On a rainy early afternoon this past weekend at Mount Union Cemetery, a good-sized crowd gathered around the grave marker of R.E. Ficklin to witness a ceremony that featured the dedication of a bronze plaque.
A farmer and landowner in 19th century Benton County, he donated two acres to establish the cemetery. But his story goes far beyond the act of a generous gift that occurred a month before the start of the Civil War.
A collection of photos from the April 30, 2022, dedication of a bronze plaque in recognition of the contributions of Reuben Shipley.
In life, he was known as Reuben Shipley — that particular surname originating with his former owner and Ficklin later connected to him through a son. Yes, Shipley was Black and his achievements were nothing short of impressive for the time period in which he lived. His donation in 1861 came with the condition that both Black and white people could be buried there as their final resting place.
Jane Buck, honorary state and chapter regent with the Winema Chapter of the National Society of The Daughters of the American Revolution, led the plaque dedication event.
“Mr. Reuben Shipley … a previously enslaved man came to Oregon and worked his way hard to accumulate 100-plus acres of land and could actually have enough money — even though he was previously enslaved — that he could have an integrated cemetery,” Buck said when asked what she would want people to know about him. “I’m sure that it must’ve been the first integrated cemetery in Oregon … It’s a delight to recognize his contribution to life in this community.”
Buck said the project’s wheels were put into motion back in 2019. R. Gregory Nokes, who wrote a chapter about Shipley his his book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory,” and Peter Sleeth, a retired journalist, visited with the group.
“They both came to one of our luncheons at Christmastime in 2019 so that we could explore the need for this and we definitely decided it needed to be done,” Buck said.
The original plans were for the plaque to go into the cemetery in 2020 but then the pandemic hit and delays followed. The plaque actually indicates that it was placed in 2021 instead of this past Saturday. But that detail is minor and Buck said the recognition for Shipley is overdue.
“It’s time that we paid tribute to all the people in this state who made great contributions to our life here and to what we have today,” she said.
Janet Cornelius, Mount Union Cemetery sexton, had the honor of unveiling the new bronze plaque.
In a short talk during the event, Cornelius said the plaque should answer the most frequent question that she hears from visitors to the cemetery.
“The whole cemetery is a community asset, a real treasure, and anything that tells more of the story and answers that question about why there isn’t a Shipley headstone is really important,” Cornelius said. “This plaque explains that the youngest Shipley child, who is also named Reuben, changed his surname — he changed it to Ficklin and at some point after his parents had died and his siblings and his stepfather, he had this marker in his chosen surname of Ficklin set here to honor his parents and family.
“So this plaque now has a fuller answer to the mystery of why there is no Shipley headstone.”
Cornelius is pleased that Shipley’s story exists in a more permanent form instead of just on paper in the cemetery’s brochure. And she indicated that there will be more to come.
“We do have plans to get plaques that tell more of the story and of the indigineous people who lived here even before the Shipleys,” she said. “But this is the beginning and it’s really exciting.”
More recognition for Shipley is expected in the near future through an effort for the placement of a state historical marker, which will be placed in Newton Creek Park for visibility along the highway.
Cornelius said there was a lot of collaboration that led to the placement of the bronze plaque, mentioning Sleeth, Noakes, the NAACP in Corvallis and Oregon Black Pioneers in addition to the NSDAR.
Said Buck, “This is something that is very dear to our hearts — integrating cemeteries is integrating everybody — people are people no matter what the color of their skin is.”
For those with little knowledge about Shipley’s story, he came to Oregon from Missouri in 1853 as part of a deal he struck with his owner, Robert Shipley. For helping with the journey west, he would in return become a free man. He ended up settling in Benton County and worked for pioneer Eldridge Hartless in the vicinity of the Plymouth community.
In short time, Shipley began to obtain his own property and accumulated just over 100 acres. In 1857, he married Mary Jane Holmes and together they had six children. They lived their lives alongside white settlers with their children in county schools and Shipley earned the respect of his neighbors.
In 1872, a Corvallis Gazette article reported that he was ill from complications related to smallpox. In the article, he was described as “industrious and respected” and “familiarly known as Reub.”
Shipley died Sept. 25, 1872 of apoplexy, according to a vital statistics index card entry in the Oregon Historical Society’s archives. This fall will mark the 150th anniversary of Shipley’s death and burial in the Philomath-area cemetery.