The racial justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd has caused many cities to examine their history of race relations. Lake Oswego is no exception. The city’s reputation as an exclusive white enclave has made it a poster child for white privilege. But was it always this way? This series of articles explores what census records reveal about people of color who lived in Oswego during its first 80 years.
AFRICAN AMERICANS & NATIVE AMERICANS
From its founding in 1850 until the late 1920s, Oswego was a gritty blue-collar community that developed around three industries: the sawmill, the iron works and the cement plant. By 1880 the combined population of the town and surrounding countryside totaled 433 including 41 people of color: 33 Chinese, 4 Mulattos, 2 Native Americans and 2 children of mixed race. One quarter of Oswego’s residents were immigrants.
Although the Oregon constitution made it illegal for African Americans to settle in the state, at least 128 blacks were living in Oregon by 1867. One of them, a New Yorker named Titus Clark, lived in Oswego. All that we know of Titus and his family comes from census records. He was employed as a cook in an Oswego Hotel. His wife Mollie was a Native American born in Oregon. By 1870, Titus and Mollie had five children. One of them, 11-year-old Anna, worked in the household of a neighbor, George W. Walling, a pioneer orchardist. Their youngest child, Lincoln, was born four years after the assassination of President Lincoln.
Ten years later the census reveals that Mollie is a widow. Both Titus and Lincoln have apparently died, but sometime before Titus died, he fathered another child. The boy, who was born in 1873, is named Andronicus. The choice of his name raises a question. Is it an allusion to Shakespeare’s first tragedy, “Titus Andronicus”? What is the story behind the classical name of this child?
“Titus Andronicus” was a revenge play so violent and bloody, that at least 14 adaptions attempted to remove some of the gore. So why name a child after such a play? It turns out the most successful adaptation was written by the most famous African American actor of the nineteenth century, Ira Aldridge. In this adaptation, the black villain, Aaron the Moore, is rewritten as the hero and played by Aldridge.
Like Titus Clark, Aldridge was a New Yorker who was six years older than Clark. In the era of the minstrel show, he defied white expectations of black entertainment by playing classical roles. Aldridge moved to Europe and made his name playing Othello and other serious roles. During his life, he received numerous European awards and is the only African American honored with a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon. In African American circles, Aldridge was a legendary figure. Given his fame and the success of his adaptation, it seems likely that the name Andronicus was inspired by Aldridge’s adaptation of a play that contained the name “Titus,” an expression of Black pride in a state that didn’t welcome Black people.
Like Titus Clark, another Oswego resident, John Thompson, married a Native American woman. Intermarriage in Oregon was illegal until 1951, but the prohibition didn’t apply to non-whites. Despite his Anglo-sounding name, Thompson was a Russian immigrant. Like Greeks, Armenians and Italians, Russians were considered “non-white” at that time. His wife Caroline was the daughter of a Russian father and a Native American mother. The census taker identified her as Indian and her two children as “1/2 Indian.”
Racial labeling changed from census to census as the government obsessed over percentages of blackness and who qualified as white. In 1870 the Clark children were listed as “black.” In 1880 they were “mulatto.” The 1890 census introduced two new terms, “quadroon” and “octoroon.” By 1900, the Clark descendants identified themselves as Indian–a sensible choice since Native Americans could own property in Oregon, unlike African Americans.
Between 1912 and 1919 a number of African Americans were employed in Oswego’s pipe foundry and new cement plant. The single men lived in a hotel in South Oswego (today’s Hallinan Neighborhood). The children of the Johnson and Daniels families attended the Oswego School on State Street. Two members of the Worthington family, interviewed in 1974, remembered the African Americans who were their neighbors. Ethel Schaubel remembered a black boy named Harry Daniels who attended their school and later became a minister in a Portland Baptist church. Class portraits from 1912 to 1914 show several of these children. Mary Lorenz recalled, “We used to go to church then every Thursday and Sunday night, and there was a covered bridge between the church and where we lived, and we were always frightened because we thought those Negroes might be around the old bridge, you know. It was dark going through there. And these fellows would go to church, and they had the most beautiful voices. They just rose the roof almost. It was really wonderful.”
In 1910, the Oregon Iron & Steel Company (last of three companies to own the iron works) began to develop its extensive land holdings around the lake. The developers planned an idyllic residential community modeled on English country life with a golf course, a polo field and bridle trails. Sucker Lake was renamed Oswego Lake. Neighborhoods were platted with romantic names like Lake View Villas. The new neighborhoods, with their winding streets and architect-designed houses, were a contrast to the plain cottages and boarding houses of Oswego’s original working class neighborhoods. When the Oswego Pipe Works closed in 1929, Oswego’s transformation into an exclusive white suburb was well under way.
To ensure the ‘high quality’ of the new neighborhoods, property deeds contained a clause that stated, “No person other than those of the white race shall own or occupy the property, except persons of other races employed as servants.” These restrictions were common in many American cities, including Portland. The impact of racial exclusion was clear in the next census. The only people of color listed in the 1930 Oswego census were three domestic servants. Oswego’s transformation into an exclusive white enclave had begun.
This year is the 170th anniversary of Lake Oswego’s founding. With all that has happened in 2020, it is easy to forget that this is a census year. What will the 2020 census reveal about racial diversity in Lake Oswego? Census records show that people of color were among Oswego’s earliest residents. In this year of racial reckoning, they deserve to be remembered.