Making #blacklivesmatter in Oregon
By Joseph Orosco (July 3, 2015)
Since the horrid massacre in Charleston, a seismic shift has occurred across the country in regard to the nation’s white supremacist history. The Confederate flag has come to be widely reviled as a racist symbol of hatred, and many communities are reassessing their connection to Confederate monuments and public schools named after Confederate soldiers (and some monuments not tied to the Confederacy, but to colonialism in general, such as the Columbus statue in Boston that was vandalized). Major retailers have stopped selling items emblazoned with the flag and, just this week, the cable network TV Land pulled all episodes of “The Dukes of Hazard”—with its famous car, the General Lee, emblazoned with the Confederate flag–from viewing.
Defenders of the flag have tried to respond by saying it is a symbol of Southern heritage, or of the political principle of state’s rights, and not of white supremacy in particular. This argument falls apart when one realizes that maintaining white supremacy was at the forefront of most of the declarations of secession by Southern states. White supremacy was part of the fabric of Southern life, regardless of whether or not one owned slaves, and to ignore that in some kind of romanticized argument about heritage is willful moral ignorance.
Of course, the legacy of white supremacy was not something relegated to the South. Indeed, as Walidah Imarisha has pointed out in her popular Oregon Humanities talk “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?”, Oregon was established as a white supremacist homeland. Even though slavery was illegal here, the state did not permit African Americans to live or own property here. State law also threatened Blacks with brutal, state sanctioning, whipping if they remained in the jurisdiction. Walidah’s work shows how this state inhospitality has a legacy that continues even today and she urges her audiences to become aware of the local histories of their communities. ( You can watch her presentation here).
Here, in Corvallis, it is not difficult to find evidence of Oregon’s legacy of white supremacy. The founding father of the city, Joseph C. Avery, was a notorious white supremacist.
In the newspaper he founded, the Occidental Messenger, he advocated for slavery and forced labor in Oregon as a way for whites to control and make productive the “inferior” Black and Chinese races. According to local amateur historian Roy Bennett, Avery was a supporter of the Rogue River War against Native Americans in Southern Oregon, and he also belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society whose principle aim was to invade and annex most of Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America in order to create a white supremacist circle of slave states allied to the South.
Today, one of Corvallis’s biggest and most popular parks, some streets, and an environmental sustainability program for children run by the Corvallis Environmental Center, is named after Avery.
Perhaps it is now time to reconsider Corvallis’s relationship to the white supremacist legacy of Avery and think about removing his name from public places. To take Avery’s name away from the park is not to ignore or rewrite history—we cannot deny that it was Avery who first incorporated land in this part of the Willamette Valley. As Bree Newsome, the activist who committed civil disobedience recently by removing the Confederate flag from its pole in South Carolina’s capital, said:
“There’s a difference between having the Confederate flag in a museum and having it flying over a state capitol where you have the government essentially endorsing a symbol of hate.”
Similarly, there’s a difference between having Avery’s name on a marker in the Benton County Museum, for instance, and commemorating him with the honor of a public, taxpayer-supported, park.
Some people might object to renaming Avery Park by saying that it would be hard to find a white person in Corvallis, or in Oregon, at the time that was not white supremacist. Or they might ask that if we begin by removing Avery’s name because he was a white supremacist, then what are we do about other prominent founders and politicians, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or even Abraham Lincoln, all of whom either voiced anti-black racism at some point in their life or held African Americans in bondage?
For one thing, its not true that all white people in Corvallis were white supremacists or endorsed slavery during Avery’s day. In fact, some of the oldest families in the area, such as some of the Applegates were anti-slavery and so was the Methodist founder of the nearby town of Monroe. In other words, white supremacy is not something that can be excused in Avery because it was simply taken for granted at the time; the issue of the oppression and subjugation of non-white people was a contested subject at the time and Avery made it clear on which side of the issue he stood.
And it is true that many of the revered political figures of our nation’s history were deeply invested in the maintenance of white supremacist oppression. But historian James Loewen has responded to this kind of objection in a way I find compelling. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, were both racists. But if we look at the “gists” of their lives, we can make an important distinction. Davis’s life, his most significant life contribution, is in formenting and leading an enormously destructive war to preserve white supremacy. He was, simply put, a traitor. Loewen says:
” …it’s one thing to remember history and to put up historical markers that get it right. It’s quite another thing to commemorate someone and to name stuff for him. You don’t learn anything from driving the Jefferson Davis Highway (in Virginia) about Jefferson Davis except that he was a great man and should be honored. And it’s precisely that last little bit – should be honored – that we need to take away from him.”
Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, it is true, all fell short of the universalizing moral language of equality and liberty that they gave voice to in public. That should certainly moderate the reverence we have for them. But the “gists” of their lives were much broader than those failures—Jefferson was a slaveowner, but he also championed the ideals that would be used to undermine slavery. However, if you look at the gist of Avery’s life, it’s hard to find a complicated figure, like Jefferson or like Lincoln, that deserves public honor.
Removing the monuments to white supremacy, such as Avery’s name or the Confederate flag, will not eliminate racism, but it is not just symbolic politics or political correctness to do so. As we’ve learned from the Charleston murders, symbols can do harm by sustaining a culture of hatred and violence. They can be reminders that some people are not welcome in a community (as has been the case recently in nearby Albany). In the case of Avery’s name, having it displayed publicly is a reminder that Corvallis was originally envisioned by one of its prominent citizens as a place in which people of color should have subordinate roles and that order ought to be maintained by violence, if necessary. It was a place where black lives would not matter. That is a legacy that should be situated in the museum, not venerated in everyday life.