David Frank: The Origins of Antiracism in Oregon

Oregon history, racist as it is, should include the minutes of antiracism (that were too often answered with minutes of racism) sounded by William Watkins and others.

David Frank has been a professor at the University of Oregon since 1981. He is a resident faculty member in the Clark Honors College and is an affiliated faculty member in the department of English's program in rhetoric. He served as dean of the Clark Honors College from 2008 - 2013.

Only one of the 60 delegates who crafted the Oregon Constitution in 1857 opposed slavery and the exclusion of African Americans from the Oregon Territory.  Only one delegate rose, during the deliberations on the Oregon Constitution, to defend African Americans as human beings deserving equal rights.  William Watkins, the delegate from Josephine County, and a medical doctor, stood alone when he declared:

The black man in my estimation has as much right to live, eat, drink, read, think, and in the various avenues of life to seek a livelihood and means of enjoyment and happiness as has the proudest Caucasian.

This statement serves as the solitary antiracist touchstone offered by a delegate at the Oregon Constitutional Convention.  Watkins was one of ten delegates to vote against the adoption of the Oregon Constitution, a constitution weaving racism into the legal and social fabric of Oregon culture.

Watkins v. Deady

On matters of race, Watkins opposed Matthew Deady, the President of the Oregon Constitutional Convention. Deady was the only delegate elected to the convention on a pro-slavery platform. He supported the wretched Dred Scott decision holding that slaves were property. At the convention, Deady proposed an amendment that "No persons, other than those of the pure white race, shall have the right of suffrage."  While Deady did not win the day with his pro-slavery argument, the delegates did embrace his racism.  The early Oregon Constitution stands alone in its black exclusion provisions. The Oregon Constitution, rooted in Deady’s racism, entrenched the ideology of white racism in Oregon.  We continue to live with the consequences, Oregon remains a very white state – Portland is the whitest major city in the United States.

William Watkins defense of blacks against Deady’s racism stands out as a North Star of Oregon antiracism. That he stood alone makes him a profile in Oregon courage, but it is Deady who has been accorded attention both then as well as in modern times.  Mathew Deady is remembered as a judge; the University of Oregon, until earlier this year, named its oldest and first building after him; and his grave is hosted in RiverView Cemetery in Portland.   William Watkins is little remembered, no buildings are named after him, and we do not know where he is buried.  He deserves recognition.

Watkins effectively represented the interests of Josephine County and served as one of the three Oregon electors for Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  He was a Willamette University faculty member, in the field of medicine, and on its Board of Trustees between 1865 and 1888. As a soldier in the Union Army, he served as a surgeon for the Oregon First Calvary.  He moved to Portland in 1862, earned election to the Portland City Council, and was both a founder and trustee of the Portland Hospital. Watkins, and J. A. Chapman, who was mayor of Portland, were medical partners.

Yet, while Watkins deserves praise for his antiracism and role as citizen-doctor, he did not completely escape the racism of his time.  Much like Abraham Lincoln, his views on race were conflicted. Witness, for example, the statements at the Oregon Constitutional Convention following his noble oratory that blacks and whites deserve equal treatment:

I have an instinctive dislike of all the mongrel races, be they red or black, and I am certain that nothing could more impede the progress and prosperity of this country, morally, politically and financially, than to have it filled with hungry hordes of docile men, born to servility; and I would do nothing to encourage their migration hither.

Watkins, then, follows this racist screed with an antiracist declaration:

But the free negro has claims upon us which we can neither ignore nor destroy; he was born upon our soil, he speaks our language, he has been taught our religion, and his destiny and ours are eternally linked. Fate never forged bolts stronger than those which connect his future with ours; and, for weal or woe, we are in the same boat and must finish the voyage together.

What, then, are we to make of Watkins and his racial contradictions?

Ibram X. Kendi, in his book How to Be an Antiracists, provides an answer.  “Racist and antiracist are not fixed identities” he writes.  “We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next.  What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what—not who—we are.”  Watkin’s contradictions, that he could, within the same speech at the Oregon Constitutional Convention, eloquently defend equal justice for blacks and the descend into guttural talk about “mongrel races,” illustrates Kendi’s explanation about the fluidity of racism and antiracism.

To his credit, Watkins could and did, unlike Deady and many of his contemporaries, voice antiracist sentiments. While there are no archives of Watkin’s writings and we do not know how his thinking on race evolved, he seems have followed Lincoln in his views on race. As a Lincoln elector in 1860 and as a surgeon in the Union Army, it seems likely, given Lincoln’s evolution of thinking on race, that Watkins would have mirrored Lincoln’s progressive thinking on slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction.  After the war, his work in education, medicine, politics, and religion suggests he remained true to antiracist values. 

We are in the Same Boat

Had Watkins succeeded at the Oregon Constitutional Convention in persuading a majority of the 60 delegates to join him in rejecting Deady’s racist constitution and embracing the view that the “black man in my estimation has as much right to live … as the proudest Caucasian” our state would be more diverse and just.  We suffer as a result of his failure and Deady’s success.  Regardless, Oregon history, racist as it is, should include the minutes of antiracism (that were too often answered with hours of racism) sounded by William Watkins and others who understood (if not completely) that blacks and whites are in the same human boat.

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