“What’s with all the white people?”

That’s a question I’ve been asked more than once by confused visitors during my day job as a fact-shouting tour guide. I suspect that for every one person whose asked me directly about Portland’s off-putting monchromism, there are probably several more who have noticed, but haven’t said anything.

Breaking Chains
, a new book by former Oregonian reporter R. Gregory Nokes, gives a bit of insight into Oregon’s ugly and complicated racial history. The book is dry and dense, but it’s also a great read for anyone who wants to understand the single nastiest element of Oregon history.

Slavery was not specifically legal or illegal when Oregon first became a territory, and a small group of slave-owning settlers, mainly from Missouri, did bring slaves to the territory. After slavery was made formally illegal, several former slaves were still kept on as “servants” or wards, still working for the same landowning whites as slaves in all but name.

The core of Breaking Chains focuses on the one and only slavery case ever tried in Oregon. Robin Holmes, a former slave, sued his former owner Nathaniel Ford. Ford was holding Holmes’ children after slavery had been formerly outlawed by the territorial government. However, even though Holmes had the law on his side, his was an uphill battle. Several of Oregon’s early power players (including territorial governor Joseph Lane, who would also become one of Oregon’s first senators) had deep sympathies for the pre-Civil War south, and were loathe to see a black man triumph over a white landowner in a court of law. But Holmes won, successfully rescuing his children from slavery.

As fist-pumpingly cool as Holmes’ story is, though, most of Breaking Chains is a chilling reminder of just how racist Oregon used to be. Voices for actual, real equality in Oregon were few and far between. Early debates about slavery focused just as much on the exclusion of African Americans as they did on the institution itself. One widely circulated polemic against slavery in Oregon, known as the Free State Letter, was just as opposed to the very presence of African Americans as it was to slavery. Judge George Williams, the same man who wrote the letter, would later also argue for excluding Chinese, saying that he wished to “consecrate Oregon for the white man.” The examples of institutionalized racism in Breaking Chains are too numerous to name but most outrageous is that Oregon rescinded its ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. You know the whole thing about “equal protection” and all that? Oregon decided not get on that wagon.

Portland’s lily-white demographics aren’t just a weird accident of migration. There are very real, very nasty reasons for why this city is as un-diverse as it is today. What’s with all the white people? Oregon’s founders wanted it that way.