Editor's Note: As part of our efforts to educate the Lake Oswego community about race and racism, Respond to Racism is launching a multi-platform storytelling campaign focused on the experiences of people of color called #notanisolatedincident. This project will utilize everything from personal essays to interviews to photos of graffiti and social media screenshots to capture the pervasiveness of racist incidents in this town. Some stories may be familiar because they made the news at some point, but more often than not, these incidents go unreported, giving those who seek to discredit any anti-racist efforts the excuse to pretend LO's racism doesn't exist, or, as is often the case, dismiss any story that makes headlines as an "isolated incident." Our hope is to build such a large database of stories, photos, interviews, and any other form of effective storytelling that we can move beyond the denial and actually make the changes that ensure all members of our community have the opportunity to thrive. If you are interested in submitting your own stories, please reach out to us via direct message on either Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
This week, we'll be looking at the history of exclusion laws in Oregon and how LO specifically had housing covenants that enforced white supremacy by law. Special thank you to Lake Oswego High School teacher Ursula Wolfe-Rocca for giving us permission to use a copy of a real 1949 housing covenant that she uses to teach this history to her classes.
Although Oregon likes to brand itself as a liberal bastion, it can never quite escape its history as the only state to enact laws that actually banned Black people from living in the state. The first of these laws was enacted in 1844 and authorized white authorities to whip Black people every six months until they left. Further such laws were ratified in 1849 and 1857 and the last wasn't repealed until 1926.
However, this was far from the end of legalized discrimination. Many communities created housing covenants that banned people of color, and Black people in particular, from buying property. To no one's surprise, the town that would later earn the nickname "Lake No Negro" was one of these communities. This is evidenced by the unmistakable "Property definitely restricted to the white race," which appears at the bottom of the following 1949 letter from the Lake Oswego Development Co.
Some might wonder what's the point of revisiting this history if we've supposedly moved past it. In the case of exclusion laws, these policies normalized discrimination as a part of Oregon's culture. They prevented people of color from buying property in most of the state, restricting Black people in particular to segregated communities that often lacked the resources of their white counterparts. Meanwhile, many whites have and continue to accept de facto segregation as a regular aspect of society without even considering how it negatively affects their personal and professional growth. Many get a rude awakening when they take that lack of awareness into the real professional world, where people are required to communicate and collaborate with people of all different backgrounds.
All while this is happening, people who live in these different communities, regardless of color, tend to adopt the generations-old tensions and harbor resentments towards each other, often based on anecdotes and outright myths, rather than actual interaction with each other. As a Black person who grew up in LO, I remember this vividly because it felt like, on one hand, I had to answer for all the transgressions of white people in LO when I was in the Black community. Then, when I was around white people in LO, they would do curious things like fawn over Popeye's chicken but refuse to drive to Northeast Portland even though it had the two closest restaurants. In a similar vein, I remember my basketball coach getting particularly giddy about beating the Jefferson High basketball team, which not-so-coincidentally was and still is considered by many as THE Black school in Portland.
For all intents and purposes, exclusion laws are Oregon's original sin when it comes to racial tensions between Black and white people in particular. Unfortunately, very few students learn about these laws or racist housing policies in their normal school curriculum. Instead, committed teachers have to go out of their way to procure these documents and then carve time out of their mandated lesson plans to give kids these important history lessons. If we truly don't want our children to continue internalizing the racial tensions of their descendants, then we need to make this critical piece of Oregon history required learning.