Editors Note: At the bottom of this article, you will see an update posted on 3/5/2023- We hope you read this, share this story, and see the outcome.
As Black History month ends, I want to share some truths about Hillsboro’s past with you. For those of you that don’t already know, let me disclose that I am the President of the Hillsboro Historical Society and a nearly 60-year resident of our City and this county. Admittedly I am incapable of telling you about this, no matter how much I know or have seen here. My view of our Black history is just that, my view. To tell it truthfully requires a view from a different set of eyes. From a Black perspective. The problem is that we have almost no one to tell it before the past decade or so. As I approached this story this year, I decided I had to look for proof of blackness in a sea of white.
As a child living on a small farm on the edge of Hillsboro, I was ignorant of racial matters; wholly encased within the white bubble we all knew. A bubble created by 120 years of laws that excluded black people from living, existing, or even breathing the same air as I did. Of course, I did not know any of that; few, if any, of us did. It was just the way things were.
I can honestly say that as kids, we never saw a black person, nor did most of us know any. But that changed for me when my Father, a teacher and Head Football Coach, took me to practice and games with him at Portland’s Franklin High School. On his team were 3 or 4 black student-athletes. I remember seeing them play, watching them closely, and wondering why their skin differed from mine. As time went on, I came to know and admire them. One of them, Benny Bethune, a massive lineman with a smile and a laugh I will never forget, became my hero. He was the strongest human I had ever seen and commanded respect. All I knew was he was big, powerful, and nice to me. I think I was 6 or 7 at that time.
“What’s up little man,” he said tussling my hair along the sideline. “You being cool,” he asked popping off his helmet. Sweat beading down his massive head across his massive neck. I was transfixed. He was someone I wanted to be like someday.
Those meetings and experiences changed me forever. As I grew up, we had Benny and some of the boys out to the farm for BBQs and gatherings, and we always had a great time. With age, I became more involved at our schools. I began to question things in my world. A few miles of road and the Sunset tunnel separated Hillsboro from where my Dad worked, and Benny and his family lived. Why were there no people that looked like Benny in my town? Why didn’t Hillsboro have any Black people? I mean, I never even saw one in those days. Big thoughts to have when you are a little kid in the 1960s and early 70s.
Fast forward to 1976-1977.
I was attending East Junior High School, now called R.A. Brown. My friends and I went to see a Spartan Football game at Hare Field. Coming off the field, I saw Ozzie Harris, a black student at HilHi. I saw Kim Evans, another black student, the same night or the following week. I learned they were both in the same grade and going to the High School where I would go someday. For me, and all of us in Hillsboro, these two would break the race barrier as we knew it. In no time, in my view, they became popular and embraced by the community.
I located both Ozzie and Kim. Harris has become an enormous help to me in the writing of this story. He has clarified why Oregon, to this day, has one of the smallest black populations in the Country when viewed as a percentage of the total population. He related his experiences, including the highs and lows of living in Hillsboro. According to him, overt and institutional racial issues presented themselves. Ozzie played football at Hillsboro, was involved in many extracurricular activities, and focused on his grades. He always had a plan while at HilHi: to get to college and excel. He was only here a few years before starting college at Dartmouth, where he played football and earned his AB. He followed that by attending Vermont Law School, where he received his JD. Harris worked primarily as a senior administrator at Emory University and Dartmouth College. He also worked for the Boston Human Rights Commission and the NH Public Defender shortly after he graduated college. Now at the end of his career and living in Los Angeles, he is a writer.
I have yet to reach Kim Evans, but many of her peers remember her beauty, incredible singing voice, and how she embraced and loved everyone. We will update this story when we can speak to her.
A Racist Past Set The Stage In Hillsboro
Before we go to the heart of this story, it is incumbent upon me to remind all of you that Oregon is a State built on a highly racist past. So much so that even to this day, some 164 years after Statehood, the shockwaves of what was done still reverberate. How? We, as a State, have one of the lowest populations of Black Americans in the country. Look at the numbers:
- California – % of Residents identifying as Black – 7%
- Washington– % of Residents identifying as Black – 6%
- Oregon – % of Residents identifying as Black – 3%
Only 3 or 4 States have a lower demographic. So we must ask why? How could it be that a State as progressive as Oregon, with people who generally espouse that they are people of equity and peace, has such a small percentage of citizens who are black?
