence Heritage Museum.
The Oregon Black Pioneers’ kiosk “Racing for Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years” will be at the museum for the month of August.