Zachary Stocks said he lost his job with an exhibit design firm to the coronavirus pandemic.
But the temporary setback led the local museum professional to apply for and become the first executive director of the Oregon Black Pioneers, a cultural group preserving and promoting the heritage of African Americans.
The tumultuous timing of his appointment during a pandemic and nationwide protests over police misconduct and institutional racism isn’t lost on Stocks. He said the group has an opportunity to address Oregon’s history of racial exclusion and correct the whitewashed narrative of the state.
“You really only start to see stories of Black people here during the civil rights movement,” he said. “The truth is, there’s never been a time in the history of Oregon where there were not Black people here, as long as there have been white people here.”
Stocks mentioned Marcus Lopez, a cabin boy from the West African island nation of Cape Verde who served aboard Capt. Robert Gray’s ship the Lady Washington. Lopez, the first African American known to have set foot in Oregon, was killed by Native Americans with other shipmates near Tillamook in 1788.
In 1857, several years before the start of the Civil War, Oregon voters rejected slavery but passed an amendment to the state constitution barring Black people from living in the state, owning property or making contracts. Oregon was the only state with a racial exclusion law admitted to the Union.
The law was made moot by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Oregon voters did not repeal the exclusion law until 1926.
“When it comes to the reckoning with racial injustice, we have just been using this as an opportunity to give greater context about how the state’s history with racial exclusion has really had ripple effects that we continue to see the effects of on a daily basis,” Stocks said.
The Oregon Black Pioneers, around since 1993, had relied on volunteers to organize exhibits, lectures and conferences, while recognizing pioneer burial sites and producing original publications.
“We’ve grown to the point, particularly in the last 10 years, where we have just expanded beyond our capacity as a volunteer board,” Willie Richardson, chairman of the group’s board, told the Statesman Journal about Stocks’ hiring. “If we were going to continue to be successful at what we do, which is research and exhibits, we definitely had to have some staff.”
Stocks, who has long wanted to work in museums, earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and history from The College of William & Mary in Virginia and a master’s in museology and museum studies from the University of Washington. In Seattle, he worked as an interpretive ranger at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and visitor services manager at the Northwest African American Museum.
He moved to Astoria several years ago after landing a job with the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in Aberdeen, Washington, which manages the historic tall ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain.
Stocks, who is known around Astoria for his weekly trivia nights at Buoy Beer Co., said he is looking forward to learning more Black stories from around the state and bringing them to light. He is preparing to host a show for Coast Community Radio where he will share five-minute biographies on early Black pioneers.
Oregon Black Pioneers is working with the Clatsop County Historical Society to digitize records in Salem and help online researchers. Stocks hopes to help the group achieve more financial sustainability in the long term and one day open a brick-and-mortar museum.
“We are several years away from that,” he said. “We don’t have nearly the funding capacity to make that possible. But I think that if we can build up enough enthusiasm for the stories that are here, and encourage people to continue to learn and to celebrate the accomplishments of Black Oregonians, then perhaps we can start to revisit the idea of developing a physical place where we can tell those stories year-round.”