The answer is complex and the subject of many scholarly works. I have the inclination, but not the expertise, to cover this topic deeply in this story, but let me refer you all to the basic facts outlined in this excellent work. Read up and learn at https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2020-09/mpd_final.pdf. Here are a few of the points and events that created the situation we find ourselves in—all quotes below from the link cited here.
The overwhelming majority of participants in the overland migration to the Oregon Territory in the 1840sand 1850s were White, African Americans were involved in the Oregon Trail experience in significant numbers and with significant impact. In the early years of the Oregon Trail period, most African Americans were still enslaved and, therefore unable to embark on the journey west. https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2020-09/mpd_final.pdf
The other major obstacle to largescale African American participation was the socio-political climate of anti-African American legislation andeconomic discrimination imposed by the pioneer generation in the Oregon Territory to discourage Black immigration and residence. While early White settlers may have held different positions on the ethics of slavery, most did not want Black residents, free or enslaved, in their state; they preferred to make Oregon a place for White settlement exclusively. (18) https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2020-09/mpd_final.pdf
On three separate occasions during the 1840s and 1850s, White settlers adopted “exclusion laws” that made it illegal for an African American person to live in the Oregon Territory. https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2020-09/mpd_final.pdf
In June 1844, the Oregon Provisional Government hurriedly passed a bill that prohibited slavery and allowed free African Americans a limited period in which they were to vacate Oregon or be punished with up to thirty-nine lashes on the back. By December 1844, the law had been amended and instead called for the sale of African Americans at public auction for a mandated period of labor, followed by forcible removal from Oregon. The law was repealed entirely the following year, but it had established a precedent that was not quickly erased. (19) https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2020-09/mpd_final.pdf
African Americans were also discouraged from settling in Oregon by the provisions of the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850, which declared that only White settlers and “half-breed Indians” (the children of WhiteEuro-American men and Native American women) were eligible to receive free land from the government. (21) https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2020-09/mpd_final.pdf
In 1857 – The adoption of a State Constitution: The constitution included an exclusion clause which denied African Americans theright of residence, the ability to use the judicial system, and the means to make legally-binding contracts.Articles also excluded African Americans from certain employment and denied them the right to vote. These provisions were still in place when Oregon was admitted to the Union two years later, and so Oregon becamethe first and only free state with an exclusion clause in its constitution. (29)
These early laws, in essence, guaranteed that no black population could be established. Indeed, the risk of even coming to Oregon was a matter of life and death. In 1868, after the Civil War ended, the United States Constitution was appended to add the 14th Amendment, Equal Protection Under the Law.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Oregon’s legislature ratified the 14th Amendment in a narrow decision in 1866, but repealed it in 1888. Incredibly the 14th Amendment was not ratified officially in Oregon until 1973. Oregon was a place settled by Whites, Blacks were not welcome, and the people running this Region were not having it otherwise.
Out of all that hatred and exclusion, we saw decades of racism, systemic, actual, mandated racism in Oregon. At every level and every aspect of life, it was the norm, and it became the norm for white populations who settled in and pretended there were no issues regarding race to be worried about or discussed. At the heart of that was Washington County, with its earliest settlers putting down roots years before the first homes were ever built in Portland or up and down I-5. Our pioneers helped found Oregon and write the laws mentioned above. Therefore we must take ownership as a community for how we have come to where we are today.
Please read this most excellent and deep look at all of that and more to fully gain an understanding, and frankly, our schools should be making these topics required reading. Again, that link is right here: https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2020-09/mpd_final.pdf
The First Black Student To Graduate From Hillsboro High School (HilHi)?
