Black History Month honors the significant role African Americans have in our society that is often overlooked in traditional history lessons. On Wednesday, February 17th, 2016, the OMA and the OSU Press hosted a book reading and talk by author Max G. Geier about his book The Color of Night: Race, Railroaders, and Murder in the Wartime West. The book highlights the murder trial of Robert Folkes who was charged with murder in rural Oregon. Folkes’ trial, controversial conviction, and resulting execution provokes thought about race, class, and privilege in Oregon.
And, Natalia Fernández, Curator and Archivist for the OMA, presented a new collection of Oregon African American railroad porter oral history interviews. The Oregon Cultural Trust awarded a $5,000 grant that will enable the OMA to transfer the histories to digital form. This grant project will include the creation of a website for the interview audio and transcripts, which will be made available to researchers, students, teachers, and the general public.
“The information gained through the interviews can be used to broaden the level of understanding of how African Americans played a significant role in the social and economic changes to the Portland area and the state as a whole during the 20th century. The stories shared have the potential to deepen public knowledge and appreciation of the African American experience and perspective in Oregon.” Natalia Fernández, Curator and Archivist, Oregon Multicultural Archives.
Working, Race, and Homeland : Divided Lives in the Wartime West
By Dr. Max G. Geier, Professor of History, Emeritus, Western Oregon University
Murder trials, as one social critic famously observed, often reveal more about the community that stages them than about the case on which they are focused. This book (The Color of Night: Race, Railroaders, and Murder in the Wartime West) focuses on a murder and subsequent trial in the mid-Willamette Valley, and those events open a window on how wage-earning workers experienced life in the pre-war and wartime period in the rural northwest. Executioners working for the state of Oregon killed Robert E. Lee Folkes in January 1945, but in the process of killing Folkes, investigating officials working toward that end gathered and preserved information that helps us peer into the background of that man’s life as a common worker in a community of organized labor and political activists. Folkes first attracted public attention in Oregon as a murder suspect who faced trial in Albany during 1943 and then execution in Salem in early 1945. Before that, however, he was a wage-earning man who spent much of his life in Oregon as an employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Like many railroad workers, he lived with a foot in two worlds: a home life in the southern California community of South Central Los Angeles, and an away life on the road aboard trains travelling through northern California and Oregon, terminating in Portland, Oregon, and then returning via the same route. As a Black man born in rural Arkansas, he was a survivor of Jim Crow America. As a railroad worker in the early 1940s, he joined an organized labor movement that pushed back against legal segregation and demanded equal employment opportunities and better working and living conditions for people of color. As a young man who made a living cooking meals for railroad passengers and crew during a period of wartime mobilization, he was a service worker who was not considered a “serviceman” by the people of Linn County who sat as jurors as his trial. As a Black man working in a service job designated defense critical, he was protected from the military draft, but he was not protected from the suspicions of those who assumed he was a shirker or a troublemaker. As a member of a labor union local that was in the midst of contentious contract negotiations with the railroad at the time of the murder, he was a symbol of organized resistance to the wartime speedup and dangerous working conditions that he, and men like him, daily confronted. As a self-starting, accomplished young man with demonstrated success working autonomously and with minimal supervision, he was targeted for special treatment by railroad investigators who were engaged in an organized campaign to break the union and control worker unrest in a period of unprecedented profits for the company. In the campaign to make an example of Folkes, the railroad found ready support among state and county officials, and among local jurors drawn from the farm-owning families of Linn County, Oregon. In killing Folkes, however, they also brought African American men and women into the heart of the county seat. The experience of those men and women in that mid-Valley setting opens a window on race and labor relations at mid-century in and beyond western Oregon.