Text fills in history of Oregon’s racist acts

Education – Portland Public Schools may add the book to the new social studies curriculum for eighth-graders
From The Oregonian
Monday, May 12, 2008
The Oregonian Staff

Portland Public Schools
is poised to adopt a new curriculum today, making the district the first in the state to use a textbook exploring Oregon’s racial history.

“This is not your traditional Oregon history kids may have learned in social studies class in fourth grade,” said Marcia Arganbright, district director of curriculum and instruction.

Beyond the Oregon Trail: Oregon’s Untold History” is one of four books recommended for eighth-grade social studies classes.

Arganbright said the district did not seek out a curriculum that dealt with racism but found that “Beyond the Oregon Trail” accomplished the district’s major goals: highlighting Oregon history and analyzing various perspectives of historical events and issues.

It took the book’s three authors nearly a year to take a topic that makes most adults uncomfortable and create language and content to suit the 13-year-old intellect and emotional maturity.

Each chapter in the 10-unit book for teachers starts with several pages of notes, advice and guidelines on building ground rules, safe spaces for conversation and relationships with students. And each lesson introduces students to vocabulary words such as empathy, bias, racism and privilege. The lessons are mainly divided into experiences of minority groups such as Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos.

Some of the lesser-known historical facts could provoke strong feelings and discussion.

For example: After slavery was declared illegal in Oregon in 1844, residents passed the “Lash Law” requiring African Americans to be whipped twice a year until they left the state.

That law was changed in 1862 to charge African Americans, Chinese, Hawaiians and multiracial people an annual tax of $5 to live in the state. In today’s terms, that would be asking primarily unskilled workers to pay an annual tax of $770.

“We had to create a safe space to talk about this so everyone leaves with their dignity intact,” said Shauna Adams, co-author, consultant and trainer on cultural competence. “We wanted to make sure it wasn’t blaming language, but we have to be willing to look at the ways we can participate in bias, even unknowingly. That’s something young people can understand if we offer it up to them in ways they can hear it.”

The concept for the book was created by Oregon Uniting, a community group that worked to initiate dialogue about race in Oregon. The group received a grant to create a curriculum to foster understanding and acceptance of different ethnic groups and help teachers and students acknowledge the state’s past racial injustices and their impact on local communities.

Keisha Edwards, co-author, said they compiled pieces of the state’s complex history with a unique mission in mind.

“A lot of multicultural curriculum has dealt with celebrating differences,” said Edwards, a consultant and curriculum developer for the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory. “We had the element of going beyond celebrating differences, past that to the place where the rub is — the racism, sexism, classism, homophobia. Oregon Uniting was willing to go that extra step to push people to examine the biases that affect them and provide a healing opportunity.”

Oregon Uniting is primarily known for bringing more than 800 people to the state Capitol in 1999 for a statewide Day of Acknowledgment. The ceremony coincided with the 150th anniversary of the exclusionary act that made it illegal for “Negroes and mulattos” to live in the old Oregon Territory.

In 2004, Oregon Uniting merged with another organization to form Uniting to Understand Racism, a nonprofit that promotes awareness and understanding of racism through education and conversation.

Sheila Griffie, executive director of Uniting to Understand Racism, said the new curriculum sprang from the organization’s dialogues on racism with community groups and corporations.

“There was an awareness among adults, but there still needed to be a level of education,” Griffie said. “The school curriculum is a history that gives young people a more full picture of what Oregon is about. . . . It’s not just Lewis and Clark.”

During a period of 188 years, federal and Oregon governments passed more than 30 laws that discriminated against individuals based solely on their ethnicity. The new curriculum examines how these laws reflected the stereotypes and biases of the day and how they had a lasting impact on today’s communities of color. The writers’ used standards from the National Association for Multicultural Education to help focus the text and its themes.

Joyce Harris, executive director of the Maryland-based association, said the adoption of material such as “Beyond the Oregon Trail” would be an important step in debunking the idea that truth and history come from only one source.

“If we think of truth as being the sum of multiple perspectives, then we get a more accurate picture of history and a more accurate, equitable and just picture of today,” Harris said. “Then, hopefully, the actions of the future will be equitable, just and nonviolent.”

With board approval, district officials will start developing course guidelines for teachers. The eighth-grade main text, “History Alive!,” would be used in conjunction with “Beyond the Oregon Trail” and two other textbooks. All four texts would be part of the district’s primary social studies curriculum in fall 2009.

Kimberly Melton: 503-294-5938; kimmelton@news.oregonian.com
©2008 Oregonian

Uniting to Understand Racism


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One Response to Text fills in history of Oregon’s racist acts

  1. Pingback: Amateur Historian Pushes Behind the Scenes History « golden west project: black in portland history

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