In the history of race and racism in America, museums and historical societies are not exempt from bias. For hundreds of years, our institutions contributed only to the story of one America; a grand heroic narrative focusing on the achievements of mostly male Euro-Americans. Our native peoples were seen only as a noble, defeated, disappearing people whose belongings–and their skeletons–filled museum collection rooms. The contributions of people of color—including African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and others–women, and LGTBQ were either misrepresented or not seen at all, with displays that celebrated colonization instead of teaching the complexity of colonial history and how it continues to shape us in this tumultuous spring of 2020.
This year marks the Deschutes County Historical Society’s 45th anniversary. In the timeline of American museums and historical societies, we are young, but our work to research, gather, and represent our history fairly and honestly has never been more important. We know that the proof of our commitment to this lies only in our work. Here is a sample of incomplete research we are working on from 1925 in Bend. It is a progressive period, politically, and the region was seeing an influx of immigrants, largely from Ireland and Eastern Europe.
During the first week of August, 1925, at a city council meeting, the ‘colored’ citizens of Bend petitioned the city asking for the removal of ‘white trade only’ signs being used by some businesses in Bend. They were represented by local attorney and state representative Jay H. Upton, who spoke on behalf of his clients.
We have three primary source versions for this event: the written record of the Bend city council minutes; a paragraph that appeared as part of a larger article in The Bend Bulletin; and the same moment as it appeared in the Central Oregon Press, a short-lived competing newspaper.
The city council minutes are short and offer little detail, with the tiny but important paragraph sandwiched between conversation about roads and sidewalks. The Bend Bulletin offers slightly more detail, but it is buried in the middle of a review of the entire meeting, and the headline “Oil Surfacing Will Be Tried On Streets” indicates the reporter also found the roads conversation more worthy of reporting.
Central Oregon Press, however, offers us a completely different portrait of those few minutes of the council meeting. It is the focus of the headline. The reporter gives us all of Upton’s words and resolution. It appears below in three images to allow you, the reader, to see the whole column. The revelation of this third is a startlingly clear concept: the signs are humiliating. It offers us insight into what living in a segregated America looked like in 1925. What was acceptable and what was humiliation. The city council agreed the signs were humiliating and unecessary, and passed the resolution that restaurants be instructed to take them down.
Who were Mr. Upton’s clients? We don’t know yet–we hope to be able to uncover that information. Mr. Upton was a powerful lawyer whose specialty was water law. He served in the Oregon state legislature from 1921-34, and served as president of the senate. More than once he was considered a candidate for governor. He was a Spanish American war veteran, which may explain his references to service in the petition. Was one of his clients also a veteran? We may not ever know. Upton was tragically killed in an auto accident in 1938. Our search will have to expand to state archives to see if any of his papers exist in other institutions. Volunteers interested in helping us research are welcome to contact us.
This moment doesn’t mean we have a blissful past of standing up to racism; in fact it is the opposite. This event takes place only two years after the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross on top of Pilot Butte. Black exclusion laws in the state of Oregon, which were not repealed until 1926, kept Oregon largely white. You can learn more about them here: www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/exclusion_laws/ Our city has an unspoken history of racial discrimination that doesn’t often meet paper and the trail is hard for us to follow. But we will follow it. As a 21st century historical society, our job is to be your connection to history. Not just in exhibits, but in your research and how we collect for the future. If we don’t know the answer, we aim to help you find it. All of us have work to do. For the Deschutes County Historical Society that means a commitment to a full representation of our regional history–especially when it makes us uncomfortable.
Like our nation, the history of our county is a tapestry woven from many individual threads. Guided by our national motto, E pluribus unum, we hope to show that, in Deschutes County, out of many we are truly one.