In the past, preserved historic sites reinforced a white narrative and communicated unevenly realized values. Preservation must intentionally include racial justice, equity, and reconciliation. Historic places can foster real healing, true equity, and a validation of all Americans and their stories.
Sites dedicated to uplifting truth and advancing justice acknowledge human suffering and struggles, help everyone understand difficult history, and offer opportunities for public discourse about the future and our role in it.
Oregon's, Benton County's, and Corvallis' history of racial oppression of Indian People, African-Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Latinos, and others are distressing chapters in our collective heritage. Historic sites may vividly interpret these places where inspiring courage stood undaunted in the face of culturally biased behavior.
The Gorman House
641 NW 4th St, Corvallis, OR
Built by former enslaved people, when the political and social climate discouraged black settlers from owning property, the Gorman House is the oldest existing Oregon residence directly tied to early black pioneers.
In 1844, Hannah and Eliza Gorman – mother and daughter – immigrated on the Oregon Trail with John Thorpe. The Oregon Trail roster listed them as Aunt Hannah, “a negress,” and Eliza, “a mulatto girl.” Thorpe established a claim in Polk County between Corvallis and Independence, where an 1850 census listed the Gormans as members of his household. By 1856, Hannah and Eliza moved to Corvallis.
In 1857, Eliza Gorman purchased town lots from William Dixon, one of Corvallis' founders. Hannah, a washerwoman, and Eliza, a seamstress, built a modest, one-story house with a mud-mortared fireplace and brick chimney. Later, the Gormans purchased adjacent lots. In 1866, they added a one-and-one-half story addition to the house. mother and daughter lived here until 1869, when Eliza died.
The Gorman House illustrates that a modest house – not just fine architecture – contributes substantially to our legacy. Historic preservation embraces these genuine resources that tell a significant story, no matter their current level of rehabilitation or maintenance. More importantly, the Gormans inspiring story of self-sufficiency, determination, and devotion in the face of oppression holds lessons for all of us.
Corvallis residents rescued the structure from demolition to provide a focus for its powerful story of two strong and courageous women, who built a life for themselves in Oregon, despite formidable cultural and economic obstacles.
The Letitia Carson Homestead
South of Tampico Rd and Soap Creek Rd, NW of Corvallis
Letitia Carson immigrated on the Oregon Trail with David Carson who acknowledged her as a free person.
Together they staked a 640-acre married-couple Donation Land Claim in the Soap Creek Valley. At the time, marriage between whites and blacks was considered illegal, so government officials reduced the Carson claim to 320 acres for David as a single white man.
When David died, the court appointed Carsons' wealthy white neighbor, Green Berry Smith, executor of his estate. Smith argued that Letitia and her children were slaves – property themselves – and could not inherit the estate.
Letitia consequently asked the court for compensation for her work on the claim and the value of livestock and other property. A Benton County jury awarded Letitia a modest sum. Later – in a second suit – a federal court awarded her additional funds for the loss of her cattle.
The Oregon Constitution banned black residents' property ownership, however the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed homesteaders of all races to file 160-acre land claims. Letitia Carson filed a claim in Douglas County as a widow and mother. She was the only black woman to successfully file an Oregon claim under the act.
Reuben Shipley Farm/Mount Union Cemetery
NE of the intersection of Mount Union Ave and Plymouth Rd
Reuben Shipley, a slave and early Black Benton County pioneer, immigrated to Oregon in the 1850s in exchange for his freedom. He was employed in the Plymouth community and managed to save $1,500. In 1857, following a long court battle Reuben Shipley married Mary Jane Holmes after purchasing her freedom for $700. This may be the last Oregon case of the sale of a slave. Shipley also purchased eighty acres of land, and in 1861 donated two acres to Benton County for a cemetery with the stipulation that black people could be buried there. Reuben and Mary Jane Shipley are buried in Mount Union Cemetery.