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Oregon Historical Society exhibit honors state's civil rights pioneers and examines issues of incarceration, schools, activism and more

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JENNIFER ANDERSON - Gwen Carr and other members of the nonprofit Oregon Black Pioneers stress that the current exhibit couldn't come at a more relevant time. Visitors will find plenty of ways to engage — through song, art, history and recalling artifacts from the era. If you take one thing away from "Racing to Change," it's that history definitely repeats itself.

The newest interactive exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society — focusing on Oregon's black pioneers during the civil rights era — is a powerful, educational and inspiring window into a world that might have technically passed but is still ever-present in today's Black Lives Matter movement and other race-related struggles.

"There was lot of residual from Oregon's racial history — employment, public accommodation, housing issues" and other racist policies that have persisted, says Gwen Carr, board secretary of the Oregon Black Pioneers, the Salem-based nonprofit presenting the event.

"What you have (in the 1960s and '70s) is a new generation of blacks who'd been born into this, but they weren't really willing to wait for change. They'd grown impatient with efforts that happened before them."

This is the fourth exhibit hosted by the Oregon Black Pioneers at the Oregon Historical Society in the past seven years.

"Perseverance" in 2011 told the story of black history throughout Oregon, beginning in 1788. "All Aboard! Railroading and Portland's Black Community" in 2013 picked up in the 1890s and showed how opportunities with the railroad brought black workers and their families to Portland. "A Community on the Move" in 2015 interpreted the history of African Americans in Portland in the 1940s and '50s.

After "Racing to Change" dives into the 1960s and '70s, there undoubtedly will be more to come, Carr and her colleagues promise.

Expect to engage

As you enter the exhibit, you're invited to step into a world in the late 1950s of excitement and tension, when repression and violence of African Americans gave way to violence, activism and cultural and social upheaval along with change.

Here's some of what you'll learn and experience as you walk through:

• Incarceration — By 1980, African Americans made up 22 percent of those arrested in Multnomah County despite representing only 4 percent of the population.

• Police — There was a lot of distrust between Portland residents and the police in the 1970s, in the wake of local police brutality reports and nationwide police shootings of young African Americans. The police argued that they needed to suppress disorder and crime in minority neighborhoods, and advocates fought for less brutality, more oversight and better representation in the ranks. You can see actual police reports from the time.

COURTESY: STEVE NEHL/OHS - Black United Front leader Ron Herndon protests the closure of Portland's Harriet Tubman Middle School in 1982. • Schools — As schools in Portland grew segregated due to housing policies, Superintendent Robert Blanchard in 1968 called for a desegregation plan to bus black students to white schools and systematically close black schools, including Jefferson High School. The community and a new group called the Black United Front fought to save it from closure in 1970.

• Leaders — The civil rights years were marked by assassinations, including President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcom X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

COURTESY: CITY OF PORTLAND ARCHIVES/OHS - Sandra Ford, a member of the Black Panthers, protests at the U.S. Courthouse in Portland in 1970. • Activism — A Eugene chapter of the Black Panthers formed in 1968 to combat racism in the community. A Portland group formed soon after one of their members was beaten and jailed.

• Education — The Black Student Union at Portland State University formed in 1968, followed by the Black Studies department a year later, the first institution to grant such a degree in the Northwest.

• Arts — The arts flourished in this time of unrest. The Black Repertory Theater grew out of PSU's Black Student Union, performing plays like "A Raisin in the Sun," and the Multiracial Living Theater Company sprouted at Reed College to stage plays and participate in protests. Black disc jockeys played Motown, R&B and rock by black artists at a time when white radio programs refused to do so.

Involvement today

Before you exit, one of the last displays asks you to confront your own truth: "Are you involved?" it asks. "What action do you think has the greatest impact in overcoming racism?" Visitors are asked to drop a penny in a box to vote for their response: Either speaking out, voting, or protesting.

Even if you didn't take an interest in black history before, you'll have a hard time leaving the exhibit without feeling fired up.

For more: ohs.org

Want to get involved?

Ready to fight in today's civil rights movement and advance equality into the 21st century?

Here are some of the organizations to get involved with, recommended by the Oregon Black Pioneers:

• Oregon Assembly for Black Affairs, www.oaba.us

• Oregon League of Minority Voters, www.minorityvoters.org

• Oregon affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu-or.org

• National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the Portland chapter, founded in 1920, is the oldest west of the Mississippi), www.portlandnaacp1120.org

• Portland African American Leadership Forum, www.paalf.org

• Black Lives Matter Global Network, www.blacklivesmatter.com

Events each month

To keep the exhibit fresh, there will be events — all free and open to the public — to engage with each month:

• Sunday, Feb. 11, 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m., Oregon Historical Society, "Civil Rights, Then and Now"

Learn about the connections between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s and today's social justice movements, and what you can do to get involved.

• Monday, March 26, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m., McMenamins Kennedy School, "History Pub: Women of the Civil Rights Movement"

A facilitated panel discussion will explore the role of women of color. Panelists will include Joyce Harris, Oregon Sen. Jackie Winters, Charmaine Coleman and Charlotte Rutherford.

• Saturday, April 14, 1 p.m.-3 p.m., Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, "Student Activists: The Civil Rights Histories of Oregon's Universities and Colleges"

Hear about what happened on college campuses outside of Portland, and how those students and allies shaped higher education opportunities today.

• Saturday, May 19, noon-4 p.m., "Oregon Historical Society Family Saturday: African Americans in Oregon"

Families are invited to engage in the history of the civil rights movement through hands-on art-based activities.

• Saturday, June 9, 2 p.m.-4 p.m., Oregon Historical Society, "Celebrate History and Make a Difference Now!"

The exhibit's closing presentation will feature work by local community organizations.