ashland.news
July 18, 2024

Understanding the past to move forward: Oregon author to speak about ‘Uncovering Difficult Truths’

Sarah Sanderson
July 3, 2024

In researching book, author discovered family’s role in a historic incident of racial injustice 

By Emma Coke, Ashland.news

The book “The Place We Make: Breaking the Legacy of Legalized Hate” will serve as a jumping-off point to discuss the importance of understanding Oregon’s history of racism and how that knowledge can be applied to address racial injustices that the state still faces. Monday’s free talk, the third in a series presented by Ashland Sunrise Project, is entitled “Uncovering Difficult Truths.” 

The conversation between author Sarah L. Sanderson and Oregon Remembrance Project founder Taylor Stewart starts at 6:30 p.m. Monday in Carpenter Hall. 

The cover of “The Place We Make: Breaking the Legacy of Legalized Hate.”

Published in 2023, Sanderson’s book concurrently details Jacob Vanderpool’s 1851 exiling from Oregon City under the state’s exclusion laws which prevented Black people from living in Oregon, and Sanderson’s process of discovering her family’s involvement in his exiling. 

Sanderson, a white woman born and raised in Oregon, had spent many years living outside of the state. However, upon moving back she began noticing things as an adult that she hadn’t noticed as a kid. She realized just how white the state is. 

That realization led Sanderson down a path of researching Oregon’s history to understand why the state was so disproportionately white, where she discovered the story of Vanderpool.

“I came across his name and it just kind of jumped out at me like that,” Sanderson said in a Zoom interview. “It might be an interesting story. And at first, I thought, maybe I would just write an essay about it.”

That essay ended up being 41 pages — not necessarily publishable. Understanding that, Sanderson gave the essay to a friend to help trim it down. 

“She read it and she said, ‘Sarah I don’t think we should cut anything, I think you should add, I think it’s a book,’’ Sanderson said.

Not knowing what to add, she set the project aside for a while, until a friend prompted her to try again to write that book Sanderson had said she wanted to write about racism. 

A week later, George Floyd was murdered. Knowing she didn’t yet have the expertise to write about racism, she committed to listening to the unfolding conversation.

In that process, Sanderson went back to Vanderpool’s story. She remembered advice a writing teacher had given her – to not just focus on the story, but also to figure out what else was happening. 

She began to Google “1851 Oregon City.” That’s where she stumbled on her family’s involvement in Vanderpool’s exiling.

“That’s when I realized, like, ‘Oh, this is what the book is like,’” Sanderson said. “It’s not just the story of Vanderpool, but it’s also the story of my ancestors and how I can grapple with this story now.”

Sanderson hopes that white readers will begin to examine their own unconscious biases, and through that, begin to ask questions about how we as a society can do a better job of acknowledging the history of racism and working toward repair. 

The event is the latest talk of the recently founded Ashland Sunrise Project, which aims to turn Ashland from a sundown town (a community that historically excluded people of color through discriminatory laws, violence or intimidation: get out of town by sundown) into a sunrise community, where everyone is welcome. 

Ashland is only the second city in Oregon to have a sunrise project, with the first being Grants Pass. Both were founded with the support of Stewart from the Oregon Remembrance Project. 

“Here in Ashland, so many of us have moved into this state without a clue of knowing the history,” said Allyson Phelps, a member of the Ashland Sunrise Project, in a Zoom interview. “So for many of us, it comes as a shock Oregon stands out as the more aggressive state to keep it white.”

To provide that background and education, they host talks with the help of Stewart. “Uncovering Difficult Truths” will be the third. The previous two were with representatives of Oregon Black Pioneers and the Say Their Names collective. 

“It gives us that background,” Phelps said. “And the more we are aware of our history, the more we can be purposeful about making changes.”

Phelps said Sanderson’s talk will invite attendees to look deeper into themselves and Ashland’s racist history to move forward individually and as a community. 

Sandersonon has similar hopes for her attendees, wanting them to leave with a series of questions to ask themselves: “Do we want to make our state a more welcoming place for people of color? If we don’t, why don’t we? What feels threatening about that? And can we kind of address that and talk about it and maybe work through it? If we do, then how serious are we about that?” Sanderson said.

Email Ashland.news reporter intern Emma Coke at emmasuecoke@gmail.com.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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