The celebration was lively: in the small town of Waldport, Oregon, a few hundred finally gathered to see the statue’s unveiling. We heard a Gulf Coast guy, Truman Price, a violinist, play music on his fiddle reminiscent of the tunes of 1880s which would have been played by the historical person cast in bronze. A sculptor showed up, Peter Helzer, and his daughter, too, who was on the banjo with Truman and another fellow playing guitar. The story is of a slave, brought to Oregon by his “owner,” James Southworth. Oh, those Oregon Black Exclusion laws initiated in 1844, stating that any Black individuals or families attempting to settle here would be whipped 39 times, and repeated until they left. The Oregon Constitution in 1859 made it illegal for African Americans to live in Oregon. That law was repeated in 1926.
The state of Oregon, man, whew. When I was working in downtown Portland, two of my social services colleagues, both Black, said they had not seen the amount of racism in Portland compared to Texas and Georgia where they had came from. “It’s not overt, more like sort of hidden, but these white colleagues, liberals, they say some pretty racist stuff to say, profess. They might think it’s passive bigotry, but the state’s history, the sundown laws, and the racist cops and sheriff departments all speak to me as a black man who is definitely feeling the racism.”
So, Louis Southworth was sent to the Nevada and California gold fields in the 1870s by his enslaver, and he came back with money he saved from work, but mostly from entertaining camps with his fiddle. He bought his freedom at age 28, lived in Buena Vista, did blacksmith work while learning how to read and write.
He came out to this area, Oregon, on the Pacific, Alsea, homesteading with his wife; about five miles up the river from Waldport.
He ran a ferry, moving people, hay and other cargo. He ended up chair of the school board, and donated land for the schoolhouse and still played his fiddle.
So, 2022, Nov. 19, the fun was had by all, and there is land dedicated to a Southworth Park, and the statue will be placed there, and there will be more cermonies. The donated land Southworth gave for the first schoolhouse is now a field where the park will be built, named after him, with the statue.
I have the text of the dedicatory remarks made by an African American, Zachary Stocks, who is executive director of Oregon Black Pioneers. He set the record straight on the life and times of not only Southworth, but how his story is that of all Blacks, then, and now. It is an odd thing that this town, which is partially built on burial grounds of the first people, Alsi (Salish folk), is putting up a statue of a Black American, who bought his freedom using the fiddle as his conduit to freedom.
There are no dedicatory memorials to the Siletz and Alsi. I’ve written about that before, and down at Devil’s Churn, there is a cemented-and-walled-in cave with a really hard-to-read sign telling the odd visitor who might stray off the path and go over rocks to see the sign mostly covered by bushes. Traditional clamming grounds of tribes. I’ve talked to people who have lived her 50 years and they never ventured off the paved path at devil’s churn and seen the sign. Here’s my poem about Amanda, a Native Woman forcefully marched to Yachats, barefoot and blind. “Not Just One of those Tales of Another Dead Indian“
Again, these stories, these events, since I’ve been around the world, embroiled in social justice movements, anti-racism movements, and, well, I have my take on the history of the USA and the world. Here, Peter and Zach, taking off the cover to give the crowd the Louis statue of him fiddling.
Here, Alison plays the banjo as his father walks the crowd as a sort of dignitary. He’s got over a 100 public sculptures around the state and Pacific Northwest.
Here, Carol Van Strum, next to Louis. She’s been featured in several stories I’ve written, and her fiction novel, The Oreo File, has a mixed race protagonist and lots about Louis Southworth. Read my piece on Carol and her fight against the forest service and state with their sprays (pesticides) that have caused genetic damage and other chronic illnesses: “A real-life Toxic Avenger”
She also has her own story of a Black son, Jordan, who was put in jail for a murder he did not commit: Read my piece on his story, and Carol’s here: “A letter a day for 15 years and 9 months.” She came down from her Five Rivers house, 30 minutes away, to meet the artist and to give him a copy of her book, signed. I was there taking 100 photos, talking to various people I knew and those I just met.
Here, Peter is messing with a 110 year old violin an elderly lady from Waldport (she actually is from all over, and said this violin was made in Iowa, and she was a concert violinist until she broke her neck and could no longer play).
Here’s Zach’s organization website, Oregon Black Pioneers. Here’s just some of what he said at the ceremony:
Just before his death in 1917, it was reported that Louis Southworth was denied a military pension because his name wasn’t recorded in the volunteer lists. And this, despite a testimonial written on his behalf by his former commanding officer. In response, 218 Oregonians sent in donations totaling $243 to help cover Louis’ living expenses in his final days. Some of those people might be relatives of folks in this room. But it saddens me, that someone who had achieved so much would be forced to live on the charity of others.
