Effort continues to place historical marker in recognition of Black pioneer Reuben Shipley

In a series of stories published a century ago by noted Oregon Agricultural College historian John B. Horner, readers learned about the life of former slave Reuben Shipley and the hardships he endured in life to become a well-liked family man who made a difference in his community.

Shipley had built a reputation as an industrious pioneer who started with nothing. As Horner wrote, “No one was too proud to visit this home, for no home was more respectable.” In the years following his death in 1873, old-timers would recall “Reub” as they passed by his former home.

“… In all the years since then, the settlers have pointed with mingled respect and pride to the old cabin home as they passed by,” Horner wrote, “and they have recalled pleasant memories of the Black man who obtained his freedom from slavery.”

Now, nearly 150 years after his death, folks passing through Philomath will be able to learn about Shipley and the unique accomplishments that he achieved as a Black man in the 19th century. An effort to place a historical marker in Philomath appears to be on its way to reality to bring recognition to Shipley and his wife, Mary, who had been enslaved by her Oregon owner until Shipley purchased her freedom in the 1850s.

“This state historical marker represents a continuation of the important work Philomath has already begun to show a more complete picture of its early days,” Zachary Stocks, Oregon Black Pioneers executive director, wrote in a Sept. 6 letter supporting the marker. “Visitors to this state historical marker will learn about the Shipley’s remarkable life stories, as well as the diverse, supportive agricultural community that they lived in.”

TO GIVE
Tax-deductible donations can be sent to: P.O. Box 331, Corvallis, OR 97339.
Alternatively, a GoFundMe account has been set up at this link.

Following those early Horner accounts about Shipley’s life, not much more had been written in the following decades, although his story would be repeated from time to time through mentions or parts of chapters in occasional books about Oregon’s Black history.

Still, his contributions to the Philomath vicinity never received widespread recognition, on the level of, say, Hannah and Eliza Gorman, or Letitia Carson.

The time had arrived for Reuben Shipley’s story to come back to life.

The idea for a historical marker

For folks who keep close tabs on local history, the Black pioneer’s story is nothing new. Former mayor Eric Niemann has been active in creating interest and every year at the Memorial Day flag-placement event, Erin Haynes shares details of Shipley’s life and the 2 acres he donated to establish Mount Union Cemetery. The cemetery’s board makes Shipley’s contributions visible with a plaque mounted on a boulder near the entrance.

It’s that plaque that caught the eye of Roger Blaine.

“I got interested in Reuben Shipley by volunteering my time up in Mount Union Cemetery to help clean it up,” Blaine said during an Oct. 14 interview. “I ran across the stone marker there and got really curious about him and started following up and read a lot of material … and I just kept following that particular trail.”

Blaine is a follower of the Bahá’í faith, which he said has a concept based on the “oneness of humanity.” The American struggle with racism has been a particular interest to the Bahá’ís and also personally to Blaine.

“The last couple of years, there’s been a lot of stuff in the press about the harm that has been done to Black folks and we need to shine a light on that — that’s clear,” he said. “But there’s more to it than just correcting difficulties.”

Blaine pointed to an antiquated word, amity, which promotes the concept of working together to an end.

“A big part of that is acknowledging and celebrating the events and activities that are important to others,” Blaine said. “I just couldn’t find very much in Benton County and Oregon that celebrated its Black pioneers’ past. So having stumbled across Reuben Shipley and his wife and family and cemetery, it just seemed like an appropriate thing to do to set about to honor this Black pioneer.”

Shipley’s story is a fascinating one that includes working for his own freedom by helping his owner travel west from Missouri to Oregon. He then begins working for Eldridge Hartless, a Plymouth community pioneer, and saves money to purchase several acres of land. In 1861, he donated 2 acres to Benton County to establish a cemetery where Black folks could be buried.

Four years earlier in 1857, Shipley had paid $700 to purchase the freedom of Mary Jane Holmes, whom he wanted to marry. Various sources point to the transaction as being the last case of a slave being sold in Oregon.

Both Reuben, under the name of Ficklin, and Mary Jane, under her remarried name of Drake, are buried at Mount Union Cemetery alongside other family members.

Located near the main entrance to Mount Union Cemetery is this plaque about Reuben Shipley and Mary Jane Drake. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Seeking various needed approvals

Blaine said he was working with the local chapter of the NAACP when the idea for establishing a Shipley historical marker took root.

