Legal Context for the Life of Mabel Byrd
By Erica Guddat
Mabel Byrd was a Black woman who lived in Oregon in the 1920s. She was a person with intersecting identities that have historically been oppressed and excluded in the United States. Although Oregon is typically viewed as a progressive and accepting state, this was certainly not an accurate description of Oregon throughout its history. Oregon has a long and often obscured history of oppression that negatively impacted people like Mabel Byrd. One of the most impacting ways that oppression and exclusion occurred in Oregon was through its legislation. Exclusion was written into Oregon’s legislation since before it was a state and continued to remain within its legislation for far too long. Both Black people and women were impacted as a result, and as a Black woman, Mabel Byrd and others like her throughout history were doubly excluded. The following is a legislative history of Black people and women in Oregon from the 1840s until the 1920s. This history is meant to provide context for Mabel Byrd’s life and activism, illustrating both the progress that had been made before her contributions and how her contributions fit into the bigger picture.
1843 MAY: CREATION OF THE PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT
The Provisional Government was created to last until Oregon could join the United States as a state. This government structure was the root of many of the exclusionary laws that would affect and shape Oregon.
1843 JULY: NORTHWEST ORDINANCE PROVISION
A provision of the Northwest Ordinance was incorporated into Oregon’s Organic Laws (a set of laws that were passed by the Provisional Government). This provision had the effect of prohibiting slavery in Oregon. Because Oregon was not a slave-state, many perceive Oregon as a more inclusive and less racist state; however, this could not be farther from the truth. Much of the legislation passed in Oregon after this point would prove to be exclusionary and racist.
1844 JUNE: NORTHWEST ORDINANCE PROVISION AMENDMENT
A year after the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery, an amendment was passed to the Northwest Ordinance provision that gave slave owners a ‘grace period’ that gave them time to free their slaves. Ultimately, this amendment ended up allowing slavery for three years.
1844 JUNE: FIRST EXCLUSION LAW
The same year that the amendment to the Northwest Ordinance provision was passed, the provisional government also passed the first Black exclusion law. The purpose of this law was to ensure that Black people would not settle in Oregon. Those who did would be publicly whipped. Oregon settlers opposed slavery, but also opposed “living alongside African Americans” (Nokes, “Black Exclusion Laws in Oregon” 2023), and this sentiment resulted in a series of exclusionary legislation that aimed to exclude Black people from Oregon.
1844 DECEMBER: AMENDMENT TO EXCLUSION LAW
In December, this exclusionary law was amended. Instead of publicly whipping Black people who tried to settle, they would instead be subjected to public labor.
1848: OREGON BECOMES A U.S. TERRITORY
1849: SECOND EXCLUSION LAW
The second exclusion law prevented Black people who were not already living in Oregon from living there, continuing the effort to create and all-White state.
1850: THE OREGON DONATION LAND ACT
The Oregon Donation Land Act was an act passed by the U.S. Congress that granted free land to every “white settler [that was a U.S. citizen] … half-breed Indian included” in an effort to promote migration to Oregon. Black people were specifically excluded from receiving land. Married women, however, were not among those excluded and could receive land in their name under the act. If Mabel were alive during this time period, however, she would have been excluded due to the color of her skin, despite the fact that other women would have been able to claim land.
1854: 1849 EXCLUSION ACT RESCINDED
One thing to note about the exclusion laws passed in Oregon is that they were generally not enforced. However, they did have the effect of discouraging Black people from moving to Oregon, preserving the ‘all-White’ ideal that the Provisional Government was trying to promote. If Mabel were alive during this time period, it would have been illegal for her to move to Oregon, and if she had already been living there, her presence would have been strongly discouraged.
1857 MARCH: DRED SCOTT V. SANFORD
The decision in this Supreme Court case determined that African Americans – enslaved or free – could not be citizens of the United States.
1857 NOVEMBER: EXCLUSION IN THE OREGON CONSTITUION
The Oregon Constitution was ratified in 1857. At the Oregon Constitutional Convention, delegates proposed an exclusion clause that was incorporated into the Bill of Rights (Article 1 Section 35). This clause stated that Black people could not reside, own property, or conduct business in the state of Oregon. In addition, Article 2 Section 2 mandates that only white citizens were able to vote. If Mabel were alive in this year, she would not be allowed to vote both because she was Black and a woman.
1859: OREGON BECOMES A STATE
Oregon was the only state admitted to the United States with a Black exclusion clause in its Constitution. This clause was not omitted from the Constitution until 1926 (Horton, “Oregon’s Black Pioneers”, 2019).
1862: POLL (OR HEAD) TAX
Oregon enacted a tax of $5.00 on people who were Black, Chinese, Hawaiian, or Mulatto (an outdated term for mixed-race people).
