I guess the title of this post is what this blog is all about, but I'm referring specifically to race. I grew up in a very small, very white town. My upbringing was a little unusual for my area, because I actually knew Black people as a child. My mother was a Job Corp volunteer, teaching reading to the youth who lived in the barracks of what had formerly been a WWII Navy Base. I was about three at the time and most of these youth were Black. They were away from families, and homesick. Many of them had younger siblings, so when I tagged along with her, I was coddled and adored by these boys. I was their little mascot. I am very grateful to my mother, who believed in civil rights and taught me to as well. She was ahead of her time, and a bit of an anomaly in our backwards little town.

As I grew older, I didn't realize or pay much attention to the fact that there were almost no Black people in our town. I guess I just thought that mostly white populations were the norm. I noticed that many of our local rivers and other features had Native American names. I was vaguely curious about Chief Kilchis, a local chief, who had figured prominently in local history. I lived in what was called, “the Kilchis District,” and there was a small cemetery down the road from my house, where I liked to walk and think. I read the names on the gravestones, and tried to imagine people's stories. I was fascinated to find a gravestone that said, “granddaughter of Chief Kilchis.” I began to wonder why there were no Kilchis Indians. How could it be that there was a whole tribe of them? What happened? As an adult, I became more acutely aware of the racial disparity in my town, and I had heard rumors that we had once been a Ku Kux Klan stronghold. I wondered what other secrets Tillamook held.

I went to the local library and checked out books on local history. There were interesting stories about the Kilchis tribe, but nothing to indicate whatever happened to them. I talked to a local historian and friend, Gerry Hysmith, and she told me an interesting story. Warren Vaughn, a local pioneer, had been the only white man the natives had trusted or liked, apparently (and with good reason). The little cemetery down the road from me had been their sacred burial ground until the early 1900's, when it was taken over by white people. Early on, the Kilchis tribe had brought their complaints to Warren Vaughn about their burial area being desecrated and pillaged by white men. Warren Vaughn vowed to put a stop to it.

At that time, Bay City was a thriving port town, and the county seat. Ships would come in with a load of ballast to weigh down and stabilize them, mostly dirt, rocks, and the sort. Vaughn found a small twig that had been discarded in a load of ballast, and presented it to the natives as a peace offering, and declared it to be his promise to stop the pillaging of native graves. The twig was planted at the top of the cemetery hill, where it grew into a very imposing tree that overlooks the entire cemetery. The tree is pretty much dead, but it stands as a reminder.

About four years ago, I met a woman named Helen Hill, a local playwright, artist, historian, and general renaissance woman. As we chatted, I learned she had written a book called, “A Brief History of Fear and Intolerance in Tillamook County.” She offered me a copy of the book, and I went home and read it in one sitting.

In it, I learned about the Klan activity in Tillamook County. I learned that under that giant sacred tree in “my” little cemetery (where my parents are now buried), lie the children of Chief Kilchis in unmarked graves. I learned that Chief Kilchis died on a reservation in a different county. And I learned why there were no more Kilchis Indians in Tillamook County. Eugenics. The males in that tribe were systematically sterilized. Sterilization is such a handy little word... sounds like neat and clean, but it belies the deep ugliness of what was happening; a young native man would break an arm and be taken to Bay City hospital, where he would be treated, and sterilized. THAT'S what happened. The book answered my questions, but it broke my heart. I knew that the very land I “own” was native land, that my family was only the second white family to ever live on it. I grieved for what my unearned privilege had cost others. I vowed that eventually I would find a way to mark those graves, and I would do my part to ensure that everyone heard this truth. I called Helen and asked her if she had more copies of the book, because I needed to buy them... for my kids, for my friends, for anyone who cares at all about our community. Long story short, she gave me the printing rights to the book, and I have gifted it to many people.

Race has remained at the forefront of my consciousness, as I see the way that racism plays out in my community, from hearing people of Middle East descent, who bought a local convenience store chain, called, “ragheads,” to hearing racist and hateful remarks against Hispanic immigrants, to the fact that there remains very, very few Black people in Tillamook.

A few months ago, I was contacted by a woman from the Rural Organizing Project (www.rop.org) named Sam Hamlin. We met over lunch, and discussed concerns about the sharp rise in racially-based hate crimes in Oregon, along with an alarming increase in White Supremacist activities and presence in the state. The ROP had planned what they referred to as an “emergency response” to this disturbing situation.

A professor from Portland State University, Dr. Walidah Imarisha, had offered to tour rural Oregon, where these groups like to do their dirty work, and present on Black History...not only a history of oppression and struggle, but of resilient, thriving communities of color that had survived against overwhelming odds and contributed a great deal to Oregon. Thanks to ROP, Oregon Humanities, the Tillamook Co. Pioneer Museum, the Women's Resource Center, and Bay City Arts Center, we were able to bring her to Tillamook County. The presentation was called, “Why Aren't There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History.”

I had only received 39 RSVPs for the event we set up on September 9th, so I was a little nervous, but over 60 people turned up that evening to participate in the presentation. It was electrifying to see that many people who are investing in addressing this issue; maybe I hadn't given Tillamook enough credit!

Dr. Imarisha used a timeline of Black History in Oregon to shed light on things that most people didn't know. Horrifying and sad things. She asked how many people in the room had grown up and attended Oregon schools, and many hands went up. She then asked how many people had learned of this history, and I don't believe I saw a single hand. She did a fine job of illustrating that this is everyone's history, not just Black history, and it's important for us all to know it.

Many people take pride in knowing that Oregon was founded as an anti-slavery state, without realizing that it was not anti-slavery out of concern for civil rights. It was because slavery would bring Black people to Oregon and they weren't wanted here. Oregon was intended to be a “white homeland.” I learned about the 1844 Lash Law, and many other egregious and hateful practices in what I was always taught was a progressive, open-minded state. I was sad and ashamed.

Helen Hill was there, along with another local hero, retired Justice of the Peace Neal Lemery. When a member of the crowd asked the presenter to show “proof” that Tillamook was a Sundown Town (in which local laws prevent persons of color from being there after sundown), Neal turned around and said that, until 1982, it was still written into local ordinance. What he didn't mention is that he was instrumental in having it removed from the books, against resistance and personal backlash. He had finished law school and come back to his hometown to practice, only to be disheartened, but ready to do something about it. Helen didn't mention her book, but others did, along with a play she had done about the KKK.

We broke into small groups and discussed what we would like to do to move forward to make our community a more welcoming and safe place to live, for everyone. This was never intended to be a one-time conversation, so we collected contact information from those interested in follow-up. I have recently obtained the notes from that meeting, and I am working with the ROP to set up our next event, where we will have the opportunity to plan ways to make this happen.

Here is a link to the PowerPoint created by Dr. Imarisha for this event. It is available on YouTube, with or without commentary. I'm attaching the version with commentary, in case you were not fortunate enough to hear her in person.


Anyone who is interested in joining this very important conversation is welcome. If interested, please contact me at 503-842-8294, x. 209, or email me at romy@tcwrc.net. You can live anywhere in the world and start these conversations. Ending racism is a pretty tall order, but we have to start somewhere right?

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead