On the Beat: History of black pioneers in Oregon coming to local museum

Earlier this year, the Philomath City Council formed an ad-hoc committee to tackle issues revolving around justice, equity, diversity and inclusivity. The committee has been active with those efforts and has even included a series of speakers covering conversations on our state’s black pioneers, the history of racism and justice in Oregon, and tribal history and customs of the Siletz.

Philomath residents will soon have the opportunity to learn more about black pioneers through an exhibition scheduled to run at the Philomath Museum. An exhibit about the lives of early black pioneers in Oregon will be coming to the local museum on Jan. 8 and is scheduled to remain available for viewing until Feb. 26. The exhibition coming to Philomath is a cooperative effort of the city’s inclusivity committee, the Benton County Historical Society and generous donors.

Zachary Stocks, Oregon Black Pioneers director, recorded a video message for Philomath about the upcoming exhibit. Click below to watch.

“One of the things that has given me a lot of encouragement is the strong relationship we formed this year with the city of Philomath,” Stocks said in the video.

“The exhibition is about some of the first blacks in Oregon, many of whom lived in the Philomath-Corvallis area,” he continued. “It’ll be on display just in time for MLK Day and run through the end of Black History Month,” Stocks said.

The exhibit entitled, “Black in Oregon 1840–1870” is based on research that had been done by the Oregon State Archives in collaboration with Oregon Black Pioneers.

“This exhibit highlights the lives of early black pioneers who came to Oregon between 1840 and 1870. This early settlement period is of particular interest because of Oregon’s laws regarding the immigration of blacks to Oregon,” state website with a description of the exhibit reads. “At various times, the Provisional and Territorial governments passed laws excluding blacks from residing in the area, and Oregon’s Constitution, adopted in 1857, included specific language forbidding either free or enslaved blacks who did not already reside in the new state.

“Despite the discriminatory laws, there were a number of blacks who settled in Oregon during these years,” the description continues. “In this exhibit, we shine a light on their experiences through surviving, documentary evidence. The stories illustrated here relate to people brought to Oregon as slaves and those of free blacks who made the perilous journey west, possibly motivated by new opportunities and the chance for a better life.”

Many of us in Philomath may be familiar with the story of Reuben Shipley and his wife Mary Jane, who donated land for the establishment of Mount Union Cemetery.

“Although he went by the surname of Shipley, his memorial marker lists him as R. E. Ficklin. We believe this surname is from Reuben’s original slave owner,” an Oregon Blue Book social media post reads. “Reuben’s last surviving son also used the Ficklin surname. Adoption of a new surname may have reflected a new status or self-determination in the lives of these individuals, however these changes can cause confusion and difficulties in making connections in the historical records.”

Museums are great for learning more about our history and this topic is an important part of it.

By the way, if you missed one of the inclusivity committee’s speakers, go to the city’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/cityofphilomath) and click on “Videos.” The city broadcasts all of its public meetings, so you’ll need to scroll down a bit to find them.

(Brad Fuqua is Publisher/Editor of the Philomath News. He can be reached at [email protected])

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