The Long Journey to Reveal the Oregon Trail’s Racist History

As the U.S. grapples with its legacy of prejudice, one parent is bringing the fight to Oregon public schools.

Last spring, Layna Lewis dropped her daughter off at Irvington Elementary School in Portland, Oregon for the fourth-grade class’s overnight trip to Oregon City, where the kids would learn about the Oregon Trail by participating in hands-on activities. As is the custom for this trip, which is considered a tradition for many Oregonians, the kids that morning were dressed in pioneer garb. Lewis, who is African American and Native American, was disturbed watching kids of color running around in their bonnets, knowing they wouldn’t have been able to own land in the days of the Oregon Trail.

“It was glaringly inaccurate,” she says of the field trip, concerned that the racial dynamics of the time were being glossed over.

Shortly after, Lewis made an eight-minute video called “Oregon FAIL” where she interviewed four girls in the class about the field trip, which has been organized by the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) since 1998 and serves 3,000 students around the state. In the video, the girls, one of whom is her daughter, recall how narratives about people of color and Native Americans had been omitted in the lessons, which are taught by high school volunteers.

“It makes me wonder about my ancestors’ history and where were they in this story?” one black girl says to the camera, in response to the question Lewis posed asking them to relay their experience of the field trip.

Another girl says Native Americans were treated “like side characters. Throw them out, get away.”

The video was posted in a neighborhood Google group. News of it made its way to Irvington School’s then-principal, Kathleen Ellwood, who is not originally from Oregon and only attended the field trip’s evening square dance. She claims she wasn’t familiar with the educational aspects of the trip and was surprised by the content in the video.

Oregon’s racist history is not always taught in schools in the state, and is still unknown to many native and longtime Oregonians, but it’s a long and fraught one. There were three exclusion laws passed during the mid to late 1800s, in the state’s early years, preventing black people from residing in Oregon. The first, called Peter Burnett’s Lash Law, named after the leader of the provisional government there, stated freed slaves had to leave or be lashed. The second law forbade black people from entering the state – the only state to enact such a law – and the third, which made it illegal for them to own property, became a clause in the constitution. It wasn’t removed until 1926. Later, Oregon became a confluence for the Ku Klux Klan, with 35,000 members living there in the early 1920s. Furthermore, the practice of “redlining” meant realtors could not sell homes in white neighborhoods to black people, per an ethics code. The small black population was subsequently confined to the Albina district, and when many migrated to the city after the war, was met with racist sentiment. The exclusionary laws shaped the racial makeup of Portland, into today. According to the 2013 census, Portland had a white population of 72.7 percent, the most of any big city in America.

Though Portland is viewed as progressive and accepting place, local efforts have been ongoing for years to bring Oregon’s discriminatory past to light. One includes Beyond The Oregon Trail, an alternative curriculum created in 1999 by Oregon Uniting, a grassroots group focused on racial reconciliation. Sue Alperin, a founder of Oregon Uniting, created the supplement in part to help kids of color feel included in Oregon’s story.

“We felt kids get a lot of history about the Oregon Trail, but rarely does it discuss [the pioneers’] impact, of their meeting Native Americans or the African Americans who were on the trail,” says Alperin. “It’s basically a white picture. The untold history is what we were trying to get at.”

The curriculum includes a general explanation of the exclusionary laws, chapters about minority groups in Oregon, lessons about white Americans who were allies to Oregon lawmakers and stories of people who made a difference in their communities. After years of lobbying and a “frustrating journey,” says Alperin, the Portland Public School district made it mandatory for all eighth grade social studies teachers to teach the ten-hour course, trained by Oregon Uniting.

But that didn’t change the fourth-grade lessons.

After the Oregon FAIL video got mixed reactions from the community (some teachers were upset and wary) a handful of other parents from the Irvington School joined Lewis in her effort to expand the elementary school curriculum to include a more complete picture of the state’s history.

They sought out influential community leaders like the black activist Donna Maxey, who runs a salon called Race Talks that aims to dismantle barriers between races, and met with the PTA. They connected with local groups such as Oregon Black Pioneers, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of African Americans in Oregon, a heritage “largely unknown,” according to their website. They gave a presentation at the school to suggest the curriculum mention the slaves who were concealed under wagon floorboards in order to cross the border.

The parents began setting up meetings with the field trip organizers, where as many as 14 were sometimes present. They brought up specific concerns about the curriculum, one of which was the activity where kids survey and claim land. It is one of many exercises among lessons on how to churn butter, make candles, write in a journal and pack the wagon. In the “survey the land” activity, the kids are tasked with staking out their plot by looking at a map, which did not designate areas occupied by Native Americans.

During the discussions with the educational board, the Irvington School committee asked the PTA to withhold funds for the field trip unless the field trip curriculum reflected an inclusive history and that the PTA ensured that the educational extensions it funded were accurate. Lewis says a request such as that is “what motivates people to do the right thing.” In October of last year, Willamette Week, the local alternative weekly newspaper, wrote that students were boycotting the trip altogether. A day later, the then board chair of MESD sent an email to Ellwood and the vice principal, asking them to pass along his note to the students in Lewis’s video.

“Too often in public education, we allow a slow-burning racist undercurrent to infect our curricula, our textbooks, and even our teaching and learning,” he wrote.

Several months and a handful of meetings later, the educational company agreed to incorporate narratives about Native Americans by the spring session of 2017, specifically amending the “staking the land” activity.

“We look at other people who lived there before pioneers and how those numbers were reduced by impacts made, whether it was disease or other things,” says Shauna Stevenson, the site supervisor for the Oregon Trail field trip.

The Irvington School’s efforts come at a time when other fights across the country to erase and expose racist pasts have resulted in conflict, while spurring a national conversation. Yale University recently decided to change the name of its Calhoun College, named after John C. Calhoun, a defender of slavery, for Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist, after initially standing by the original name. Several pushes to dismantle confederate statues and flags in the South led to violent protests, including the recent deadly clash in Charlottesville, Virginia over the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. 

Though the Irvington School’s efforts paid off, several acknowledge the work has just begun.

“We’ll have to see what they do over time and how much truth they want to tell of what went down over time, but it’s a start,” says Maxey.

Lewis is currently working to make a feature-length sequel to “Oregon FAIL.”

“[The educational board] did make some revisions,” she says. “There’s still much more to come. It took a lot of effort and maneuvering to keep us at the table.”