“They were really focused on the challenges to Black folks and this seemed like something they and the Bahá’ís and the community at large would benefit from,” Blaine said. “I put together an application and submitted it to the state for a historical marker and they vetted it by going out to the Black Pioneers organization in Salem and Zachary Scott there and others thought it was a pretty good idea and that just kind of got the ball rolling.”

The Travel Information Council is the state’s official administrator of the Oregon Historical Marker Program.

“Once the state decided that it was a reasonable thing to do, there were two or three things that needed to be done,” Blaine explained. “One was we needed to find a location and there were several locations that were suggested … and Newton Creek Park in Philomath turned out to be among the really good sites. So we approached the City Council to see about using that particular site.”

The Philomath Park Advisory Board and then the City Council both approved of the marker.

“This is a small, peaceful park area with easy access for motorists and cyclists alike that would be a welcome home for a historic marker,” Mayor Chas Jones wrote in a Sept. 14 letter to the Travel Information Council.

In early February, the Travel Information Council’s Annie von Domitz and the Oregon Historical Marker Committee’s Chris Bell planned to visit Philomath to find a location. An Oregon Department of Transportation representative was to accompany them on the field trip, Blaine said.

Roger Blaine, from left, his wife, Sandi Bean, and Sgt. 1st Class Jamel Mercado of the National Guard placed a wreath at the grave site of Reuben Shipley during this spring’s flag-placement ceremony. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Oregon Black Pioneers’ Stocks approved of the location in a Sept. 6 letter.

“Our team is confident that the proposed site represents the best location for this marker, considering its proximity to the Shipley’s homestead, its public accessibility and its low potential impact on traffic,” he said.

The approval places the marker in Newton Creek Park along Main Street/Highway 20/34 in the eastern end of town. The neighborhood park includes a popular bicycle commuter and walking/jogging path. The exact location, Blaine said, will be determined by ODOT.

“They’ll select a place in the park that satisfies safety requirements,” he said.

The historical maker’s appearance will differ from the one seen in front of Philomath Museum. Each sign can be unique and newer versions can include photographs and maps — more than just text as some of the older ones.

Second historical marker in Philomath

The Oregon Historical Marker Committee approved the Reuben Shipley application at its Feb. 2 meeting.

“The council is excited about this opportunity to host a second historic marker in town, the first being the marker at the Philomath College building, which attracts tourists and encourages motorists to stop and learn about this incredible historic building,” Jones said in a Sept. 14 letter to the Travel Information Council. “It is anticipated the new marker will provide similar results.”

Taylor Stewart, Oregon Remembrance Project executive director, voiced support for the Shipley project.

“This will provide ample opportunity to engage in the seldom-told history of early African American pioneers in Oregon and the significance this history holds in our communities today,” Stewart wrote in a letter to the Philomath mayor and council. “Community education is a crucial first step toward diversifying our collective memory and our collective consciousness.”

Blaine said the state charges $7,300 for the marker, so fundraising has been an important component of the project. Getting buy-in from others has been a key factor with various people coming together to form a group.

“It’s got to be a bigger group than just the NAACP and the Bahá’ís — and so we’ve got people at Oregon State University and the archives folks there, people from Mount Union Cemetery,” Blaine said. “We formed a group of a half a dozen or so folks and this group is the one that has been selecting and reviewing the text that is supposed to go on the marker. That was a very collaborative and uplifting process.”

With all approvals out of the way, the group is now focused on fundraising. Blaine has been talking to various organizations in the region to seek their buy-in, but also has applied for a number of grants to help cover the marker’s expenses.

“That’s a long process but we hope we can achieve some funding that way,” he said.

Niemann established a GoFundMe campaign that as of Friday morning had brought in $2,870 of the $7,300 goal. Blaine also said that contributions can be submitted through a post office box that has been set up with the Bahá’ís serving as the fiscal sponsor.

“To be specific, you have to have a tax ID number, have a bank account and a post office box. We’ve taken all of those steps to be prepared to accept contributions and the Bahá’ís are serving as the financial agent, so we have 501c(3) status and that’s a big help,” Blaine said.

Those tax-deductible donations can be sent to: P.O. Box 331, Corvallis, OR 97339.

Niemann in his GoFundMe narrative mentioned that a goal could be to erect the marker by Sept. 25, 2022, which would be the 150th anniversary of Shipley’s death. Blaine said an installation date or goal has not yet been determined.


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