Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — he was born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta. If he was still alive, he would be 94.
After visiting Berlin, Germany, in 1934, his father decided to rename both himself and his son Martin Luther King after the famous Protestant church figure. MLK would grow up to be one of the most recognizable civil rights activists. The federal holiday honoring him occurs each year on the third Monday in January.
His actions remind us of a lesser-known local couple who had a remarkable impact.
According to a brochure available at the Mount Union Cemetery, back in 1853, Reuben Shipley, an enslaved Black man and overseer of a large plantation in Missouri, agreed to drive a team of oxen to Oregon with the Robert Shipley family in exchange for his freedom. This was 170 years ago and a few decades before Philomath existed.
After arriving in Benton County, Reuben Shipley was emancipated and worked on a farm. He saved his money and purchased an 80-acre parcel off what is now Plymouth Road. On May 11, 1861, Shipley and his wife, Mary Jane, donated 2 acres of their farm to establish a cemetery on the condition that both Black and white people could be buried here.
Even though the Civil War began only a month earlier, on April 12, 1861, the Shipley Family, a Black couple, decided to move forward with this bold donation. They must have reasoned at that time, that even though Blacks and whites were not legally allowed to live together under the laws of the day, at least they could be buried together in an integrated cemetery.
In 1865, the Civil War ended. The forces of the Union Army would prevail. Enslaved people were emancipated. The cemetery was named Mount Union.
Reuben Shipley would pass away in 1872. One hundred and fifty years after his death, in 2022, the Oregon Travel Information Council, the Oregon Black Pioneers, the City of Philomath Inclusivity Committee and others erected a historical marker to remember the Shipley family and the parcel of land they gave to this community.
To fund the marker, over 50 giving strangers from our community contributed money toward it to match a couple organizational grants applied for by members of the Corvallis Baha’i Faith. One of the grants received was generously provided by the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. It was a great way to come together to honor the legacy of the Shipley family’s remarkable gift.
The marker is located on James Street in Philomath while the cemetery is on Mount Union Avenue in town. You should check them both out sometime.
Fast forward 100 years later to 1961. Dr. Martin Luther King was invited to come to Oregon. He spoke to students at Portland State University on Nov. 8, 1961 during what would be his one and only visit to the state of Oregon. His talk was titled the “Future of Integration.” He said, “We have come a long way toward making integration a reality, but we still have a long way to go.”
In 1963, Dr. King wrote a book entitled “Strength To Love,” which consists of a collection of 15 of his sermons. The book focuses on a combination of segregation and religious values.
One of the sermons featured in the book is called “On Being a Good Neighbor” where he focuses on the parable of the good Samaritan. This is a timeless tale featuring busy travelers passing by an injured person who has just been beaten and robbed. While many passed him by without stopping to help, one man, moved with compassion, stopped to administer first aid, and cared for this stranger.
The parable of the good Samaritan clearly resonates with the community of Philomath. Every year, we recognize the service of individuals, businesses and nonprofits. A month from now on Feb. 15, the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce will host its annual Samaritan Awards. This is a night that brings our community together to recognize and celebrate goodwill.
Philomath continues to be a place of tremendous philanthropy since its incorporation 140 years ago in 1882 and even before that going all the way back to 1861 with Shipley’s gift. I believe this is a special feature about this little town that we all treasure. We are good neighbors to one another. It is often tough to decide who should get the awards. Our town is chock full of good Samaritans.
Coincidentally enough, the deadline for Samaritan award nominations is today, Jan. 15, which also happens to be MLK’s actual birth date.
MLK would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. At the end of his acceptance speech, he said “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.”
Philomath has a neighbor called Corvallis. They have a place called Martin Luther King Jr. Park that covers 29 acres. It has hiking trails, picnic areas, baseball fields, a playground and a large natural area.
Corvallis Parks & Recreation has plans for $8.5 million worth of upgrades to the park in the coming years. An anonymous donor has already generously committed $2 million toward this effort. (You can read about these plans here). The idea behind the park is to simply better foster community spirit regardless of color or religious creed.
It is a short 10-minute drive from Philomath. If you haven’t ever been, I encourage you to put on your walking shoes and go explore. While you are there, take a moment to reflect on how one good Samaritan, named Reuben Shipley, gave his land so strangers could be buried together, while another good Samaritan named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his life helping strangers live together.
(Eric Niemann is a former mayor and city councilor in Philomath. He can be reached at Lifeinphilomath@gmail.com).