Vernonia's voice. (Vernonia, OR) 2007-current, June 18, 2020, Page 13, Image 13

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    in other words
The Good Ol ’ Days
By Tobie Finzel
Minorities in Vernonia
Our second part of the “Diaries”
series is postponed until next month in
order to discuss a topic that we’ve evad-
ed long enough. The “good ol’ days”
weren’t always so good for many of
our past residents in terms of the racial
and religious prejudices that existed so
overtly then. This part of our history,
as hard as it is to read with our current
sensibilities, is not completely without
bright spots along the way.
The first fifty years of Verno-
nia’s history is that of white, Protestant
and mostly northern people who moved
here between 1874 and 1920. When the
big Oregon-American (O-A) Lumber
Mill was established in the early 1920s,
it transformed the sleepy, backwoods
town into a more modern and certainly
more diverse one. The owners of the
O-A mill, Central Coal and Coke Com-
pany (CC&CC), unable to hire enough
local labor, brought in Japanese, Fili-
pino, Hindu (as those from the Indian
subcontinent were known) and African-
American workers and their families
from the Midwest and South to do the
most physically demanding jobs. The
black workers received the roughest
treatment by their white bosses.
Paying a base rate equal to their
white counterparts, these workers were
assigned to the “green chain” in the mill
and to railroad building in the woods
for logging operations. The company
provided housing in several areas near
the mill. On the hill above the mill’s
flatlands, a planned residential commu-
nity was constructed. Although the in-
tended name was “Millview,” it became
known as O-A Hill. Consisting of two
to three bedroom bungalows for the mar-
ried white workers and more elaborate
homes for the managers, the homes were
painted chestnut brown with cream-col-
ored trim and were equipped with elec-
tricity from the mill’s generating plant,
running water and a sewer system.
In the boggy flatlands west of
the mill, behind present day Greenman
Stadium along Rock Creek, much less
elaborate two bedroom homes housed
the African-American, Filipino and Hin-
du workers and their families. Japanese
workers resided in what is now Ander-
son Park or in railroad camps separate
from the white loggers. The minority
houses all had electricity for lighting,
outhouses and community bath houses.
The Filipino homes, however, each had
a room with a round tub for bathing.
Single white men lived in nearby bunk-
houses, and there was a bunkhouse for
unmarried Filipino men.
Because many of the mill man-
agers and other workers came from the
American South, there was an expecta-
tion that African-Americans would “be-
have” as they did in their home states. At
one time, an Oregon newspaper declared
Vernonia the most southern city above
the Mason-Dixon Line. The Evangelical
Church and the Joy Theater let black pa-
trons attend, but they were expected to
sit in the balconies of these edifices. Mi-
norities employed as housemaids to the
managers were expected to enter by the
back door.
Initially, there were only five
black children of school age, and the
Vernonia schools would not admit them.
The school district tried to set up a segre-
gated school in a shack near the worker
housing. The families organized a chap-
ter of the NAACP and in 1925 invited
Beatrice Morrow Cannady, the first Af-
rican-American woman to be admitted
to the Oregon Bar and Secretary of the
Portland chapter of the NAACP, to inter-
cede for the children. A year-long battle
ensued, but in 1926 the children were
admitted to the public schools. One local
resident, who taught in the first Wash-
ington School in 1927, recalled that a
real attempt was made to insure that the
black students received fair treatment.
In response to the growth of
the Catholic Church in the burgeoning
population in the 1920s, a Ku Klux Klan
(KKK) chapter was organized in 1922.
At its first meeting in October, the Klan
organizer told the large audience that the
KKK “defended the Christian religion,
the Protestant Bible, the supremacy of
the white race, public (not parochial)
schools, the purity of American wom-
anhood, the enforcement of laws, Pro-
hibition and the Constitution.” The lo-
cal chapter had over 200 members, and
its social activities were included in the
Eagle newspaper in a way similar to its
stories about other clubs and fraternal
lodges. The editor of the Eagle at the
time seemed in sympathy to some, but
not all, of its beliefs particularly the anti-
Papist views. We have found no histori-
cal records of any horrific deeds against
local Catholics or racial minorities like
those of the Klan in the south. National
power struggles and scandals caused
membership to wane, and by 1925 the
Vernonia Klan faded.
