Portland has become the focal point of Black Lives Matter protests in America, but it has a tortured history when it comes to race

acollman@businessinsider.com (Ashley Collman)
Black Lives Matter organizer Teal Lindseth leads protesters on July 23, 2020, in Portland, Oregon. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://newsroom.ap.org/detail/RacialInjusticePortland/5edff22ec9c142ab95af77a83ad2bd45/photo?Query=black%20AND%20portland&mediaType=photo&sortBy=arrivaldatetime:desc&dateRange=Anytime&totalCount=483&currentItemNo=94" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Noah Berger/AP" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Noah Berger/AP</a></p>
Black Lives Matter organizer Teal Lindseth leads protesters on July 23, 2020, in Portland, Oregon.
  • Portland, Oregon, has in recent days become the focal point for Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

  • However, the city remains the whitest city in America and has a troubled history of racism. 

  • For many years, the state of Oregon also barred Black people from entering its borders, and once had the largest KKK population west of the Mississippi River.

  • These laws and policies dissuaded a lot of Black people from moving to Oregon. Today, both Portland and Oregon remain highly undiverse.

  • Several members of Portland's Black community have spoken out against the violent protests in recent weeks, and say the Black Lives Movement has been co-opted.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Following George Floyd's death in May, Portland was one of many cities across the US to react with massive racial-justice protests. 

More than two months later, the Portland protests rage on, even as they have diminished in size in most other places.

For many, this is unsurprising since the Oregon city is seen as a stereotypical coastal liberal enclave.

But in reality, Portland has been called the "whitest city in America," and the state of Oregon has a troubled history of excluding Black people.

Oregon once banned Black people from its borders

During the pioneer era in the 19th century, Oregon was seen as a beacon of hope for many Americans hoping to go west and create a better life. But that vision did not include Black Americans. 

In Oregon's early history, lawmakers passed a series of so-called "exclusion laws" to keep Black people out of the territory, which later became the state.

The first of these laws was passed in 1844 by the provisional government, setting a deadline of two years for Black males and three years for Black females to leave the territory, or else face a public lashing, according to the Oregon Historical Society (OHS).

The Territorial Legislature passed the second exclusion law in 1849, which forbade Black people from entering or residing in Oregon, with the exception of those already in the region.

The aim of the law, according to OHS, was to discourage Black seamen from jumping ship, out of fear that they would "intermix with Indians, instilling into their minds feelings of hostility toward the white race." 

The final exclusion law was passed in 1857, as Oregon was becoming a state and had its constitutional convention. During the convention, lawmakers decided on whether to be a slave state or not, and while they decided to prohibit slavery, they also passed a law that barred Black people from coming to the state, owning property, or making contracts. 

Oregon's exclusion laws were all eventually overturned by amendments to the US Constitution, and were rarely enforced in their lifetime, but "they had their intended effect of discouraging Black settlers," OHS says on its website.

The KKK thrived in Oregon and influenced state politics

During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan thrived in Oregon, where it had about 35,000 members — the biggest contingent west of the Mississippi River, according to the local Willamette Week

The Klan openly marched through Oregon streets and held rallies in Portland. 

The white-supremacist group was so influential that it even helped Democrat Walter M. Pierce win the governorship in 1923, according to Willamette Week.

After it supported Pierce in the race, he backed its bill to require all children to attend public schools, a move intended to stop Catholic education in the state. The Supreme Court ruled that bill illegal three years later.

White people made it difficult for Black people to rent or own land

According to The Atlantic, Black people didn't start moving to Oregon in earnest until World War II created a need for shipbuilders in Portland. To meet the new demand for housing, a community called Vanport was created for the Black population to live.

To discourage Black workers from settling permanently in Portland after the war, the housing authority considered dismantling Vanport.

But tragedy struck first. In May 1948, the Columbia River flooded and wiped out Vanport in a single day, killing at least 15 residents in the 18,500-strong community. This left the 6,300 Black residents of Vanport homeless overnight. 

Finding a new place to live was a challenge. In 1919, the Realty Board of Portland created a Code of Ethics that forbade realtors and banks from selling or giving loans to nonwhite people for properties in white neighborhoods.

According to The Atlantic, the Black community shuffled around for years as they kept getting pushed out of their neighborhoods due to urban renewal efforts, and later, white gentrifiers.

People stand marooned on housetops in the community of Vanport, Oregon on May 30, 1948 while water swirls through debris of their town. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://newsroom.ap.org/detail/FloodUSOregonDestruction/58ec8d0199c54c3bb5b747f8ad14c715/photo?Query=vanport&mediaType=photo&sortBy=arrivaldatetime:desc&dateRange=Anytime&totalCount=9&currentItemNo=7" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:AP" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">AP</a></p>
People stand marooned on housetops in the community of Vanport, Oregon on May 30, 1948 while water swirls through debris of their town.

The Portland Police's history of discrimination

L.V. Jenkins, who served as Portland's police chief for 14 years from 1919, was once pictured with Klan members, as well as the city's mayor, according to Gizmodo

There were also a series of police shootings of Black men in Portland in the 1970s, The Atlantic reported.

In 1981, protests erupted in the city after two white officers put four dead possums in front of a Black-owned business as part of a racist prank, according to the Multnomah County Library.

The two officers were fired by the city's then-police commissioner, Charles Jordan, who was Black. But the officers were reinstated months later when the mayor had Jordan replaced.

Two white Portland police officers were fired after placing dead possum bodies outside of a Black-owned Portland business in 1981. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54v5GW5h_rk&t=118s" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:YouTube/mungen" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">YouTube/mungen</a></p>
Two white Portland police officers were fired after placing dead possum bodies outside of a Black-owned Portland business in 1981.

The 'whitest city in America'

These factors have dissuaded Black people from moving to Oregon over the years, and the result is a state surprisingly lacking in diversity.

According to Census data from July 2019, 77.1% of Portlanders are white, compared to 5.8% that are Black. Statewide, the divide is much more stark — 86.7% to 2.2%.

In 2016, The Atlantic called Portland the "whitest city in America."

For the small community of Black people that have made Portland their home, the protests have been complicated. 

Multiple local Black people have been speaking out against the violence, saying the BLM movement has been co-opted by radical protesters.

Among the critics was a Black Portland Police officer who called out the mostly-white protesters for hurling insults at himself and other Black police officers. 

"It says something when you're at a Black Lives Matter protest, you have more minorities on the police side than you have in a violent crowd and you have white people screaming at Black officers," Officer Jakhary Jackson said in mid-July.

In recent years Portland has become one of the most popular cities in America to move to, but still most of these people are white, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.

This, combined with the state's troubling history, means there's a lot of change left to do.

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