Black History Month: A History of Southern Oregon and Interview with BSU

Image Credit Southern Oregon University’s Black Student Union’s Facebook

February is a month that has a lot going on, but it is nationally known as Black History Month, a celebration to honor Black history and achievement. While it is more widely known to have started in 1970 rather than when it was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976, Black History Month originated as a week proposed by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodsen and started in 1926. Black History Week was started to celebrate the contributions to the U.S. made by people of African descent, and was started in the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). 

With Black History Month underway, it is good to look at the civil rights history of the area around us, and see how far Southern Oregon has come since its racist past. While Oregon is now known as a very liberal and inclusive state, it hasn’t always been this way. When Oregon was founded, minorities were banned from settling there, and while slavery was banned in the state, only white people were allowed to reside in Oregon. With so much of the Black population moving out of Oregon, this gave way for the southern grown organization, the Ku Klux Klan, to rise to power within the state. “The Klan of the 1920s was strong. It was strong in Medford, it was strong in Ashland,” said local historian Jeff Landlade. The group’s powerful influence even heavily influenced politicians, but luckily in the 1930’s the KKK had lost a large amount of their power with the people. Ashland pivoted in a more progressive direction after World War II, and the construction of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival helped bring tourists to Ashland, helping create a more diverse community. The growth of Southern Oregon University also helped Ashland steer away from its racist roots. 

For Black History Month in 2022, The Siskiyou interviewed Blake Jordan, the president of SOU’s Black Student Union to talk about their goals for the month and the rest of the year. The BSU’s mission statement is as follows: 

“The Black Student Union’s (BSU) foremost mission is to create a space for Black students at Southern Oregon University where they can define their own selves in a supportive and understanding environment. We unify through cultural, social and political events that celebrate our blackness and bring awareness to the inequities Black people face as a nation. Black Student Union regularly hosts events that are not only open to SOU students and staff but to the entire Ashland community. Additionally, BSU holds events that are dedicated to speaking out about topics of racism, colorism, police brutality, mass incarceration, gentrification and much more. Black Student Union thrives to connect with the other clubs at Southern Oregon University and we work hard to build relationships with Black youth in Ashland. We believe it is essential for Black teens and kids to know that there are Black students here to support them. The purpose of BSU is to solidify our historical connection and to acknowledge that we are very different within our own communities. Intersectionality matters and this is the work we want to do. We want to promote Black culture and how our diversity fits within our own world, not just through hip-hop but through science, math, and the arts as well.”

Blake said it is also important to have a presence on campus to educate others and celebrate blackness within the school. When asked what celebrating Black History Month means to him, Blake said, “It’s a celebration of a people’s resilience. I think a lot of times Black history is put in a depressing light, but despite those moments, they have triumphed from it and there is a power to it.” 

Black history is recent history, and people fighting in the civil rights movement are still alive today. While the leaders of the movement may not be alive today due to racially motivated violence, there are still people able and willing to tell their stories. Black History Month is celebrated in the short month of February, and while it may share the month with more commercialized holidays like Valentine’s Day, Black History Month is important in showcasing Black history, and bringing together the Black community. Even though the anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil Rights Act are in different months, this just means there is always time to talk more about Black history. Blake said, “Black History Month is a great month, but Black history should be talked about year round, so having a month separated from those events is okay because it keeps other significant events as a part of the national consciousness.”

The BSU is currently planning a couple of events for the month, including a couple movie nights for two documentaries: “Whose Streets” and “I Am Not Your Negro”. They are also going to be facilitating discussions on the movies, and also see if they can have guest speakers to come in and help out with them. They do not have an Instagram account active at the moment, but keep a lookout on Presence for updates on their events. The BSU will not disappear after Black History Month, so be aware of their events after February. The BSU may be putting posters around campus with pictures of important figures in Black history with a description to help educate others around campus on Black history all year. 

The Siskiyou was also able to get a final statement from BSU member Dumebi Onianwa: “Black History Month is every month and should be appreciated, not appropriated, all year. But this month is specifically designed to celebrate us and our contributions to the world we live in. It’s heartwarming to feel that people are seeing and learning more about Black culture. While we have made progress, there is still more to be made.”

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