All of this demonstrates how Louis Southworth seemed to live multiple lives. Slave and freeman; laborer and entrepreneur; squatter and homesteader; soldier and pauper; excluded and included. Louis was not just a jolly old man living quietly in the background. He actively participated in some of the most significant events in the history of Oregon.
And more than perhaps any other person, Louis’s time in Oregon spans the most transformational moments for Black Americans in the state. Consider this– around the year Louis Southworth was born, York the first Black person to reach Oregon by land, died, likely less than 200 miles away. The year Louis Southworth died, Mercedes Diez, who would go on to become Oregon’s first Black judge in the 1970s, was born. Louis is a link in the chain of historic Black individuals that stretches from 1770 to 2005!
That is how close we are to the past. A great colleague of mine named Richard Josey once posed an amazing question at a museum conference. He asked, “What kind of ancestor will you be?”. Let’s look to the example of Louis Southworth, whose story and accomplishments have inspired people, then and now. And whose resiliency was matched only by his generosity. A truly historic person.
I did stories on Hanford, the Washington nuclear facility. Won a couple of awards for magazine articles. “Nearly nature, nearly perfect But, near Hanford (part 1)” & “Nuclear Narratives – When Cold War Starts, the Hot Milk Gets Poured (part 2)”
I did learn from several farmers, including Tom Bailey, that when the facility was being built, many African Americans were brought into this dryland of Washington on the Columbia River. The Tri-Cities of Richland-Kennewick-Pasco. There was a part of town where the blacks lived, there were a few black establishments including bars and stores, and black churches. The justice for these workers was harsh, or should I say, the injustice. That facility was being built in the 1940s. I was shown some of the places, both still standing and others decrepit and falling apart.
Then, in Portland, Vanport, I got my education on that racist history. Here, a website, Hidden History:
Race is not a topic we often discuss in public settings, at least not explicitly. We are told we are in a “postracial” landscape, yet race is the number one determinant of access to health care, home ownership, graduation rates, and income, as the data from the Urban League of Portland below show.
We can’t understand these disparities without understanding history. I didn’t grow up in Oregon; I moved here to attend high school. It wasn’t until I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Darrell Millner, founder of Portland State University’s Black Studies Department, that I learned Oregon was created as a white utopian homeland. That Oregon was the only state that entered the Union with a clause in its constitution forbidding Black people to live here. That the punishment originally meted out for violating this exclusionary law was the “Lash Law”: public whipping every six months until the Black person left the state. That this ideology shaped Oregon’s entire history and was reflected in the larger history of this nation. — Walidah Imarisha
Again, laborers, workers, coming to Portland in the 1940s to help sustain the construction of homes, warehouses, other buildings for its rapid growth. Vanport was built as a temporary housing solution to Portland’s rapidly growing population. At its peak it housed nearly 40,000 residents, close to 40 percent were African-American. But an unusually wet spring in 1948 created a hole in the railroad dike blocking the Columbia River, and it erupted into massive flooding. City officials didn’t warn residents of the dangerously high water levels and opted not to evacuate. The town was wiped out within a day and 18,500 families were displaced, more than a third African-American.
So, the Albina section of Portland was the only place for Blacks, but with these displaced folk, some of which were taken in by other families, black and white, they had no other place in Portland to live. Many left the area. Now? Gentrification, racist policing, and, yep, with my Masters in Urban Planning, lots of redlining and zoning issues tied to making African Americans personas non grata. It’s disgusting.
The great Southern Migration, years after Southworth passed on in 1919. Many now living in Stumptown know nothing about that migration of Black men and women arriving to Portland by the many thousands, increasing Portland’s black population tenfold in a few years. Between 1940 and 1950, the city’s black population increased more than any West Coast city other than Oakland and San Francisco.
It was part of a demographic change seen in cities across America, as blacks left the South for the North and West in what became known as the Great Migration, or what Isabel Wilkerson, in her acclaimed history of the period, The Warmth of Other Suns, calls “the biggest underreported story of the 20th century.” From 1915 to 1960, nearly six million blacks left their Southern homes, seeking work and better opportunities in Northern cities, with nearly 1.5 million leaving in the 1940s, seduced by the call of WWII industries and jobs. Many seeking employment headed West, lured by the massive shipyards of the Pacific coast. (Source)
Here we are in this complicated story, 2022, where Native Americans have been pushed out by the Old World coming into this continent for making money, exploiting land, moving immigrants to lay claim on land for faming and settlements with no regard to the hundreds of American Indian tribes. The Indian war last over three hundred years, from 1602 to 1926. Almost every buffalo in the 60 million population was exterminated, as a way to kill American Indian culture.