1862: NO INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE
A law was passed in 1862 that banned interracial marriages between White people and Black people. It was amended in 1866, and the amended law was much more specific in its restrictions on interracial marriages.
1863: EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION
1865: THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT
The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal in the United States. Since Oregon had already prohibited slavery, this amendment did not affect legislation in Oregon.
1866: FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States declared that anyone who was born or naturalized in the United States was a citizen. It was passed by Congress in 1866 and ratified in 1688. This amendment overturned the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, granting citizenship to Black people. It also reversed the exclusion clause in the Oregon Constitution, although the clause was not removed. Oregon ratified this amendment in September1866, but rescinded its ratification in October of 1868, after the amendment became federal law.
1870: FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT
The Fifteenth Amendment, passed by Congress in 1869 and ratified in 1870, removed voting restrictions based on race, granting Black men the right to vote. If Mabel was alive in 1870, she wouldn’t have the right to vote because, although Black men could vote, women still could not.
1883: ATTEMPT TO REMOVE BLACK SUFFRAGE SECTION FAILS
In 1883, a vote to remove the ban on Black suffrage and other racist language from the Oregon Constitution failed to pass – despite the fact that this clause was overturned by the Fifteenth Amendment when it became federal law.
1884: FIRST VOTE FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE
Oregon voted on the question of woman suffrage for the first time in 1884. This vote did not pass; only 28% of voters voted for woman suffrage (“Woman Suffrage in Oregon”).
1895: ATTEMPT TO REMOVE BLACK SUFFRAGE SECTION FAILS
The second attempt to remove the ban on Black suffrage from the Constitution also failed.
1896: PLESSY V FERGUSON
By this point, Black people had achieved the rights of citizenship and suffrage in the United States through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. However, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, precedent was set for ‘separate but equal,’ legalizing segregation based on race.
1900: SECOND VOTE FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE
In 1900, Oregon voted a second time on whether to grant women voting rights. This attempt failed but by a lesser margin; this time, 48% voted for woman suffrage (“Woman Suffrage in Oregon”).
1906: THIRD VOTE FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE
The third vote for woman suffrage was held in 1906. This attempt failed, with 44% voting for suffrage.
1908: FOURTH VOTE FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE
The fourth vote for women’s suffrage was held in 1908. Like the previous three attempts, the majority of voters were against women’s suffrage, with only 39% voting for suffrage.
1910: FIFTH VOTE FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE
The fifth vote for women’s suffrage, held in 1910, also failed to pass. Only 37% of voters voted for granting suffrage.
1912: WOMEN ACHIEVE SUFFRAGE IN OREGON
In 1912, most Oregon women finally gained the right to vote. Fifty-two percent of voters voted in favor of granting women the right to vote, narrowly securing the victory. With the passage of woman suffrage in Oregon, Mabel Byrd was finally allowed to vote; however, woman suffrage was not protected federally at this point.
1916: ATTEMPT TO REMOVE BLACK SUFFRAGE CLAUSE FAILS
In 1916, Oregon voters had another chance to remove the section banning Black suffrage from the Oregon Constitution; however, the vote to pass the “Negro and Mulatto Suffrage Act” failed, and the section remained in the constitution, despite being invalid due to federal law.
1916: ATTEMPT TO REMOVE BLACK SUFFRAGE CLAUSE FAILS
In 1916, Oregon voters had another chance to remove the section banning Black suffrage from the Oregon Constitution; however, the vote to pass the “Negro and Mulatto Suffrage Act” failed, and the section remained in the Constitution, despite being invalid due to federal law.
1920: NINETEENTH AMENDMENT
In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, placing protection for women’s voting rights in the United States Constitution.
1921: WOMEN SERVE ON JURIES
In 1921, Oregon voters voted for the Women Jurors and Revised Jury Law, allowing women to serve on jury duty. This added to the political rights that women were gaining during this decade.
1926: EXCLUSION CLAUSE REMOVED FROM CONSTITUTION
In 1926, Oregonians voted for the measure titled “Repeal of Free Negro and Mulatto Section of the Constitution.” This removed the exclusion clause that was written into the Constitution in the 1840s.
1927: BLACK SUFFRAGE SECTION REMOVED FROM OREGON CONSTITUTION
Oregon voters finally passed the measure titled (in the 1927 voter pamphlet) Repeal of “Negro, Chinaman, and Mulatto Suffrage” Section of Constitution. Although this section of the Oregon Constitution had been invalid since the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, it had remained in the Constitution until this year.
About the Author
Erica Guddat participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Spring 2023 Oregon Women’s History course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. She is an Early Childhood Education/Middle Education major (with a focus in Social Studies) and also has a minor in History. She loves exploring and learning about history and hopes to share that joy with her future students.
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