The Oregon Black Pioneers memorial at Pioneer Cemetery in Salem (Courtesy/Friends of Pioneer Cemetery)
Nobody living knows the exact spot where Hiram Gorman’s body is buried.
But the early Salem settler, who died in 1888, is at the center of a new video telling the story of the region’s first Black residents released online as part of the Oregon Capitol Foundation’s virtual celebration of statehood Feb. 14.
The five-minute story was created by Oregon Black Pioneers and Friends of Pioneer Cemetery — two historical preservation groups — with production help from Capital Community Media.
Narrated by Black Pioneers executive director Zachary Stocks, the video tells the story of how Black pioneers came to Oregon along the Oregon Trail. Some of them were enslaved and some free, despite territorial laws and a state constitution barring Black settlement and denying African-Americans the right to own property or settle land.
Gorman was born into slavery in Missouri and separated from his mother and sister when their owner John Thorpe took them to Oregon in 1844. Gorman went on to drive wagons for Union troops during the Civil War. He came to Oregon as a free man in 1871, reuniting with his family. He spent years working as a power press operator for the Oregon Statesman, turning the wheel by hand to get the day’s paper printed. He also developed a reputation for his his well-tended garden.
(Video by Oregon Black Pioneers, Friends of Pioneer Cemetery and Capital Community Media.)
Since his burial location is unknown, Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery in 2002 added a marker for Gorman in an aisle of graves.
“His story represents the very best of the early Blacks in Oregon,” Stocks said in an email. “Hiram worked at the Oregon Statesman for many years, and the family were upstanding members of the community, attending church and participating in civic activities.”
Normally, Friends of Pioneer Cemetery has a live display at the Oregon Capitol celebration of statehood, which takes place on the Saturday closest to Feb. 14.
But with the celebration virtual this year, the Oregon Capitol instead asked historical and cultural groups to submit videos highlighting part of Oregon’s history.
“It’s always exciting to have new content made and contributed for these virtual events because it’s something that can just be used ongoing from this point forward,” said Stacy Nalley, public outreach coordinator for the Oregon Legislature.
Elisabeth Walton Potter with Friends of Pioneer Cemetery said the group decided to submit a video about women’s suffrage in early Oregon and work with the Black Pioneers to develop a second contribution, drawing on both group’s research and archives. Stocks wrote the script and recorded it at home.
“I thought it was quite wonderful,” Walton Potter said of the finished product. “(Oregon Black Pioneers) own it and we helped bring it into being.”
Walton Potter approached Capital Community Media for production help.
Capital Community Media executive director Jasmine White, who moved to Salem in August for the job, said the final video dovetailed with her own interest learning about early Black history in Salem. She said it’s been “fascinating” to learn about Black Oregonians who persevered and succeeded in a state hostile to their presence from its early days.
“I was happy to learn that we’ve had an impact on the community for a long time,” she said of watching the video.
Stocks said Goram’s story and the stories of the roughly 40 other Black settlers honored in the cemetery are an important piece of Oregon’s history too often overlooked.
“It is important that we do justice to the incredible courage of the Black individuals who overcame so much to make life for themselves and their families in Oregon. Hiram's story --and those of Marion County's other Black pioneers-- deserves to be told,” he said.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
WE GET SALEM THE FACTS. Covering your community with care and depth. Salem Reporter - fair, accurate, independent. Subscribe and support our essential local service.