At this juncture, as long as it took to get here, I have laid the groundwork to get to the heart of this story. It became clear that this story needed to be a time machine look at what the first student to graduate from Hillsboro High School would have seen and experienced. Knowing that Ozzie and Kim, who graduated in 1977, might be our first black students, I was ready to ask them to tell their stories. But I realized that 120 years of school history existed before their time, and I felt strongly that I might find another who preceded them. That led me to an extensive collection of High School Annuals that I have. Spending hours this month, I researched almost 50 HilHi yearbooks looking for proof of life… proof of blackness in a white world.
Because this is Black History Month 2023, and because I cannot tell this story to you any other way than honestly, as I know it and have experienced it, that is how you will receive it. What I will show you and share next will upset some of you. And perhaps that is the best thing many of us can feel after seeing these pictures and reading this story. This story and these photos are not meant as an indictment or to label anyone seen in them. The 1940s and 1950s in Hillsboro, Oregon, were typical for most communities in Oregon and around the US. Most suburban communities were decidedly White. Structurally and institutionally, our community was designed for the success of white citizens. The bottom line is that black Americans were not here for the above reasons. Hillsboro was never known as a racist community, but no doubt racism was here and a part of daily life. In the past year, I have interviewed more than one citizen who had firsthand information on Klan activity in our community. One told me a story of finding a box filled with KKK posters and an official hand stamp for the Hillsboro Chapter Of the Ku Klux Klan buried in a wall cavity of the shop in their yard. Hillsboro was typical for suburban cities in Oregon, and racism was active, alive, and a part of daily life.
On top of those racist building blocks, other factors weighed heavily on why our community and those like it remained almost homogeneously white. Interracial marriage was illegal then (yes, kids, blacks, and whites were not allowed to marry until 1967 in most States). The National Association of Realtors and mortgage lenders practiced redlining as a matter of practice until the 1960s, a practice by which black homebuyers and renters were banned or discouraged from settling in prominent white communities and neighborhoods. This was also done by not lending to black consumers in areas they were unwelcome. Maps were created, clearly defining where people could live and borrow money. In many poor neighborhoods, mortgages were just not available at all. For communities like Hillsboro, these were just the facts of life. There were no easy paths to even travel to places like Hillsboro regarding roads and transportation systems, and once a black family or individual would come, they were unwelcome. No jobs, no houses to live in, no money to borrow to start a business, and the Welcome to Hillsboro sign was turned off to them.
Census data shows that in about 1952, Hillsboro had a population of about 5,000. No evidence in the record suggests that any black families or individuals were here in our town. None. By 1960 Washington County had over 150,000 people, but it appears fewer than 100 black people lived here. Talk about no statistics.
“In thinking about racism and segregation, it is very important to remember the context and scale of towns and cities in Washington County. Most were not seen as especially vibrant or particularly attractive until the late 60s and mid-70s. Before improvements to Sunset or TV Highway, the roadways and highways into Washington County made travel from Portland uninviting. There also weren’t commercial centers like Washington Square or Beaverton Mall, or Tanasbourne Mall until the early and mid-1970s. So, people had fewer reasons to explore. Put bluntly, there wasn’t much compelling for any group of people, especially Black people, to venture into Washington County for jobs, housing, or other amenities. Besides, the racial attitudes in Oregon and Portland had long demonstrated hostility and indifference to Blacks and other non-white racial groups. Washington County and Hillsboro are emblematic pieces of Oregon’s past … and because the city and county did little to distinguish themselves, Black students in the Hillsboro school district remained virtually non-existent well into the 1980s, roughly 70 years after the district’s incorporation. Of course, a few hardy and adventurous Black families gave Hillsboro and its schools a try. Some felt good about their decisions, and others hoped for something better,” ~ Ozzie Harris- Hillsboro High School 1977 Graduate
This represents a good portion of a more extensive set of photos over about 15 years- 1942 to about 1954 – that we came across in the HilHi Yearbooks as we researched this story for Black History Month in Hillsboro.
Take a deep breath and internalize these photos. Are you shocked? Many of you will be. But many of you, both Black and White, will recognize this for what it is; the way things were.
Given the time these kids were doing this, the lens through which this can be viewed can be understood after internalizing what I have written up to this point. We have no idea what they were thinking, and some of these photos are from school plays like Showboat or other popular productions. It does not make this right, nor would we understand now how parents or an administration would allow this. This is our history; we must own it as a community lest it raises its ugly head again.
