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Giving due to the marginalized

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CORVALLIS — They say history is written by the victors.

The archives mention the marginalized only in passing — if at all — and what little remains today of their history and contributions are told through the lens of those who marginalized them.

It is with that premise that Professor Natchee Barnd and four Oregon State University graduate students in his ethnohistory methodology course set out to give voice and context to underrepresented people of Corvallis’ history.

Using a mix of creative storytelling techniques and historical research, the students on Wednesday led a group of nearly 50 people on the Social Justice Tour of Corvallis, connecting the crowd with the narratives in a very concrete way.

They stopped at Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue where, in 1906, a man named Charles Carns beat up a Chinese immigrant referred to in a newspaper article as Old Tom.

“The Chinaman called Old Tom, the one who works at Wiley’s cleaning oysters and at the laundry house… he was saying something to Carns in his broken English and after some time Carns decided that enough was enough,” said Peter Banuelos, performing an account of the unprovoked attack from the point of a view of a fictional character who overheard the story in the barbershop.

“The story didn’t cause too much of a fuss at the barbershop,” he added.

Barnd, an assistant professor of ethnic studies, warned at the tour’s beginning that students filled in unknown details to create stories, but that the fictional parts were rooted in the historical context of the time and place.

“We worked to really do research and tell stories when the archives didn’t always cooperate,” he said to the group of colleagues and friends invited on the tour. “How do we tell these stories of folks who don’t have a lot of material stored away in the documents? Even with that limitation, we really sought to maintain the agency of the folks that we were eoing to tell the stories about.”

The students researched and wrote 16 narratives of people who lived and persevered in the area before the 1960s. At least one story on each of the five stops was connected to the very place that the group stood.

They detailed the life of a slave who bought his freedom in 1859 and homesteaded along the Alsea River, Chinese railroad workers of the 1880s, a college professor and gay rights activist in 1935, and a Japanese-American football player at Oregon State who was forced to miss the 1942 Rose Bowl because the government considered him a security risk after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Down the street from where Old Tom was assaulted, an entrepreneur’s shoeshine business thrived sometime in the 1910s or 1920s, where American Dream Pizza now sits.

Sunny Jim Patton was the only black man in Corvallis when black ownership of anything was unheard of, Luhui Whitebear explained to the tour group. She passed around a photo of Sunny sitting in one of his leather shoeshine chairs among boxes of brushes and polish.

Reframing clear biases

The purpose of the course, Barnd said, was for his students to learn how to perform historical analysis, to interpret decisions of a group of people within the context of that group’s culture and background. Students not only created narratives from limited research material, but also were tasked with reframing clear biases and inaccuracies found within historical texts.

For example, Whitebear questioned the oral history of a slave woman known as Ame. Ame traveled with her owners from Missouri to Oregon — a free territory that outlawed black settlers — and she continued in servitude to the family well after the country abolished slavery.

“While the oral stories indicated that she made this choice out of loyalty, others speculate that it was made as a way to leave the South and have the protection of a white family,” Whitebear said.

The tour marked the end of the class and the culmination of six weeks of direct work on the project.

Those with smartphones can take a limited, self-guided version of the Social Justice Tour using an online application, but there are no immediate plans to host another walking and bus tour, Barnd said.

He is still determining whether to add or change or give a more permanent presence to his students’ work.

The goal was not so much to uncover new stories from historical documents, Barnd said, but to pull the stories into one place to build community and start a dialogue.

The students said they were inspired — and so did their audience.

Jason Dorsette brought his mother on the tour, who was visiting from North Carolina. He moved to Corvallis four months ago to become director of the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center at OSU.

“To hear the contributions of people of color that they’ve made here in Corvallis is definitely enlightening and it gives folk of color like me — as a black male — it gives me hope,” he said, “because there’s not a lot of black males, especially professional black males, working in this area. It really gives us a sense of hope just to know that there were so many others that paved the way for us — and this isn’t often told.”

Reporter ​Canda Fuqua can be reached at 541-758-9548 or Follow her on Twitter @CandaFuqua.


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