Several of the Japanese families
had businesses in Vernonia such as a big
laundry behind the Cherry Tree Apart-
ments that serviced the town and the log-
ging camps with six trucks. There was
also a “Chop Suey” restaurant run by a
Japanese woman. When all of the Jap-
anese were rounded up in 1942 during
the early years of World War II and sent
to internment camps, they had to leave
their homes and businesses behind. One
of that number was Toshi Kuge who
had been VHS Student Body President
in 1934. He was in medical school at
the time of the relocation and served as a
camp doctor. After the war, he complet-
ed medical school and went on to have a
successful practice. Many of the other
minority groups left Vernonia during the
war years to work in the better-paying
shipyards of North Portland or to join
the armed forces.
Several Japanese men were able
to leave the internment camps to join
the military in all-Nisei units, and one,
Ben Soejima, received a much-belated
Congressional Medal of Honor for that
service in 2011. Some of the Filipino
families stayed on in Vernonia and re-
mained in the timber field. In the early
1950s, Sam Ceballos, Sr. convinced
Judd Greenman, O-A Mill President, to
install complete electrical service to the
homes in the Filipino housing beyond
just the overhead lighting. His son, the
late Sam, Jr., also worked in the timber
industry. In 1969, Dado Briones, son of
mill worker Pete Briones, was the VHS
Student Body President.
By the early 1950s, a few Afri-
can-Americans remained employed at
the mill. There were at least six of their
children who were students at Vernonia
High School, and all were involved in
school activities including athletics and
student government. Sylvester Wil-
liams, nicknamed “Ted” for the famous
baseball player, was a popular student
in the late 1940s and graduated in 1950.
He was an outstanding, all-around ath-
lete and played varsity football, basket-
ball and especially baseball. The VHS
Student Body President in 1953 was
Charles “Bob” Powell, another popular
African-American student. He also was
in the Letterman’s Club for basketball,
baseball and football. His sister, Marga-
ret, was an officer in the Loggerettes and
the Girls Athletic Association and was
the assistant director of her junior class
Older VHS graduates with
whom we’ve spoken admit that Verno-
nia was a “red neck” town throughout
a lot of its history, but they recall good
relationships with their classmates of
all races. Although most of us believe
we’ve advanced in the past 100 years be-
yond the ugly, overt racism in our past,
we know we still have work to do.
From Virgil Powell’s Diary
Virgil Powell (1887-1963) was a long-
time resident whose family had a farm in
the Upper Nehalem Valley between Na-
tal and Pittsburg. Each year from 1906
until 1955, he kept a regular diary of his
Worked on the road all day.
Cloudy most all day and rained
a little. Big rose carnival at
Clatskanie today but I could
not very well go.
Sunday, June 19. Rained pretty
hard till about noon. Hitched
up about 12.30 and went up and
took Gaynell for a ride. Went up
the river as far as the second
covered bridge. Certainly had
a dandy time. Got home about
7 P.M.
Tuesday, June 21. Went down
to Mist at 11.30 to the funeral
of P. Linn. Rained just about
all day. Got back home at 5.30.
Received my check for census
enumerating $44.07.
Wednesday, June 22. Worked on
the road. Blew stumps all day
and got quite a lot out. Pretty
good day for working, not very
Saturday, June 25. Pulled
stumps off of the road all day.
Mart Ray was up and stayed for
dinner. Went up to Vernonia
after supper and got my new
buggy team. Paid $125.00. Did
not get back home till about 12.
Very good day.
Sunday, June 26. Hitched up
my little team about 11 A.M.
and drove down to Mist to see
the ball game between Mist and
Vesper. Score 22 to 0 in favor
of Mist. Got back home at 6.15.
Very warm most of the day.
The Vernonia Pioneer Museum is locat-
ed at 511 E. Bridge Street and is normal-
ly open all year from 1 to 4 pm on Sat-
urdays and Sundays (excluding national
holidays, Easter and Mothers’ Day.)
There is no charge for admission, but
donations are always welcome. Become
a member of the museum for an annual
$5 fee to receive the periodic newsletter,
and if you are a Facebook user, check
out the Vernonia Pioneer Museum page
and our page on Vernonia Hands on
Art website, www.vernoniahandsonart.
org. The museum volunteers are always
pleased to enlist additional volunteers to
help hold the museum open and assist in
other ways. Please stop by and let one
of the volunteers know of your interest in
helping out.
Call your LOCAL tax preparer
Edi Sheldon 503-429-1819
Vernonia’s Voice is published twice each
month on the 1 st and 3 rd Thursday.
Look for our next issue on July 2.
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