Finding Black Student #1
Back to my search. I was about to throw in the towel while perusing the 1957 annual when a face jumped up and caught my eye. “There you are,” I said to myself quietly. Staring back at me with a wry smile on page 43 was a girl named Kumy Holcey. There standing with her classmates, she was. As far as I was and am concerned, this young lady is the very first Black student ever to attend Hillsboro High School.
I also had a photo of her from 1958 and decided to turn the power of Facebook into a research tool to see if anyone still alive remembered her. We Remember Hillsboro, Oregon, a group I founded four years ago, now has 5,300 members. Many of them are old enough to have known someone from that era. Some may have even gone to school with her. So I turned to them.
There were no other photos of Kumy Jackson in either yearbook. I wondered what it must have been like, where she lived, who she lived with, and if her family was from Portland or?? I posted to the Facebook group, and within a few minutes, some testimony and memories began to come in. That was followed by a few days of following leads and doing deep-dive searching for her. Ozzie jumped in, excited to help, and began to analyze how she would have come to live in Hillsboro. Perhaps a transplant from the Vanport Flood whose family found their way West searching for work after the shipyard jobs dried up in the late 1940s and early 50s? Of course, he and I both were excited that she might still be alive. But where was she?
Then the story caught a break from a local person named Sue Matthews, who has helped me before with various projects. She sent me a link to an obituary for a Portland woman named Ruth Mae Collier; JANUARY 8, 1933 – DECEMBER 9, 2021. There at the very bottom of the tribute, was this notation;
Ruth leaves to cherish her memories her two daughters, Brenda Holcey and Theresa Holcey, her baby sister Kumice Jackson, her grandchildren Clayton Holcey, Crystal Channel, Erica Williams, Angel Williams, Shakur Christ, and 14 great-grandchildren along with a host of nieces and nephews, family & friends.
Sue Matthews then went down the research rabbit hole and came up with Ruth’s father’s obituary. In that process, we discovered that Kumy Holcey’s real name was Kumice (pronounced Q-My) Holcey Jackson. Her Father’s name was Daniel Holcey, and her Mother was Nancy. They hailed from Tuskegee, Alabama, and Kumice is the youngest of 8 kids. We learned more about them through Census Data and that in 1950 Daniel and two of the boys were listed as Farm Laborers, and their address appeared to be in NE Portland. The story began to unfold just as Ozzie and the history books speculated. We learned that Daniel Holcey had died in 1969 and was buried in Willamette National Cemetary, earning that great honor after serving our Country in WW2. We also knew that Kumice Holcey Jackson, if she was still alive, was the last of the eight children.
Here is some testimony of those who remember Kumice Holcey Jackson while at HilHi; their names aren’t being used for now.
“Before she arrived we had an all school assembly in that wonderful auditorium. To the best of my memory, stand to be corrected. We were told under no circumstances to be out of line, outspoken ( today it would be racist). Total respect expected. I never did hear of a problem with this. ..(a statement was made about her maybe being a foreign exchange student)…We were flatly told she was not African American(this is today’s terminology). I don’t remember ever really getting to know her. I believe she came sometime during the school year. This is the only person of a color that I knew till I moved to Portland after school.”
I was a friend of Kumis. I rode the same bus, she lived in the big green house on the left on West Union road just by the railroad trestle. She was a very nice girl, I think it was 1958 or 1959. We sat together on the bus. I remember she had a large family, I think mostly older brothers. We just talked girl stuff, dont remember about what. that was a long time ago
Another expressed regrets she has carried her whole life…
I wanted to look at my 1958 annual to see if I had any interaction with Kumy. I didn’t have a class with her but I remember that hardly anyone ever talked to her in the hallways. She was such a novelty because we had never seen a black person before! She wasn’t involved in any activities. In looking back on her time at Hilhi, I feel bad that we were so insensitive – just dumb teenagers only thinking about our own little world.
