"A Proper Attitude of Resistance": The Oregon Letters of A.H. Francis to Frederick Douglass, 1851-1860.

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Author: Kenneth Hawkins
Date: Winter 2020
From: Oregon Historical Quarterly(Vol. 121, Issue 4)
Publisher: Oregon Historical Society
Document Type: Article
Length: 17,537 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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In September 1851, when A.H. Francis and his brother I.B. Francis had just immigrated from New York to Oregon and set up a business on Front Street in Portland, a judge ordered them to Leave the territory. He found them in violation of Oregon's Black exclusion law, which barred free and mixed-race Black people from residence and most civil rights. A.H. had been an active abolitionist in New York for two decades, working most recently with Frederick Douglass to simultaneously attack slavery and elevate Black people through education and economic improvement. In Oregon, the Francis brothers used the same arguments when they petitioned the territorial legislature in the fall of 1851 to exempt them from exclusion or to overturn the law, identifying themselves as "honest and industrious" men pursuing business. (1) The legislature took no action, and the brothers stayed in Oregon, where their business largely flourished. The debate over whether to extend slavery to Oregon continued through the decade, eventually entangling A.H. in a political feud between Portland's Whig newspaper, the Oregonian, edited by Thomas Dryer, and Oregon's Democratic party organ in Salem, the Oregon Statesman, edited by Asahel Bush. (2) Francis also continued his collaboration with Douglass through a series of letters that Douglass published between 1851 and 1861. Those letters document how Francis and his family, partners, friends, and enemies worked out life as free Blacks in the territory built around White supremacy.

A free man, Francis had experienced various degrees of servitude and liberty in the 1830s and 1840s, combining individual initiative and mobility with social activism in New York's mercantile and abolitionist circles. In the minutes of numerous abolition meetings where he was secretary and in letters to Black newspapers, Francis explored the American Revolution's legacy of rights for Blacks, opposed schemes to colonize Africa with free American Black people, and extolled the opportunities available through economic uplift and immigration to the American West. These ideas comprised forceful and genuine resistance to slavery and racism, and were central to the free-Black abolitionist movement that Francis helped lead. (3) These ideas therefore informed Francis's responses to the legal and business challenges he encountered after immigrating to the Pacific Coast in 1851.

In August 1851, A.H. and I.B. established what would become one of Portland, Oregon's, leading mercantile stores throughout the city's founding decade. With the support of over 200 White Oregonians (who signed a petition to the territorial legislature on their behalf), the brothers successfully resisted the chief Supreme Court justice's expulsion order and negotiated accommodations to succeed on the far periphery of what Thomas Jefferson and others conceived of as America's "empire for liberty." (4) A.H. wrote over a dozen letters to his friend Douglass, documenting and critiquing the region's systemic racism and supporting Black rights. Douglass published Francis's letters in each of the three abolition newspapers (The North Star, Frederick Dougtass' Paper, and Douglass' Monthly) that he wielded against the nation's racism (and used to help forge...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A647991643