But Not Jim Crow: What I’ve learned from Pearl Alice—so far!

I’ve heard about the Black loggers at Maxville for the 50 years I’ve lived in the Wallowas, and about Amos Marsh, the only pro football player ever to come out of Wallowa County, for as long. In recent years, I’ve watched my grandson and teammates in football and basketball games and track meets with Jim, “The Cove Rocket” Puckett. Jim has stories. He and Amos must have been the two fastest sprinters in Oregon high schools in 1956 and 57. Jim beat him in the 100 and 220 in high school, but Amos turned the cards when he was at Oregon State and Jim was at the U of O.  

Pearl Alice Marsh was Amos’s little sister. She went to Wallowa schools grades 1-6 while Amos and Frank—one year younger than Amos and also an outstanding athlete—were turning Wallowa Hi into a sports powerhouse. The family moved to California after Frank graduated, and Pearl Alice graduated high school there, and went on to get a Phd in Political Science at UC Berkeley and have a distinguished career in public service. I met her a few years ago as she was making annual returns to the Wallowas—spurred in part by the return of Nez Perce for Tamkaliks, a powwow in Wallowa. Now retired, Pearl had begun assembling the stories of the descendants of the Black logging families of Wallowa County. Her book is called But Not Jim Crow: Family Memories of African American Loggers in Maxville, Oregon.

 

Pearl’s father, Amos Marsh Sr., was born in Louisiana, moved to Arizona where he worked in the sawmill and met and married Mary Patterson. Mary was the daughter of Pa Pat and Ma Pat Patterson; Amos and Mary followed the Pattersons to Maxville, Oregon in 1938. Eventually, the Pattersons settled at Water Canyon, along the Wallowa River, a few miles into the canyon between Wallowa and Elgin. The Marshes moved into the town of Wallowa. Most Black logging families eventually moved to La Grande; the men continued to work at Maxville, commuting and living in bachelor quarters during the workweek.

 

That’s the basic framework. Pearl’s book gives voice to the Black lives of Eastern Oregon, not only the stories of hard work and academic and athletic success, but of cross cut saws, logging accidents, dressing pigs and deer, good cooks, and a beautiful woman who weathered a series of abusive husbands. They’re the stories of the ordinary lives and troubles of work and children in Maxville, Wallowa, and La Grande, Oregon.

 

An early lesson in the book is that Black people were working in great numbers in the timber industry in the South in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1910, as much as 25 percent of employment in the timber industry was black. As farms mechanized and “free” Blacks looked to sustain themselves, they moved to timber, and as logging declined in the South, the Southern companies moved west. 

 

A lesson of the book title is that Pearl’s caste of characters was all part of the Great Migration that took millions of Black families north and west from 1916-1970 in their escape from the Jim Crow South. The “But” in that title tells another lesson: there was prejudice in Oregon too. But it was not the brutal prejudice of the American South in the 20s-60s. White men and Black worked together, played pool and cards together at Haney’s pool hall in Wallowa; women visited back and forth and kids went to school together, although there were always lines hard to cross. Some of the most touching stories in Pearl’s books are of the good things that happened between Blacks and Whites. A rich batch of photos and interviews with a few White friends and classmates speak to that. “It wasn’t Selma, but we made our stand,” said one of Amos’s White classmates.

 

From the recollections of descendants of the original Maxville loggers and their families—all of the actual loggers, sawmill workers, and wives are long gone—we get a picture of a small but vibrant Black community in Eastern Oregon from the 1920s well into the 1960s. Maxville recruits were often family members or close friends from the South, and the marriages and interrelationships continued. There was some moving back and forth from Oregon to Arizona and to the South. 

 

From the 1930s forward, Maxville families gradually drifted to La Grande, which already had a few Black railroad families. One Black wife took one look at Maxville and found a house in La Grande; her husband could commute and stay in the bachelor barracks at Maxville during the week.  La Grande was a bigger place too. There were at least three Black churches, and there was a college and a movie theater. Black boys from Pendleton would come to check on the Black girls in La Grande. With WW II some of the families went to Portland for war factory jobs. 

 

When a white logger from Wallowa went to work in Northern California, Amos Marsh followed him. Amos Jr. was at Oregon State and Frank at Linfield, both on track scholarships. Pearl and her sister went to California schools and did well. There are still descendants in Eastern Oregon. Gwen Trice’s Maxville Heritage program speaks to that. But Eastern Oregon’s Blacks have also traced lines across the country—and indeed, as exemplified by Joseph Hilliard Jr. in Pearl’s book, from La Grande and Eastern Oregon College to directing Peace Corps programs in Africa and serving in the State Department across the world.

 

It’s a rich heritage. Thank you Pearl.

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