There’s no statue or street name celebrating Jessie Mae Johnson, but the late Oregon pioneer fought tirelessly for civil rights initiatives from 1944 until her death in 1977.
In 1972, Johnson was appointed to the governor’s committee on the status of women, which works for economic, social, legal and political equality for women in Oregon. You can see the original signed certificate noting that appointment — gold state seal and all — at the Oregon Historical Society in downtown Portland at the museum’s latest exhibit, “Racing to Change.”
Through hands-on displays with music, crafts, storytelling, dialogue, fashion, historical mementos and more, the exhibit (on display through June 24, 2018) tells the story of the Oregon civil rights movement.
It’s easy to immerse yourself in the civil rights era of the late 1960s and ‘70s through dozens of artifacts from the time, some of which kids won’t recognize. There are transistor radios, records and rotary phones, lava lamps, police reports, newspapers, campaign posters, buttons, Black Panther clothing and more.
“It was civil rights for blacks, but also the peace movement and women’s movement; a lot of things were bubbling to the top,” says Gwen Carr, board secretary of Oregon Black Pioneers, the Salem-based nonprofit presenting the exhibit.
A “build your community” corner is stacked with large, colorful blocks with words like “love,” “jobs,” “public spaces” and “equity,” which you can stack to create your own model for a supportive and successful community.
Music helps set the scene, too. Bits of Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin play from speakers in an arts and culture section, while a Black Lives Matter display connects the exhibit to the present with snippets of present-day chants blaring from the speakers. One of the displays asks directly: “Are you involved?” and invites you to drop a penny in the box for whichever action you think has the greatest impact in overcoming racism: speaking out, voting, or protesting.
Carr says the hope is for visitors to feel the love for Oregon’s black pioneers, but also to draw a line to current events. She says, “What’s going on now is very reminiscent [of the past].”
“Racing to Change” is a powerful story, but one that’s carefully crafted for children as well as adults. You’ll likely leave with a deep appreciation of Oregon’s black pioneers, and a wellspring of hope for the future. Several quotes from President Barack Obama leave you with parting inspiration: “We are the change we seek.”
Stop by the exhibit on your own, or during one of these special events — all are free and open to the public:
- Civil Rights, Then and Now: 1960s & 1970s Civil Rights Leaders and 2010s Social Justice Activists, 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Feb. 11, 2018 at the Oregon Historical Society. Learn about the connections between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s and the social justice movements that are currently occurring — how things have changed, how they have stayed the same, and what you can do to get involved.
- Untold Stories of the Civil Rights Movement, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. March 26, 2018 at McMenamins Kennedy School. This panel discussion will cover traditionally untold stories of the civil rights movement, specifically the role of women of color. Featured panelists include Joyce Harris, Senator Jackie Winters, Charmaine Coleman and Charlotte Rutherford.
- Student Activists: The Civil Rights Histories of Oregon’s Universities and Colleges, 1-3 p.m. April 14, 2018 at Oregon State University, Corvallis campus. Come learn about what was happening during the civil rights movement outside of Portland, specifically on college campuses and how those students and their allies shaped what higher education looks like for today’s students.
- Family Saturday: African Americans in Oregon, noon-4 p.m. May 19, 2018 at the Oregon Historical Society. Families are invited to engage in the history of the civil rights movement through hands-on, art-based activities.
- Celebrate History and Make a Difference Now, 2-4 p.m. June 9, 2018 at the Oregon Historical Society. The exhibit’s closing celebration will feature presentations by local community organizations.