My historical interpretation of Hiram Gorman a few weeks ago opened my eyes as to what it means to be a black pioneer of Oregon. As part of the Oregon Black Pioneers “Backroads to Black History Tour, we were treated to many locations that reflected how blacks have made a significant impact in Oregon despite the racism they encountered from Oregon’s territory days to the present.
We started at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery where several historical black figures of Salem are buried. It was at this location that I portrayed a gentleman by the name of Hiram Gorman. He was a former slave born in Macon, MO that served as a teamster during the Civil War and lived in Montana before finally settling in Salem, OR. He worked as a newspaper pressman for 10 years in Salem until his death in 1888.
Hiram’s path to Oregon was the same as many blacks who migrated west. Many came from the Midwest or Deep South with their slave masters and after gaining their freedom remained in the area to serve as the foundation of the black community that still exists today. Many of these pioneers were Gardeners, Blacksmiths, Cooks, and business owners all this at a time when Oregon had black exclusion laws on the books until 1925.
In Hiram’s case there is a bit of an interesting twist. His mother and sister came to Oregon long before he did and as a matter of fact, it was twenty five years before he and his mother were reunited in Corvallis, OR which is where one of our stops on the tour took place. It was at the home of Hanna and Eliza Gorman who were the mother and sister of Hiram respectively. After gaining their freedom from their master, Hannah and Eliza bought property in Corvallis and built a home where they were gainfully employed as a laundress and seamstress. According to public records, both were well respected in the community by blacks and whites. During the time in which Hiram was separated from his family, his sister died (1869) which was just two years before he left Montana for Oregon. At some point he reconnected with his mother and it is believed that she stayed with him until her death in 1888. Hiram died only a few weeks later.
Other stops on the tour where well known pioneering blacks were buried included the Mt. Union Cemetery in Philomath as well as the Helvetia Community Church in Hillsboro, OR.
Our final stop on the tour was at the Abbey Creek Winery in North Plains. Here we were treated to a sampling of various wines at the first black owned winery in Oregon. The owner, Bertony Faustin will be featured in the wine based reality show, Best Bottle in addition to being nominated for the “Best Winery of Portland”. This by far was my most memorable stop. It was truly what culminated the day’s events. To see a black man, a Haitian immigrant come to the United States and have a successful business white dominated industry was my “aha” moment.
You see, black pioneers do not just exist in the past tense in Oregon. We are active and present in the arts, business, civic organizations, and everyday life. And continue to shape the cultural fabric of Portland and Oregon by blazing a trail of creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance in the face of adversity.