(Inspired by Pastor Ben McBride’s recent visit to Salem)
When I think of my childhood friend Larry Wilson, I remember the little yellow house on Lincoln Street where his family lived. It was across from Tim McFetridge’s house along the alley above Baker Elementary School. The Wilson family was one of a very few African-American families in Salem in the 1960s, and we had some good times in the Fairmount-Bush Park-Leslie neighborhood. How fun it would have been to play basketball with Larry at Leslie and South High … but his family moved to the Waldo area and we ended up playing against each other in high school: he at McNary, me at South. (Ask me sometime about the 1977 buzzer-beater game at McNary … sigh.)
It never occurred to me to wonder why Larry’s family lived on Fairmount Hill. It was no big deal. It wasn’t until Larry and I got together a few years ago that I learned the back story. In 1968 there was a drive-by shooting on 4th Street in north Salem. Neighbors were upset that a black family had moved in. Photos showed the bullet holes on the home’s exterior and above the bed in the children’s bedroom. Larry and his older brother Gilbert were in that bed. No injuries, but the family needed to move. Several Salem leaders, including our neighbor Clay Myers (Secretary of State and Treasurer), arranged for the Wilson family to move to a ‘safe house’ in south Salem. That yellow house on Lincoln Street. It was all very respectful and discreet. The only thing we kids needed to know was that there was a new family in the neighborhood and go ride bikes with them. No big deal. Everything normal. At least on Fairmount Hill.
After buying our house here in Grant Neighborhood, I learned that—in the 1960s—one of our neighbors had torn down the house they owned next door rather than rent it to a black family. My blood boiled. I wonder if that family was the Wilsons … perhaps that’s why they rented the house on 4th Street a few blocks away. The house that got shot up in 1968.
Recent conversations with African-American pastors, leaders and friends have stirred my heart. Some long-timers testify that Salem was a peaceful and positive place to grow up despite the challenges. Newcomers wonder why our black population is still so small (1-2 percent) even as the community has diversified greatly. Everyone desires more cohesion, more collaboration and more communion with the larger community. Old and new prejudices get in the way. Oregon’s history plays a huge role—from the Constitutional ban on freed slaves living here to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to the Van-Port flooding tragedy to … my old neighbors tearing down their rental.
February is Black History Month. My friends are calling on us to make some new history all year long. The Coalition of Churches, led by African-American pastors, hosted some great conversations with Law Enforcement leaders two years ago. After Ben McBride’s visit, they are looking to rekindle. Broaden the conversations. Broaden the communion. Watch for the upcoming opportunities as they unfold. Our team is in.