I remember her well. She was in class with my sisters. One night my sisters ask mom and dad if they could have a friend spend the night. Of course they said yes. Now remember my folks were from the South. Anyway she rode the bus home with us. And mom was surprised but kind to her. Dad got home and same thing. He was kind. And next day when he got home from work he told (us), she was a nice girl, but don’t bring her back again.
Powerful testimony from classmates who remember isolation, a lonely girl, and a lovely smile. An all-school Assembly? And an attempt to redirect concerns that a Black American girl might be going to HilHi, so call her an exchange student? There is no written record of this assembly, but this is the first-hand testimony of a Hillsboro student who claimed to be there.
Hillsboro History Is Made At The Same Time The Little Rock 9 Crossed Over The Threshold
If you do not know or do not remember, please research the Little Rock 9. This was one of the most transformative events in the bloody racial equality history of the United States. The Supreme Court Case, Brown VS The Board of Education, cleared the way for segregated schools across the country to be integrated. To enforce the case and the promise of the 14th Amendment, nine courageous teenagers survived a blockade by the Arkansas Governor which started on September 4th, 1957, and ended on September 23rd of 1957, when President Eisenhower took matters into his own hands, providing troops and safety for the nine students to cross over, forever breaking the racial divide in Arkansas schools. Read More Here!
When Kumice (pronounced Q-My) crossed that line where the front doors and the steep front stairs meet at old HilHi, she could have never known that at the same time, the Arkansas 9 were being spat upon and forced away as racist picketers and hate-filled signs blocked their path. That was the ultimate act of desegregation and had to have been so hard. But stepping into a Hillsboro School in 1957, where integration had never been done, with unspoken rules had never been broken, took just as much grit, and in many ways, it meant just as much.
This is where the story stalled out for a few days and finally took a turn for the better. After using Facebook and every other form of online tool, we found out that Kumice was once married to a man named Joree Jackson, and that he had a Facebook Page with one photo on it. That photo struck me. Not because I knew the man in the image (Joree), but because I recognized the young man to his right. As it turns out, that young man is my middle son Konner’s childhood acquaintance and former football teammate.
His name is Marcus Smith. I had the chance to Coach Marcus and saw him play; he is a very talented young man if ever there was one. After a few attempts to raise him on Facebook, I reached him. I had to explain the quest and the story to him. While he could not believe I knew about his Grandfather, he told me that Kumice was Joree’s first wife. That led to a connection to Kumice’s children Alicia and then Amir.
Three days later, I had Kumice Holcey Jackson on the phone. She and Amir gave me an oral history – an oral Black History that is one for the ages. Going into the phone call Ozzie, who was and is now my wingman on this story, told me that this might be the first and only time that a Black person has been recorded telling what living in an all-white community like Hillsboro was like in the 1950s. Certainly the first time anyone has taken Black History to this level. He clarified that this year’s Black History story for the Hillsboro Herald and Hillsboro must be about Kumice Holcey Jackson and what she has to share. She is a living time machine. Anyone listening to this will be transported back and will learn firsthand what Hillsboro’s first Black graduate experienced and what her family experienced. They will hear the words of a lovely woman who has survived so much since her childhood in Alabama.
During our talk, she speaks of coming to Oregon, living in Portland, and moving out to North Plains, where they settled when the Realtor chose not to show them any homes in Hillsboro. She experienced redlining, isolation, lack of any social network, snickering, and stares.
No one in Hillsboro, Oregon, except a few of her classmates, ever got to know Kumice. She never went to a social function, a football game, or a dance, nor was she offered any opportunities at school. For over two years, she rode the bus and sat alone, walked the halls alone, and went straight home to the family home outside North Plains. She never once stood in downtown Hillsboro, never saw a movie, and never went out after dark. Not once. But she forever left her mark.
The moment she walked into that massive old Hillsboro High School, things changed, even if just a little that needle moved. The girls she went to school with who testified about her smile and grace went on to be different than they would have been had she not come. Her mere existence there likely stopped the Black Face events and ushered in a new era where the people of Hillsboro could be more than they had ever been. That is how change happens.
