GSE students write Oregon African American History curriculum

Black historyIn 1844, Oregonians declared slavery illegal yet simultaneously enacted the infamous “Lash Law” requiring that “Blacks in Oregon, whether free or slave, be whipped at least twice a year until they quit the territory.” Four years later, Oregon’s provisional governor passed the first Exclusion Law making it unlawful for African Americans or people of mixed heritage to reside in Oregon Territory.1 African Americans were prohibited from living, travelling, or owning property in Oregon. Despite the fact that many of these laws were repealed in the early 20th century, discrimination against African Americans and other culturally diverse people continued unabated as they were refused service in restaurants, had limited access to businesses, jobs, and housing, and were prohibited from voting. Oregon was considered one of the worst places for African Americans outside of the South,2 and in the 1920s boasted an active Klu Klux Klan membership of 35,000.3 Does this surprise you? If so, you are not alone. The history of the African American population and other important people of color in Oregon is difficult to find in any mainstream textbooks.

Today, issues of diversity and inclusiveness are paramount in education. Because of this, a new project, conceived by Professors Patricia Schechter (HST) and Gayle Thieman (CI), was launched to provide new resources for K-12 educators related to the history of African Americans in Oregon. Dr. Schechter teaches in the PSU History Department and is an oral historian who co-authored an oral memoir of the first African American woman to be elected to the Oregon State Senate, the Honorable Avel Gordly. Dr. Schechter was also instrumental in getting an important African American history collection donated to the PSU library that is specifically focused on Portland. Dr. Thieman, a nationally recognized social studies professor, is a PSU Curriculum and Instruction faculty member who teaches in the Graduate Teacher Education Program (GTEP). Together they collaborated to offer a class for K-12 teachers that would provide them with a methodology for researching local history and also supply them with the tools necessary to create curricular materials with a local context for their classrooms.

Nine local teachers participated in the class, Using Archives to Teach Oregon African American History, which was held in a one-week intensive summer format. The curricular materials they develop will be available soon on a website created by the group. These important curricular materials and lessons are an invaluable resource that will provide history lessons never before available to K-12 teachers.

In Oregon, local history is presented beginning in the fourth grade. The curriculum culminates with the creation of the now familiar political boundaries and Oregon’s admission to the union in 1859. Conspicuously missing is information about Oregon’s important culturally diverse groups. The 155 years of history since Oregon became the 33rd state is left up to the resources individual teachers are able to assemble on their own. Very little is published or available to K-12 students or teachers about Oregon’s people of color who, by the year 2015, will comprise 33 percent of school enrollment.4

The idea for the project was conceived when PSU’s Millar Library acquired a substantial new collection of local historic materials, the Verdell A. Burdine and Otto G. Rutherford Family Collection. Through her collaboration with Senator Avel Gordly, Dr. Schechter met PSU alumna and lawyer, Charlotte Rutherford, archive donor and daughter of Verdell and Otto Rutherford. In 2012, Dr. Schechter and her students spent an entire year acquiring, discovering, and cataloging the rich contents of the archive, which took up a large portion of the basement of the Rutherford family home. “Mom wanted the collection to be available to the public,” said Ms. Rutherford. “My hope is that the collection will be used by researchers to tell the story of the African American in Oregon.” It is her special hope that researchers of African American history in Portland will find the collection valuable in their research.

The Burdine Rutherford collection is a rich resource of original materials spanning the history of African American citizens in Portland from 1900 to the 1980s. The collection includes detailed records, manuscripts, artifacts, local African American newspapers, photographs, and albums documenting the personal, political, and community life of three generations of the Rutherford family who were active and influential in Portland’s African American community. While the family survived some of the toughest times for people of color in Oregon, they were also instrumental in changing the laws that discriminated against them. In 1953, the Rutherfords worked with young State Representative Mark Hatfield to pass the Oregon Public Accommodations Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race. The Rutherfords, who had formed their own chapter of the NAACP, were the driving force behind the bill and largely responsible for its success. It was introduced and defeated in 17 prior legislative sessions. The Burdine Rutherford collection includes a wealth of detail conspicuously absent from all other Oregon history collections, and is now available to researches, educators and historians.

The new class, Using Archives to Teach Oregon African American History, was held in the Millar Library, assisted by librarian and archivist Cristine Paschild. The Burdine Rutherford archive provides an unprecedented opportunity to open doors for teachers and researchers. “The documents and artifacts, which [PSU] students have been poring over for months, are rare because they collectively tell not only one family’s story over three generations, but the story of a community,” says Ms. Paschild.

How did the project change the way the students viewed the history of Oregon’s African American community? Using the local archives, students explored a more nuanced view of the African American historical experience in Portland and Oregon. Oliver Brown, GTEP ’14, is a new teacher at Merlo Community School in Beaverton. He will use the materials he developed for his middle school social studies students. “The [PSU] class was a wonderful learning experience for me,” he says. “Examining the Burdine Rutherford archive made me realize just how little I really knew about the history of Civil Rights activism here in Portland. Learning about Portland’s own (ongoing) struggles for racial equality adds relevance and, I think, will help high school students better grasp the scope and magnitude of these issues—as opposed to solely learning about the problems and struggles that occurred in the South.”

“Using the local archives provided students a window into the complexity of the African American historical experience in Portland and Oregon,” says Dr. Thieman who, along with Dr. Schechter, hopes to expand the course for next year. “What the teachers proved is how very skilled, committed, and enthusiastic they are about providing the richest and most rigorous curriculum to their students,” reported Dr. Schechter. “I am excited about pursuing additional topics with them in future institutes, like Asian American and Native American topics.”

With the rich archival resources and two talented professors, PSU is positioned to make a real difference in the way African American history is presented to students in Oregon’s culturally diverse classrooms.

READ MORE

Using Archives to Teach Oregon African American History

VIEW MORE

Local Color—an OPB documentary on Black history in Oregon featuring Otto Rutherford

 

[1] Teaching Research and the Oregon Quality Assurance in Teaching grant (OQAT).

[2] Local Color, 1999, an OPB documentary on racism in Oregon

[3] Oregon Encyclopedia Project

[4] The 2014 Oregon Minority Teacher Act Status Report

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