Nonprofits blend art, history to rethink the Bush legacy in Salem

A portrait of Mariamou, a Portland woman who came to the U.S. as a refugee from the Central African Republic, hangs next to a painting of early Oregon statesman Asahel Bush in the Bush House Museum in Salem, part of a still-untitled exhibit opening in July (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A portrait of Asahel Bush has long hung over the fireplace inside the main entrance of his historic home in Bush’s Pasture Park in central Salem.

Bush, a businessman and the founder and publisher of the Oregon Statesman, was a key figure as settlers established an early government in Salem. He was also a proponent of banning Black people from settling in Oregon and used his newspaper to push for racist policies, and rail against the abolition movement and proponents of Black suffrage.

When his home re-opens for public tours in July, Bush’s portrait won’t be the only one hanging in his former living room.

On the bookshelf is a portrait of Mariamou, a Portland woman who came to the U.S. as a refugee from the Central African Republic. Her photo is next to a large panel with an illustration of a basket and handwritten account about what it means to her.

It’s part of an art exhibit intended to highlight the experiences of Oregon immigrants and the objects they hold dear — and metaphorically bring them into the Bush home, where they wouldn’t have been welcome in the late 1800s.

“She is Oregon history as much as he is,” said Matthew Boulay, director of the Salem Art Association, referring to the portrait.

The exhibit, currently untitled, is part of a larger effort by the art association and the Bush House Museum to rethink Bush’s legacy and tell a more complete and accurate picture of his life — one which includes his contributions to Oregon statehood without leaving out or glossing over his racism.

Zachary Stocks, executive director of the Oregon Black Pioneers, gave a lecture May 15 at the art association about Bush’s racism and highlighted how Black settlers were part of Salem from its earliest days despite Oregon’s unwelcoming posture to Black Americans.

Stocks, a historian, outlined how Bush used the pages of the Statesman to push Oregon Democratic Party sentiments into public discourse, and explained how being opposed to slavery didn’t mean Bush and his fellow politicians were friendly to Black Oregonians.

“Oregon’s anti-slavery Democrats were not abolitionists,” Stocks said. “Both pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates went out of their way to emphasize that they saw abolition and citizenship for Blacks as against the values of Oregon. Instead, they believed that the presence of Blacks, enslaved or free, threatened the economic security of white Yeoman farmers.”

He quoted from an 1857 editorial by Bush which read in part, “We believe that the African is destined to be the the servant and the subordinate of the superior white race,” before going on to say that slavery was impractical in Oregon due to its climate and soil.

The Black Pioneers, a Salem-based historical organization, first approached art association and museum leadership several years ago about better acknowledging the full story of Bush in their work, Boulay said.

Since then “it’s been this process of learning both about the history and trying to understand how we should tackle it,” Boulay said.

The art association is also re-merging with the Bush House Museum in July. The two nonprofit organizations used to be one and split in 2018. Boulay said the financial challenges the pandemic posed for museum and arts organizations made it clear the two were better together. The art association also wants to better use the Bush House Museum as a place to display art and have rotating exhibits.

A portrait of Xiomara Torres, Multnomah County Circuit Court judge, hangs next to a painting of Asahel Bush on the landing at the Bush House Museum historic home. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

“People have a tendency to think especially historical museums are these places that are just locked in amber and they aren’t,” said Ross Sutherland, the museum’s longtime director.

He said previously, people visiting historic homes were typically interested in objects and a glimpse into the lives of wealthy people during the Victorian Era. Now, they’re more likely to want stories about how the residents fit into local history and politics — including a more truthful accounting of their legacies.

“How can we balance the historical aspects of the museum with a community that’s changing?” he said. “The community is asking us to make a huge leap.”

The Salem Art Association won a $6,675 grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission in December, to help pay members of a steering committee to craft a new vision for the organization. The Bush House Museum also won a grant in 2020 to work on the revisioning.

That committee’s work is just beginning. Its members include Stocks, as well as David Lewis, an anthropologist and members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who curated an exhibit at the art association last year focused on Kalapuyan history and culture.

“The way history has been written in the past … has been to make settlers and settlement and taking land away from other peoples look like a good thing. People are relooking at these histories and realizing not everything was so great,” Lewis said.

Many stories of early Oregon settlement focus on how the first white settlers to the area cultivated land and became wealthy.

“They did that off the land and the resources (of) the tribes,” Lewis said. “People need to embrace that for what it is, and I think generally people in Salem need to learn the things they were taught about Oregon’s history up to and including about 10, 20 years ago didn’t really include the perspectives of a lot of different people.”

Lewis said the art association has a role to play in telling a different story.

“Art can address history and other social themes,” he said. “It just hasn’t been done a lot in Salem.”

Boulay said as the art association has re-opened the Bush Barn Art Center and brought back public exhibits, they’ve focused on elevating the experiences of Indigenous and Black Oregonians. That includes the current exhibit, Black Matter, on display through June 25, featuring work by a variety of Black Oregon artists.

Photos in the “Black Matter” exhibit are on display at the Salem Art Association through June 25 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Boulay said it will take time for the steering committee to develop a vision for how to discuss Bush and incorporate his racist views into the museum and tour. He said the goal for revisioning the museum isn’t to promote a one-sided view of Bush.

“He was a complicated man and he did some things that were very good for the community,” Boulay said. “Both things are true simultaneously.”

Boulay said some people have asked him if it’s fair to judge Bush for being racist given that his views weren’t uncommon during his time. But Boulay said that isn’t uniformly true of Bush’s contemporaries, who included abolitionist and freed slave Frederick Douglass, as well as Hiram Gorman, an early Black settler to Salem who operated the Statesman’s printing press.

Stocks’ lecture also highlighted the Reverend Obed Dickinson, a white minister who settled in Salem with his wife Charlotte in 1853 and used his church to promote integration, teach school lessons for Black children and denounce the mistreatment of Black Americans.

Telling stories like those is one way to give a more complete picture of Bush, Boulay said.

“One of the things that we hope to do is to provoke thought, promote reflection,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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