There was a short interview on NPR this morning about a new book about Black women and trains. I didn’t catch much of it, but the book was written by a scholar, and she talked about the importance of trains as both a part of and a symbol of the country’s Westward movement. She had stories of African-Americans moving north and west with the Great Migration, and reminded that women were part of it all. They put up with racism, with various measures of sexism added on. Sometimes they masqueraded as men to get jobs on the railroads.Read Rich’s Post →
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.
This is a newspaper column I wrote for the Wallowa County Chieftain this week. It was suggested I post it here. I don’t think it is out of place.
We live in a strange time. National news is dominated by arguments over facts—half-facts and fake facts, social media condemnations and accusations—while a growing chorus of serious speakers of all ages, religious and political persuasions rises to speak truth.
The liberal movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was not the first person of note to be accused of sexual abuse and huge hush money payments—Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly beat him on that score—but the accusations against Weinstein have opened a dam of stories about major figures in entertainment, religion, sports, and politics with sometimes bizarre accounts of power, control, and sexual predation.
Diana Nyad, the greatest long distance swimmer ever, wrote last week in the New York Times about a swimming coach who abused her and others when they were in high school, and how, after the girls told the school, the coach was quietly let go, and then went on to coach in college and in the Olympics! She’s been telling the story for decades; now people are listening. And listening to Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who joined the chorus with accusations against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is already facing charges of abuse and child pornography. These stories—and powerful organizations and a naïve public—are too late for scores of abused swimmers and gymnasts, but “late” is saving lives.
Last week also the Brooklyn Diocese released the names of several priests who had been “laicized” for abusing young boys 30 and 40 years ago. One went on to an illustrious academic career—which Arizona State University terminated with the new revelations.
The comic Louis C.K. joins Kevin Spacey and Public Radio’s Senior Vice President of News Mike Oreskes in the parade. In the NPR case, as in most others, the women—and in Spacey’s case, men—who had been reluctant to come forward have found courage in the wake of Weinstein’s fall. Even the US Senate has decided that sexual harassment training should be required—as Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore fights off accusations of pursuing and abusing teenagers as a young lawyer. My favorite defense: the Bible has stories of older men happily marrying teenagers.
If you think this all happens somewhere else, talk to the folks at Safe Harbors, and comb old local newspapers for reports of men physically and sexually abusing girls, women, and the occasional boy. The legions of famous victims who have stepped forward will embolden ordinary people in towns and cities across the country.
And listen for other stories too. Race has not been far behind gender in today’s truth-telling. Recent studies show that the tide of white Trump voters who swept him into office—despite evidence of questionable sexual and racial behaviors—was largely motivated by fear of immigrants and the fact of a sitting black American President.
In Wallowa County we named the mascot at Wallowa High School “Amos,” after an African-American named Amos Marsh, probably the most successful athlete who ever graduated there. And we laugh at the story of our beloved County Clerk, Marjorie Martin, who felt obliged to hide documents related to the massacre of Chinese gold miners on the Snake River while close relatives of the perpetrators were still alive.
Oregonian reporter Greg Nokes caught wind of the massacre story and doggedly pursued it, befriended Marjorie, and gained important information after she retired and new Clerk Charlotte McIver uncovered old documents stuffed away in the “wrong place.” A book, a monument on Snake River, and an Oregon Public Television documentary followed.
A recent showing of “Massacre at Hells Canyon” drew over 100 people at the Josephy Center, and Joseph teacher Jason Crenshaw showed the film and taught the event in his US History class.
Gwen Trice has been uncovering the history of African-American loggers in Wallowa County with the Maxville Heritage project for several years, and Pearl Alice Marsh, younger sister of star athletes Amos and Frank, is compiling a written history with interviews of the first generation descendants of those loggers.
Last week Pearl Marsh told the Joseph student body, grades 7-12, what it was like to grow up black in Wallowa, how she couldn’t be a “Brownie,” but a kind 4-H leader recruited her, how famous Amos could dance with white girls, but not date them, how living in Maxville and Wallowa was tough, but a huge step up from the Jim Crow south. When a student asked if she still experienced discrimination, Pearl said yes, but we’re much better now than we were with the legal discrimination and the lynchings that haunted all black American lives just a few years ago.
We are all better for knowing the truth—even when the telling is hard.
# # #