I’ve got some time at Fort Huachuca, the home of the Buffalo Soldier, the African American union soldiers who also did their duty to help pacify and exterminate the Indians. The First African American troops to arrive in Arizona at Fort Huachuca were the Buffalo Soldiers in the 1890s — the 9th and 10th Cavalries. The Fort Huachuca Buffalo Soldiers distinguished themselves in the Spanish American War and the charge up San Juan Hill.
The African American Soldier At Fort Huachuca, Arizona, 1892-1946 American Plains Indians who fought against these soldiers referred to the black cavalry troops as “buffalo soldiers” because of their dark, curly hair, which resembled a buffalo’s coat and because of their fierce nature of fighting. The nickname soon became synonymous with all African-American regiments formed in 1866.
You can read my piece coming out Nov. 23 here at Dissident Voice, you know, for National Day of Mourning. The so-called Thanksgiving (for whom?). Again, the Southworth story is amazing, but it conjures up many issues tied to the Indian Removal actions of the many who came into their lands and stole. Sure, the series, The English, is just one aspect of those dirty Anglo Saxons coming out here to kill Indians: Yeah, it is a six part romance thing:
Or Terrance Malick’s, The New World:
Or the Redford produced, The American West.
Complicated feelings for me living on burial ground, by the Alsea River, in the old part of Waldport, and I can almost see that field, that soon-to-be Southworth Park. So many homeless, so many domestic violence cases, so many Native youth in schools here doing not so well. So many backward thinkers, and then all the transplants, who, well, they go to the Southworth show, but would they come to a lecture and viewing on Black Panthers’s struggles, or for on “In Prison My Whole Life – Mumia Abu-Jamal (Documentary)”
I am Not your Negro and Exterminate all the beasts:
Here, I’ll let Zach have the last word:
All of the images feature a seated Louis Southworth wearing a shabby coat and holding his fiddle. In one, he is facing away from the camera in his living room, and in the other where he is looking directly into the camera with a smile. The former was used on the cover of Elizabeth McLagan’s landmark 1980 book, A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940; the latter is featured on Louis’ headstone in Crystal Lake Cemetery in Corvallis. The epitaph reads “A bit of heaven’s music here below”.
Louis’ smile is infectious, and when you look at him, it almost feels as if you know him personally. No doubt, these photos continue to inspire appreciation for Louis. But unfortunately, we should question why these photos were made, and what they were meant to represent to viewers in 1915.
John Horner was not a journalist, but an anthropologist at Oregon State University, and the founder of the city’s first museum. He was a proponent of phrenology, and in his lab, he studied human skulls which he had stolen from Native graves to try and find proof of racial hierarchies. In 1931, he was hired to investigate a grave site at Three Rocks –not far from here—and determined that one of these skulls had [quote] “an extremely thick skull, indicative of negroid characteristics”. This skull too, was taken back to Horner’s lab for study.
Why would this anthropologist take photos and write an article about Louis Southworth? I can’t help but think of the staged images of Indigenous peoples that anthropologists and photographers used to document the tragedy of the supposedly-“vanishing” Indians. Edward Curtis’ “The North American Indian” had been first exhibited only eight years earlier. It seems to me that Horner was making a similar documentation of Louis. No one was suggesting that Black Americans were disappearing from Oregon in the 1910s –in fact, Oregon’s Black population was the highest it had ever been—but Louis represented something different. He too, was the last of his kind. The last of the enslaved Oregonians; the last trace of the “Old South” which had emigrated west during the pioneer days.
White Oregonians could be pleased by the “Uncle Lou” they saw in the newspaper, while at the same time, be virulently opposed to the growing Black progressive class in Portland. The same year this article was printed, Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure to repeal the state’s ban on interracial marriage, and rejected a measure to remove the Black exclusion language from the Oregon Constitution, even though it was no longer legally enforceable.
It still was a moving day for me, for sure, in its own way. I also told Zach and a few others I’d be writing something about the event, but to not expect some inverted Triangle News Piece. I can never take away the genuine feelings people yesterday expressed for this history, this man, and the park.