The Oregon Black Pioneers memorial at Pioneer Cemetery in Salem (Courtesy/Friends of Pioneer Cemetery)

This month we are celebrating Juneteenth, which is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. At their meeting on June 14, 2021 Salem’s Mayor and Council proclaimed June 19, 2021 as Juneteenth Independence Day. In 2001, the Oregon Legislature passed a joint resolution proclaiming Juneteenth Independence Day as a day for a statewide celebration of dignity and freedom of all citizens. More recently this month, the Legislature established Juneteenth as an official state holiday.

Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day, and it was the day when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Texas on June 19, 1865 sharing the news of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that all slaves were free. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a holiday.

Here in Salem, historically there have been local celebrations of Juneteenth since the late 1990s. The first Juneteenth celebration was held on the Capitol Mall in 1996, when 70 people gathered for a five-hour program celebrating freedom and unity. This event was organized by A.J. Talley, a Salem civil rights activist who hoped that the event would become an annual celebration. 

More recently, Juneteenth celebrations in Salem have been organized by the local Salem-Keizer Chapter of the NAACP, with activities and food held at Salem’s Riverfront Park. This year, the 49th Annual Juneteenth Oregon celebration will be held in Portland with special appearances by the Governor and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkely as well as live musical performances and can also be watched online at junteenthor.com.

There are lots of things to do this weekend to help celebrate and honor Black history. If you love art, and didn’t happen to catch the exhibit at Hallie Ford earlier this year, Willamette University is still offering an online slideshow tour of “Brenda P and Prints from the Permanent Collection” featuring the work of Black artists from the second half of the 20th century.

This year, the Salem-based Oregon Black Pioneers are dedicating the Alonzo Tucker Historical marker on June 19, 2021 in Coos Bay to commemorate and acknowledge Oregon’s only documented Black lynching and install a historical marker so that this event is never forgotten. The event is free to attend and the Coos History Museum, which has an exhibit on Alonzo Tucker is also free to the public on June 19th.

The Oregon Black Pioneers offer several exhibits online if you are interested in learning more about Oregon’s Black history. You can view their “Racing to Change” exhibit, which was presented at the Oregon Historical Society from January through June 2018 and documents the Civil Rights Movement in Oregon in the 1960s and 1970s. There is also an Oregon Black Pioneers History Map where you can explore locations throughout Oregon which have interesting stories and history. 

One entry in Salem describes a Supreme Court case from 1904, where a black man named Oliver Taylor sued a Portland theater owner for discrimination. Taylor had purchased five box seat tickets for a performance and was refused entry because the theater did not allow Blacks to sit in box seats.

While Taylor lost his case in the Multnomah County court, he won on appeal at the Oregon Supreme Court in 1906. The work of Avel Gordly is also noted in a Salem entry on this map. Gordly was Oregon’s first Black State Senator, a lawyer and social justice advocate who organized local efforts against South African apartheid and served as Oregon State Representative from 1992-1992 and Oregon State Senator from 1996-2009.

Zachary Stocks, Oregon Black Pioneers Executive Director has also created a short video describing two markers commemorating Oregon Black Pioneers in Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery, including Hiram Gorman, an emancipated slave and veteran of the Union Army during the Civil War. His marker was installed in the cemetery in 2002 by the members of Camp 1799 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor his service. Gorman operated the steam powered press for the Oregon Statesman in Salem after the Civil War and lived with his family at the corner of Liberty and Chemeketa Streets.

A July 24, 1888 obituary for Hiram Gorman, one of Salem's early Black settlers, in the Oregon Statesman.

A very exciting project which we hope to embark on in Salem is working to identify significant places associated with African-Americans. Last year, the National Park Service approved a National Register nomination recognizing structures with African-American historical significance in Portland from 1865-1973. This tool is a great model for us to follow locally, and we look forward to documenting this significant history. 

We hope to complete research relating to the 43 Black pioneers buried in Salem’s cemetery as well as the people in Salem’s community that supported them, like Obed Dickinson and his wife Charlotte. Dickinson and his wife arrived in 1853 as missionaries representing the American Missionary Society in charge of Salem’s first Congregational Church. Their first meetings were held in a schoolhouse near Marion Square Park.

As documented in Egbert S. Oliver’s book “Obed Dickinson’s War Against Sin in Salem 1853-1867 (Reports to the American Home Missionary Society)” published in 1987 by Portland’s Hapi Press, Dickinson and his wife were committed to supporting Black pioneers living in Salem. In addition to his anti-slavery preaching, Dickinson presided over the wedding of Black pioneers America and Richard Bogle in January of 1863. Richard came from Jamaica to Salem, and fell in love with American, the daughter of Daniel Waldo (a member of Oregon’s first Legislature) and one of his slaves. In addition, Obed Dickinson’s wife Charlotte, who was a schoolteacher before coming to Oregon, taught five young Black women in their home who were not able to go to public school. 

Our hope is to ensure not only that additional research can be completed to confirm where people who contributed to Salem’s Black history lived and worked, but also to develop on site interpretation throughout Salem to share this history.

We are also starting on another new project at the City of Salem, led by the Bush House Museum and the Salem Art Association, to reimagine the interpretation of the history of the Bush House, which is a city-owned historic resource. Bush was the publisher of the Oregon Statesman (now known as the Statesman Journal). While he did support ensuring that Oregon was brought into the Union as a free state, his beliefs were ultimately that Blacks were never equal to whites. Collaborating with representatives from the Oregon Black Pioneers as well as representatives from interested local Tribes, we will be working on the development of new on-site interpretation which incorporates and acknowledges the difficult history associated with Asahel Bush.

Editor's note: This column is a regular feature from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected]

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