Legacy Project Honors Letitia Carson, Oregon’s Only Black Homeowner

Oregon State University, Oregon Black Land Trust, Oregon Black Pioneers, and the Linn-Benton NAACP chapter have begun preserving and sharing the story of Letitia Carson, the only black woman in the state to claim a farm under the Homestead Act of 1862 and won two lawsuits. against a white neighbor who sold her property.

During the June 19 weekend celebration, volunteers worked on the former Carson Project as part of an archaeological exploration alongside OSU archeology students or alumni to excavate the ground.

The dig and open house was the first opportunity for the public to gather on the grounds and reflect on their lives while standing in the space Carson once called home, said Zachary Stocks, executive director of Oregon Black Pioneers.

The hope is to eventually do more field programming, Stocks said.

This could include cleaning days to eliminate invasive plants and replace them with native species. Stocks said it could also be courses or educational opportunities related to sustainable agriculture, similar to the work done by the partner. Black Oregon Land Trust. The organization provides training for black farmers in Oregon to continue traditional practices related to food production.

Oregon Black Pioneers have been involved in the Letitia Carson Legacy Project since the beginning. They were approached by Oregon State University College of Agriculture, which currently owns the property where its home stood and uses the land as a cattle ranch.

Stocks said Lauren Gwin, associate director of OSU’s Center for Small Farms, brought together the Linn-Benton NAACP and the Black Oregon Land Trust to join Black Oregon Pioneers to brainstorm ways to recognize Carson, his story, and his land, which was never developed or had additional structures built on it.

Carson’s Story

Carson, a slave or former slave, arrived in Oregon in 1845 with a white man named David Carson, according to a digital exhibit on Oregon’s Secretary of State website. The nature of their relationship is unclear, but they had traveled more than 2,000 miles from Missouri.

Carson gave birth to a daughter, Martha, during the May-October trip, the show says. The Carsons settled a land claim for 640 acres, the amount awarded to married couples. The land was halved in 1850 because black Americans were not eligible to file land claims in Oregon and the Carsons were unmarried. Their son, Adam, was born in 1849.

David Carson died in 1852 without a will. A neighbor, Greenberry Smith, was named executor of David’s estate. Smith did not recognize Letitia or her children as David’s rightful heirs. In 1853 Smith sold the land and all of Carson’s possessions.

Carson settled in Oregon between the state’s Exclusion Act of 1849 which prohibited “Negro or mulatto” persons from entering or residing in the territory and the ratification of the state’s constitution in 1857 which prohibited the blacks of the state from having real estate, to vote or to use the legal system.

Carson sued Smith and David’s estate twice. In 1855, an all-white male jury sided with Letitia who argued that she was entitled to $7,450 for the seven years she worked the land and for the sale of their cattle and property. . The jury awarded him $300 for his work and an additional $229.50 for his court and court costs. The following year, a federal judge and another local jury granted him an additional $ 1,400 in damages for the sale of their cattle.

In 1863, after moving to Douglas County, Carson filed a claim for 160 acres under the Homestead Act of 1862. Her claim was certified in 1869, making her the only black woman in Oregon to successfully securing a farm claim, according to the exhibit. Carsending in 1888.

Legacy project

Volunteers and graduate students work to sift dirt into test pits during an archaeological dig at the homestead site of Letitia Carson, one of Oregon's first black women, in the village of Adair.

The importance of the Carson Lands is described on the Oregon Black Pioneers website: Land is a rare and unique resource to “explore the concepts of home, freedom, and justice” and without any development, it remains a relatively untouched space to connect with Black Oregon’s history.

“There are so few spaces where you can stand and see the land the way it would have been seen by black people in 19th century Oregon…every time we get to come here , it’s kind of like we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with her and her kids,” Stocks said.

Senior archeology researcher Cayla Hill described the archaeological dig as an “exciting project”. Volunteers died on test sites around the ancient Terre de Carson to explore and identify more where structures like the cabin could have been in the past. The hope is to find elements to further interpret Carson’s life.

“It’s exploratory to see what we can uncover on the property,” Hill said.

Heavy rain this spring meant people weren’t able to get to the pitch itself. While the challenge of accessing the land meant some people wishing to visit and volunteer were unable to do so, Stocks said the walk to the site was one Letitia Carson should have done herself.

“Maybe during this walk people can use it as an opportunity to reflect on the daily realities of our black ancestors in Oregon over 170 years ago,” he said.

The Saturday event was intentionally organized during the Juneteenth weekend. It’s a time to share stories of resilience, opportunity and struggle, Stocks said.

“All of these things are embodied in the story of Letitia Carson, and so, we couldn’t think of a better time than Juneteenth to bring people together nationwide and think about these things,” he said.

Dianne Lugo covers equity and social justice. You can reach her at dlugo@statesmanjournal.com or on Twitter at @Diannelugo.

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