Today I my heart is full. Yes, it hurts to know my hometown had a deep pretty racist past. But history is what it is. It is meant to teach us, help us, and bear witness to what happened. It should never be hidden or altered, yet it so often is. We have so much work to do as a species. We are so stupid, foolish, and so hateful to allow something as natural as color to separate us. Yet we do, not just sometimes but almost every day. That has to change, and we can never go backward. We must speak up when we see and hear things we know are wrong. Hillsboro is now composed of 3% Black people. Progress has been made and is being made. Our current Government here, led by Mayor Steve Callaway and a solid council, has made significant moves to achieve equity and remove barriers. We, as a business community and a school district, are more open and welcoming, with many initiatives focused on breaking the divides of the past in play as we speak.
She was the first; she broke the barrier and is a pivotal and crucial part of our Black history.
At this point, I will end this story and let you meet Kumice (pronounced Q-My) for yourself. This was a story I went out to find. She is who I wanted to talk to and someone I suspected was out there, but we are so lucky she is still with us. I can tell you that things happen for a reason. How in the world Marcus ended up being involved, I do not know. In an even more remarkable twist, it turns out that my Mother and her Sister went to Jefferson High School in NE Portland with Kumice’s brothers and sisters. Both families were flooded out of Vanport, ours and hers.
I have invited Kumice and Amir to come to Hillsboro and visit with me and break bread. Perhaps we can go see where she once went to school, even though the building is gone. We could go and see the grounds and stand on the land. Hillsboro, up until now, has forgotten her- but she never forgot Hillsboro. Her story must be told and retold, and expanded upon, and so it will be.
It has been 66 years since Kumice walked into that school. Where will we be in 66 more? Will the history someone like me will tell be as sad or will we slide back or make no progress at all? That starts at home with every one of us.
Into our history, I went to find some true Black History. I am so happy it was hers, and now you all know that the ugliest parts belong to us.
Next Year the Hillsboro Herald will feature a story about Ozzie Harris, Kim Evans, and a host of other Black Hillsboro Students who also made Black History and helped shape our town.
UPDATE- 3/5/2023 – After the story ran and we made plans, Kumice Holcey Jackson did return to Hillsboro and see her yearbooks and our town, and we broke bread at a meal for the ages. On 3/5/2023, Hillsboro High School’s 1st Black graduating student returned to the place that had not welcomed her – that had shunned her and let her know this was no place for her or the family. We are forever linked, and now thousands are reading and sharing her story. This is real history and, in her case, real #BlackHistory- More to follow.
Should you choose to read actual articles from Washington County (1845 to 1960) in which the “N-Word” and reports of incidents with Black citizens are documented, you will find over 120 of them right here- https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/search/pages/results/?ortext=Nigger&andtext=&phrasetext=&proxtext=&proxdistance=5&city=Hillsboro&county=Washington&date1=1846-01-01&date2=2022-12-31&language=&frequency=&rows=20&searchType=advanced&page=7&sort=relevance&fbclid=IwAR1Bq6V6hOWkChHkf49lRhjxaHPLctPEN6oViEyJ3FQkXV94te1jrsRmG8s
(18) K. Keith Richard, “Unwelcome Settlers: Black and Mulatto Oregon Pioneers,” Oregon Historical Quarterly
84, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 29-31.
(19) Thomas McClintock, “James Saules, Peter Burnett, and the Oregon Black Exclusion Law of June 1844,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 86, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 122-127.
(21) 21 Williams G. Robbins, “Oregon Donation Land Act,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, last modified February 21, 2019, https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/oregon_donation_land_act/#.XT5l4i2ZPR0. In an effort to promote homestead settlements in the Oregon Territory, the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850 granted 320 acres of land to unmarried White men or 640 acres to married White couples who came to Oregon country. The federal Homestead Act of 1862 was much more inclusive and permitted African Americans, immigrants, and women, along with men, to receive 160 acres after five years of “improving” the land. However, Oregon’s Black exclusion laws still prohibited Black settlement, limiting the inclusivity of the Homestead Act.
(29) 29 McLagan, Peculiar Paradise, 52-60