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Telling the Pioneer Story by Including Untold Stories

March 23, 2018

By Mandy Cole, Linn County Historical Museum and Gwen Carr, Oregon Black Pioneers

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The lantern symbol is used throughout the exhibit hall at Linn County Museum to alert visitors to recently added interpretation about African American history in the area.

For many years at the Linn County Historical Museum (LCHM) in Brownsville, Oregon, we have told the story of westward expansion and Oregon Trail migrations exclusively from the Euro-American experience. In spite of the fact that historical documentation shows that many pioneers were non-Euro-Americans, the traditional approach portrays the tale through the eyes of the culture dominant at the time.  With grants from the Oregon Heritage Commission and the Linn County Historical Museum Trust and a partnership with the Oregon Black Pioneers, the LCHM began researching the presence of African Americans in Linn County starting around 1850. Fascinating stories of African Americans settling in the Linn County area emerged, such as; Cora Cox and Amanda and Ben Johnson arrived as slaves, entering a region that was hostile to Black People and openly discouraged them from living in Oregon;  Minor Jackson set up a barbershop in Brownsville and was a well-known respected business man;   Rufus and Bessie Hale were local legends in downtown Albany.


Mandy Cole points to African American stories that are woven into the exhibit hall at Linn County Museum.

With research in hand, how to portray these untold stories became our challenge.  As we discussed our desire to have this history become a permanent part of the museum, we talked about a variety of options, including an African American section.  However, we agreed that these stories were woven into Linn County’s fabric and local community chronicles and should, therefore, be incorporated into the existing museum model. Encountering the Museum’s displays now became a visitor experience that reinforced the true story of Linn County’s early settlement.


Close-up of new interpretation.

Partnering with the Oregon Black Pioneers inspired every aspect of the project from the research phase to writing the narratives to selecting the stories to exhibit design. Reactions from Museum visitors to learning the personal histories and struggles of Linn County’s Black Pioneers have ranged from astonishment (“This isn’t how I learned it in school”) to shock at the disparity between the traditional knowledge and the truth.

Learn more about this project and other interpretive projects that are incorporating previously excluded voices at the “Incorporate Absent Voices in Your Place Interpretation” session at the 2018 Oregon Heritage Conference.

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