Insightful program in Philomath features historian Gwen Carr and Salem high schooler
In a 60-minute program in front of local high school students Tuesday afternoon, Oregon Black Pioneers longtime board member Gwen Carr covered everything from fascinating early history facts to thoughts on today’s antiracism movement. Her granddaughter, Grace Caldwell, contributed enlightening perspectives of a biracial high school student. Together, they provided a glimpse into their worlds.
Philomath High School’s Student Racial Equity Committee promoted the event on campus with students able to sign up to attend.
“We thought that it was an appropriate time to have this,” said Trinity Monstwillo, Student Racial Equity Committee co-president (her sister, Isabella Monstwillo, is the other co-president), referring to February as Black History Month.
The Philomath Youth Activities Club received a grant from the Benton County Cultural Coalition, board member Eric Niemann said while introducing the speakers. Teresa Nielson, retired from the school district and a member of the Philomath City Council, sat in on the presentation. Nielsen serves as the council’s school liaison and is also on the city’s Inclusivity Committee.
Carr, 73, shared her own history growing up, which included attendance in the first and second grades at a segregated school in Texas. Her family relocated to Los Angeles and in 1966, she graduated from Centennial High School in Compton, California.
“The earliest date that we have for Black people in Oregon is 1788,” she said. “This man was on a ship that came to do exploration around the Oregon-California coast.”
Carr was referring to Marcus Lopez, who was aboard the Lady Washington under the command of Capt. Robert Gray. In August 1788, Lopez died during a dispute with Native Americans at Tillamook Bay.
Carr hit several other notable points in Black history in Oregon, mentioning Philomath’s own Reuben Shipley, who donated land to help establish Mount Union Cemetery, and Carrie Halsell Ward, the first African-American graduate at Oregon Agricultural College (now OSU). A slideshow accompanied her talk to provide visuals to the students.
Carr was honest and open about her thoughts on racism and said she sees history repeating itself. She even reached a point when she didn’t want to talk about race.
“For a while, particularly after the George Floyd murder, I had decided I don’t want to talk about this anymore. … I’ve been involved in talking about race, whether it’s my own experiences or my race’s experiences, since I was in high school,” Carr said. “Now, here I am 50 years later, and I’m still talking about the same thing. That’s pretty scary. I think it’s time for White people to start talking about race.”
Carr said Black people can’t do much on their own for real change — especially in a place like Oregon where only 2% of the population is Black.
“No matter how much we protest, that’s not going to solve the problems alone,” Carr said. “I think until White people are willing to step up, acknowledge the past history and talk about what’s happening now, we’re not getting anywhere.”
Carr recalled a conversation she had with her granddaughter who had shown excitement about the protests and attention to inequality that had been occurring around the country.
“I said to Grace, ‘yeah, I’ve seen that before, too — see me in a couple of years,’” Carr said. “Because what usually happens … something really bad happens — police brutality or murder or whatever, some conflict, and people get all excited and start talking about it in church and start talking about it in the Legislature, and then it sort of dies down until the next chapter.
“So being honest about that, I guess I have mixed feelings about where we are right now and know that we can do better,” she added. “But we can’t do better by doing the same thing over and over and over again.”
Carr touched on several other sensitive matters, including her thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and recent incidents that have been in the news.
Caldwell, a senior at McKay High School in Salem who is a student advisor to the Salem-Keizer School Board, also shared thoughts through her experiences, including policing that occurs on campus through school resource officers. She recalled something that occurred when she was in middle school after a fight had occurred.
“It was like a dumb fight but they’ve got police officers in the school and we were out at recess and we just have these two police officers — they brought the car out onto the track — and they just watched us,” she said. “We were doing absolutely nothing, like walking a lap … mindless stuff yet we had police officers monitoring us like we were criminals. It’s stuff like that.”
Carr said a deeper conversation needs to occur in this country.
“This country is made up of people of all types that have contributed to where we are — the good, bad and ugly — and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Carr said. “Again, I always say, history has already happened, you can’t go back and clean it up.
“The best thing you can do is recognize what’s happened and then say, ‘what parts of that do I not want to take into the future?” she added. “Racism is a part of that — you don’t want to take that into the future. … My hope is that 50 years from now, you don’t have to be doing what I’m doing today — and that’s sitting in front of a group of students with your grandchild talking about the same things. If that happens, we’ve all failed.”
The appearance at Philomath High represented the first time that Carr and Caldwell had done the program in person — previous versions had been done only online.
Monstwillo said the Student Racial Equity Committee’s membership stands at 15 to 20 and meets on Wednesdays each week. Denee Newton serves as the organization’s adviser. The group has more events planned.
“We have a goal of doing a mini-fundraiser with little facts about Black History Month on bags of candy and donating the money to the NAACP,” Monstwillo said.
In November, the group interviewed a Philomath School District employee who belongs to the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians as part of Native American Heritage Month. Isabelle Monstwillo appeared before the School Board via Zoom to share what they had learned.