Some people know that Jennifer and I love antiques. Fiesta ware, Craftsman furniture, old photos and postcards—we especially treasure artifacts of Salem’s history. One day, 16 years ago, I was at the Salem Collector’s Market at the Fairgrounds. I was thrilled to find a vintage brochure entitled Trail ‘em to Salem, a promotional fold-out from 1927. I was excited as I opened the brochure and scanned the contents … until my stomach turned at seeing a certain paragraph … (pictured below)
Salem, Oregon. The most All-American city in the United States. No foreign element, no Mexicans, only 30 negroes and there hasn’t been an Indian living in the city for 35 years.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. My beloved home-town was bragging about how few people of color lived here! I grew up being told that prejudice and racism were the ‘sins of the South’ and big urban cities. Not in Salem. I later found another brochure from 1947. “The paragraph” was more concise but essentially the same—Population: 45,000. 99.9% White; 91% native born. When we remodeled our house we found old newspaper articles from 1922. One had the headlined “Marion County Klan Ticket Announced.” That same year, Walter Pierce won the governor’s office backed by the Ku Klux Klan. It was illegal for non-whites to be on the streets after dark, a ‘sundown’ law that wasn’t rescinded until a young legislator named Mark Hatfield championed legislation to ban such laws in 1953. Thanks to God, we’ve come a long way since then. And yet, as we were reminded last spring and summer, the ghosts of those old prejudices and racism exist today. In fact, sadly, they are more than ghosts … there has been a renewed inflammation and embrace for blatant prejudice and racism in many quarters. We have new opportunities to build bridges, build relationships, build honor and respect, and—like past history—march forward to a more perfect union. We’re not where we were (thank the Lord), but we’re not where we need to be yet. What can one person do? What if we started by examining our own hearts. To ponder and pray. Lord, is there an attitude within me that dishonors others? Is there a pride that unconsciously elevates me above others? Do I harbor thoughts and stereotypes that hold others—and therefore me—down? Given that it’s Black History Month, what if we did some deep dives into reading history and learning about the triumphs and struggles that can guide us today. Neighbors caring for neighbors. People breaking bread together. Worshiping together. Knowing one another. These are the tools of reconciliation. Let’s practice together even if awkward.