When Oregon was admitted to the Union, its constitution prohibited people of color from living within its borders.
“No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution shall ever come, reside or be within this state,” it reads.
Those who violated the exclusion clause faced lashings.
“I like to look at history and learn from history because it has a way of explaining a lot,” said Jason Dorsette, the president of the Albany/Corvallis NAACP. “Culturally, the ways in which a lot of Black and brown communities learn is by specifically handing down stories from our ancestors. My hypothesis is that there are so few Black and brown people in the state because before the internet, before Facebook, our ancestors 100 years ago passed down those stories saying, if you’re Black or brown, you cannot go to Oregon.”
And that’s exactly why the presence of the NAACP in a majority-white state is crucial, Dorsette said.
The year 2021 will mark the local chapter’s 50th anniversary and Dorsette’s first year heading the organization, which has grown substantially.
Dorsette stepped into the shoes of former President Angel Harris, who followed a long line leading back to the founder of the local branch, Calvin Henry.
“He wanted to focus on where the needs were,” Dorsette said of Henry. “He carved out time to do that, and as a civically engaged leader, a political leader and an educator, he connected with local leaders and local education to engage with those people and start there.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, was founded in 1909 to answer the ongoing violence against Black people across the country, according to the organization.
There are now 2,200 branches in the U.S. with 2 million members who work to advance the organization’s vision, including to ensure political, educational, social and economic equality for all citizens and remove barriers created by racial discrimination.
It’s work the NAACP has been doing for more than 100 years, and while there have been strides, progress has come slowly.
“My grandmother used to tell me there’s nothing new under the sun,” Dorsette said, noting that his family has long been involved in issues of racial justice and equity. His grandparentstook part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The era saw the fight to end school segregation, police brutality and economic inequity. But more than 50 years later, national studies show schools in Black and brown communities are in worse condition than facilities in white neighborhoods and gentrification is creating a wider gap. In 2020, people took to the streets to protest the murders of Black men and women at the hands of police and related injustices while discourse at the federal level mirrored conversations in the 1960s, with lawmakers nearly split down the middle on the seriousness of the issue.
“When I asked my grandmother how did you all navigate through this in the '60s she said, ‘We were steeped in our faith.’ What got her through was to reconvene as a Black community to talk about these issues, and the NAACP served as that mecca, that space to reconvene," he said. "But there’s nothing new under the sun. It feels different, but it’s really not different.”
Technology, though, has elevated the conversation, he said.
The inequities and obstacles facing communities of color existed prior to the 1960s and persisted through the following decades, but where calls for justice were limited to word of mouth and the daily newspaper in the past, they’ve since echoed around the country at the speed of Wi-Fi.
“It’s technology,” Dorsette said. “It’s transcended this conversation to a global level, and it’s causing people who maybe didn’t want to admit what was going on to become aware of what was going on. There’s a new awareness,” he added. “We’re in an interesting place where realities are clashing. Some are in favor and some are interpreting it as them being stripped of their power; they’re having to share and reckon with this reality that has always been here.”
When COVID-19 shut the country down, the local NAACP was in the middle of creating a new agenda, gearing up for its new president.
With the pandemic, meetings have moved online. But instead of participation cooling down, it’s been ignited, fueled by the moment and made accessible through Zoom.
“We’re seeing this emergence of innovation and a beautiful exchange of people from the ‘60s and ‘70s collaborating with younger people,” Dorsette said. “There is a lot of grace being exchanged on both ends, and I like to use the word deference, too. We will always honor our elders and evolve with the changes occurring in real time.”
The increase in participation has Dorsette up at 6 a.m. every day.
“Everything is urgent,” he said of the emails he gets daily.
The requests come from around the Willamette Valley and stretch to Newport and range from needing help with legal issues to chronicling racist incidents.
Dorsette credits his team for helping him get it all done, and the community at large for its partnerships.
“I get calls, and I love them. Out here in Oregon we have so many of our members who are white parents, and bless their heart they adopt black kids, which is great,” he said of parents who ask him to talk to their children.
“When I meet with these kids, it’s hard to articulate without getting emotional. It’s like they're astonished to see a person who looks like them connecting with them, using language they understand,” Dorsette said. “The kids light up and I light up, and they see sprinkles and moments of inspiration. What they see is what they’ll be. If we show up and role model that positive image, the kids will see that.”
The next two years
"Some people might say we have an aggressive agenda," Dorsette said, "and we do."
Over the next two years, Dorsette has positioned the local organization to launch new focus areas in addition to the long-held mission of the NAACP.
In the next month, the branch will announce an environmental and climate justice effort and plans for enhancing community partnerships already at work, including relationships with local law enforcement and schools.
Dorsette has been working with the city of Corvallis on a hate/bias response program. Dorsette and other NAACP leaders also have been more visible in the community, moderating and sponsoring forums on health care, the legislature and housing issues.
There are also plans to engage the LGBTQ+ community.
"Intersectionality is real," Dorsette said. "And in the African-American community, and maybe in other communities of color, there are certain topics we don't like to talk about — but as my grandmother says, there's nothing new under the sun. Queer people have been in Black and brown communities forever, but it's so taboo to talk about. Now we're boldly talking about it and calling people in to let them know we care, we see you and we're in this fight together."
The Corvallis/Albany NAACP is also holding events for potential members. The group's membership now stands at about 600.
A paint night was held recently and a soul food cooking evenjt will be held today.
The next 50 years
Dorsette keeps a journal. He attributes the practice to being an educator and historian, and he plans to utilize its pages over the course of his tenure as president of the local NAACP.
"I want to share lessons learned, challenges and moments of accomplishment and give that as a gift to the president who comes behind me," he said, noting that he's optimistic the conversation will look different 50 years from now.
"I want to encourage that president to use this exercise to self-reflect and to pass that down. Going back to stories. For me, I think that's how we get there."