Go West, young black man, young black woman
A panel recounts tales, from both the past and present, of standing out on the Left Coast
While Washington state helped to make history by voting for Barack Obama last year, all of its residents owe a debt to another dark-skinned man whose name lays buried deep in the annals of the past: George W. Bush. That wouldn’t be George Walker Bush, the country’s 43rd president, but George Washington Bush, the state’s first black settler.
A 19th-century fur trapper who worked for The Hudson’s Bay Company, his frontier and navigation skills helped him guide several families over the Oregon Trail. When he reached the Columbia, in the fall of 1844, the Oregon Territory’s foundling government wouldn’t allow free blacks to own land. With racial discrimination forcing him to find somewhere else to call home, he, along with the white families he’d helped lead, ventured to the river’s north shores to Fort Vancouver, where they spent the winter. By the spring of 1845, Bush decided to settle down.
It’s a history rarely spoken of. And, while mentioned only briefly, it lay at the core of a Dec. 3 panel discussion called “From Pioneers to Mayors: Blacks in the West.” Put on by the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas—and co-sponsored by and held at the Northwest African American Museum—the discussion, running just over two hours, set out to recapture what for many is easy to overlook, if not completely ignore: the experiences of black people who call the area west of the Rockies home.
“My roots go very, very deep here,” said Rev. Phyllis Beaumonte. Born and raised in Seattle at a time when there weren’t a lot of black people in the Emerald City, Rev. Beaumonte recalled that the major hub of black activity lay contained within a small geographical area: Thomas and John Streets to the north; Lane Street to the south; 12th Avenue of the west; and 25th Avenue of the east.
And while the panel’s five members nodded at Rev. Beaumonte’s mention of urban boundaries, each in his or her own way noted that one black person’s experience of the West did not necessarily mirror another’s.
For Darrell Milner, a professor at Portland State University, his personal geography extended to Ohio, where he was born. Having moved to Oregon as an older man—after a stint in California, where he attended college—he acknowledged that black people are a minority in the West. (Again, more head nodding, from panel members and the nearly 40 audience members alike.) “It’s not accidental,” Milner said. “The basic reality of the pioneer years is that most black people who lived in the country didn’t have a choice about whether they wanted to come West or not.” The nation’s four million slaves couldn’t have crossed the Oregon Trail, he added.
Indeed, a break down of state populations by race shows the Northwest possessing a minute black population: 3.7 percent in Washington and 2 percent in Oregon, according to 2008 U.S. Census data. (Nationwide, black people account for 12.8 percent of the population.)
But for panelist Eddie Hill, who grew up in Chicago—where the black population accounts for more than a third of the Windy City’s denizens—his move to the West as a youth offered him immense freedom to discover himself. “In San Diego, I was a surfer,” he began. “In Oakland, I was a Black nationalist; when I moved to Olympia, I became an organic farmer.” Currently working as Community Capacity Developer for the Seattle Housing Authority, he also explored a career in art. “I’ve been able to reinvent myself and try new things and extend myself to the limits of my imagination,” he said, “especially in the Northwest.”
But Milner offered a flip side. For, even though being a black Northwestener can offer opportunity, he said for many it can lead to a consistent reaction. “You say, ‘I’m from Oregon,’ and the eyebrows raise, a look of surprise appears on the face and they go, ‘Black people live in Oregon?’‘’ he said, chuckling.
Yet even as a history professor, he admitted to having only learned about black history in the West at the prodding of his students. He cited the story of a man named York. The only black man on the Lewis and Clark expedition, he was also a slave forced to take part in the journey by his owner, William Clark. That would have placed him on the Columbia roughly four decades before George W. Bush and made him an early black explorer in the country’s history.
He suggested York’s tale differs radically from other early notions of black people Milner and most others knew: that of people in a cotton field or babies sitting on logs in a jungle. “I think that has to be understood about why we lost contact with a lot of our, not just Black Western history, but Black history period,” he said.
The panelists hoped that maybe, that lost history would begin to be reclaimed.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.