Inside the white-marble state archives building, way in the back of a cavernous room, lies Oregon’s original constitution. It’s in poor shape, and among its fading pages is a clause from an ugly chapter in the state’s history that completely conflicts with its progressive image. Now, the state is trying to raise funds from schoolchildren and others to restore the leather-bound document, and to buy a special case to preserve and display it, warts and all. They’ve raised one-tenth of the amount needed so far. On a recent morning, State Archivist Mary Beth Herkert walked past rows of laden shelves that mechanically shift at the touch of a button. She got to a door, spun a wheel like one on a submarine hatch, and walked inside a vault. There, sitting in a box on a shelf, was Oregon’s founding document. Herkert carefully opened the constitution with gloved hands. Some pages were starting to fall out. The vegetable ink on linen paper is fading after 159 years.
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It could be even worse, considering how the document was kept for decades. For many of those years, there isn’t even any record of where the constitution was stored, Herkert said. She could not confirm one account that the constitution was saved from a fire that destroyed the Oregon State Capitol in 1935. “That it is not in awful condition, I think, is pretty remarkable,” Herkert said. “Until 1990-1991, when we moved into this building, it never was in an environmentally controlled space.”
These days, the constitution is kept with 250 million other pieces of paper, all at a chilly 65 degrees with 45 percent humidity in the archives building. Written by white men in 1857 after a constitutional convention, it contained a clause prohibiting black people from residing in Oregon. That clause was approved in a popular vote, along with a ban on slavery. That made Oregon the only state admitted to the Union with an exclusionary clause in its constitution.
“It is a shameful part of our history, but if you take it in context of what the times were, we were right before the Civil War,” Herkert said, adding that Oregon had to strike a balance to achieve statehood, with America becoming sharply divided over slavery. Two years after Oregon became a state in 1859, the Civil War broke out.
The exclusionary clause remained until it was repealed in 1927. That history reverberates even now. Oregon’s population is only 2.1 percent black, compared with 13.3 percent for all of America, according to the 2015 U.S. census. In the county that encompasses Portland, African-Americans “continue to live with the effects of racialized policies, practices and decision-making,” a 2014 report said. The report by the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University cited discrimination in housing, school discipline and the justice system, and racial profiling by police.
On a recent Friday, several dozen demonstrators in Portland affiliated with Black Lives Matter accused the police of racism, and complained of excessively rough treatment at a demonstration two days earlier. Demonstrator Nita Kelly described witnessing racial profiling, saying that during the earlier demonstration at City Hall, police assaulted an African-American woman waiting for a light-rail train “simply because she looked like someone who participated” in the demonstration.
In 1984, Oregon students raised over $37,000 to re-gild the golden pioneer statue on top of the State Capitol. In the current fundraising drive, $6,000 has been contributed so far, Herkert said. A total of $60,000 is needed. Officials are also asking adults to donate on behalf of schools. Schools that donate more than $250 will have their names on a plaque next to the display.
“The Constitution helps remind us of our past _ both good and bad _ just as it serves as the foundational document upon which Oregon’s progress has been built since 1857 and continues to be built today,” Secretary of State Jeanne P. Atkins said. “It should be restored, publicly displayed, and preserved for future Oregonians to learn about.”
Herkert doesn’t know if the racist exclusionary clause will be highlighted once the constitution goes on display, but she said it won’t be hidden either. “We have to remember it’s our history, and we have to learn from our mistakes,” she said.