Juneteenth history walk to highlight contributions of Bayless family

Over 140 years ago, Albert and Mary Ann Bayless hosted a party celebrating Emancipation Day in their home in the Piety Hill Neighborhood, north of the Capitol Building.

The Salem jubilee party, like others of the era, celebrated the formalization of the Emancipation Proclamation. There would have been music, singing, dancing, food and lots of speeches, said Kylie Pine, curator at the Willamette Heritage Center.

The Center is collaborating with Oregon Black Pioneers and Just Walk Salem Keizer to host a Juneteenth Community History Walk, where she and a representative from the Black Pioneers will share the history of the Bayless family at the sites they lived and worked.

The free walking tour is Monday, June 19, and starts at the Willamette Heritage Center, 1313 Mill St. S.E., at 10 a.m. The tour will make a 3-mile loop around downtown before returning to the center at noon.

Albert Bayless, a blacksmith, escaped slavery in Tennessee around age 30, and made his way out west with the gold rush, eventually settling in Salem in the 1860s. He met Mary Ann Reynolds, who was freed as a teenager and after living in Missouri traveled the Oregon Trail with her two children, Pine said.

In January, Pine worked with the Oregon Black Pioneers on a virtual presentation on the family’s history, doing a deep dive starting with an advertisement for Bayless’ blacksmith shop which the group provided, featuring the business name and address.

“Through the research that we did for that presentation, it just seemed like a natural kind of fit to be able to talk about these places, and the places that the Bayless family was in, in space,” she said.

Spatial context is important when it comes to researching local African-American history, she said, because limited research has made for limited collections. Her research traced Albert and Mary Ann Bayless’s journey to Salem and their relationships and work within the city.

Bayless owned a blacksmithing shop in town, and was known for his philanthropy. The walk will visit places he donated to improve, including Marion Square Park and the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, which is now part of the Heritage Center campus.

Their home was in the Piety Hill neighborhood, which Pine said had Victorian-style homes and was one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Much of the neighborhood, including the Bayless home, was torn down around the 1930s after a fire at the Capitol, and later replaced with offices.

Bayless is credited with inspiring the fundraising effort to build the First Methodist Church, which still stands downtown today.

“We can actually walk through the site where his shop was,” she said. “And the First Methodist Church is still there, so we can actually see a building that he would have recognized, because most of Salem has changed a lot since the time period that the family was living here.”

Pine has been studying the family for the past year in partnership with the Oregon Black Pioneers, and said their story has captivated her.

“African-Americans in early Salem did not have an easy time of it. There was a lot of rampant racism. And what’s been super inspiring to me is that in spite of the environment they were living in, that they were so community focused, and community minded, and so willing to give back,” she said. “An amazing, amazing story to me, too, is that they would be willing to do so much for the community even when the community wasn’t welcoming and accepting of them.”

There will be a physical map handed out to attendees, and the Willamette Heritage Center will also post a digital version online for those who are unable to join the walking tour.

The walk is free, and no registration is required.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.