Finding the Civil Rights Movement in Oregon

As a middle school student, I was perplexed by a quote by George Santayana that my history teacher posted on the wall. It read, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As a budding history teacher, it continued to puzzle me.

Editor’s Note: Teaching Tolerance published a first-of-its-kind report in September examining the state educational standards for civil rights history. In Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011, each state received a grade. Among the findings: the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention was paid to the movement. Oregon’s requirements for study of the civil rights movement are minimal and limited to high school.

As a middle school student, I was perplexed by a quote by George Santayana that my history teacher posted on the wall. It read, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As a budding history teacher, it continued to puzzle me.

Such a view of history assumes that the only events worth studying and learning are the “bad” ones, such as wars and political missteps. Isn’t it just as possible that as students of history, we can focus on the many successes from our past as lessons for what to do right? In its essence, isn’t history a collection of stories that can teach us about what it means to be human?

To put this theory into practice, I decided to teach the civil rights movement. For me, studying the movement in college was a tremendously powerful experience and I began to think about how to impart its lessons of courage, compassion and perseverance to my classes.  

My school has a “place-based” focus. We are expected to create lessons and teach through direct connections to the community. Teaching about the civil rights movement presented me with an interesting problem: how would I create local connections in Portland, Ore., to historical events that primarily took place in the South?

I started by educating myself about local African-American history. My research took me first to the Oregon Historical Society and the local library. Next, I interviewed a Black Studies professor at Portland State University. The story that unfolded was astonishing. Portland’s civil rights history was richer than I ever knew. I learned that Oregon’s original constitution banned African-Americans from living in the state, that the Jim Crow laws in Oregon were considered the most severe this side of the Mississippi and that a preventable flood in the 1940s demolished a low-lying part of the city that was set aside for African-Americans. I also learned about brave individuals who fought to change laws and set up support organizations.

When it came time to present what I had learned to my students, I set up a scavenger hunt, with five locations across Portland for small groups to visit with their parent chaperone. In each location, they read about a significant event that had occurred on that spot, completed a short journal entry and took photos.

During that afternoon, students saw where the Vanport neighborhood had stood before it was wiped out by flood waters. They also visited a park where a riot had broken out in the turbulent days of the late 1960s. They stopped by the Vancouver Street First Baptist Church where some of the largest civil rights rallies were held.

They explored Union Station, where most of Portland’s African-Americans had been employed in the late 1890s. Finally, they investigated the Memorial Coliseum, which had only been built after displacing hundreds of African-American families in the 1950s.

My students and their parents were astounded to learn that African-Americans have undergone-and continue to undergo (as we found out from the Urban League and our interviews)-such hardships as segregation and police discrimination in Portland. They were equally amazed to find that Martin Luther King Jr. had once visited the very church that they themselves stood in. American history, and the meaning behind it, came to life.

In the days following the scavenger hunt, we learned about the civil rights movement in the South, paralleling it with events in Portland. Visiting real places beforehand provided the perfect way for me to make deep and real connections for my students without having to travel across the country. It also gave us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, our place and the future we want to build for ourselves.

Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.

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