New civil rights exhibit at MNCH shines a light on Eugene

A new exhibit at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History chronicles the civil rights movement in Eugene and on the UO campus during the 1960s and 1970s, highlighting the efforts of black communities to bring about social and political change.

Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years—The Eugene Story” opens Oct. 12 and 13, coinciding with the grand opening of the university’s new Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center. The public is invited to the opening celebration at the museum from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.

Co-developed by the museum and Oregon Black Pioneers, the exhibit uses photographs, recorded interviews and historical archives to explore how racist policies and attitudes created a pressing need for bold and sustained civil rights activism in Eugene and throughout Oregon. Firsthand accounts from movement organizers, former University of Oregon students and other members of Eugene's black communities paint a vivid picture of the past and encourage visitors to take part in building a just future. 

“The exhibit helps bring visitors into that time,” said Oregon Black Pioneers board president Willie Richardson. “It tells the story of the activists who brought change to Eugene and transformed its history.”

Racing to Change logo Oregon Black Pioneers, an all-volunteer nonprofit based in Salem, unveiled the first “Racing to Change” exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland in 2018. Later that year, it joined forces with the Museum of Natural and Cultural History to develop a Eugene-focused version of the landmark exhibit.

Board secretary Gwen Carr said work on the local exhibit was an opportunity to deeply explore black history in the Eugene community and at the UO.

“We have found the history to be rich and filled with stories of struggle and achievement,” she said. “The most meaningful part of the exhibit development for me was to be able to talk with community members and UO alumni who lived in Eugene before and during this period and to hear their stories of challenge and perseverance.”

While focused on the 20th century, the exhibit also illuminates a longer history of exclusion and resistance through historical documents, including the original Oregon Constitution, which will be at the museum through Nov. 14, displaying the state’s notorious 1857 black exclusion clause. The clause prohibited black people from entering the state, making contracts or owning property and was not formally repealed until 1926.

On Oct. 12, visitors can explore the new exhibit, enjoy refreshments and performances by PowerHouse Worship Center’s PowerHouse Praise Team and meet leaders from Oregon Black Pioneers, Eugene Springfield NAACP, Community Alliance of Lane County’s Back to Back: Allies for Human Dignity program, and the Eugene Office for Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement. State Sen. James I. Manning, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Eugene and Junction City, and leaders from Oregon Black Pioneers will give remarks at 1 p.m. The celebration continues Sunday with activities and refreshments. Admission is free throughout the weekend. 

The celebration will dovetail with the Oct. 12 grand opening of the Black Cultural Center, located two blocks east of the museum. The center is a direct response to a 2016 demand by the Black Student Task Force that the university take steps to address historic inequities and institutional discrimination, a story that is highlighted in the museum’s new exhibit.

Set for 11:30 a.m., the center’s opening ceremony will feature remarks by a number of speakers inlcuding UO President Michael H. Schill and honoree Lyllye Reynolds-Parker as well as a performance by the UO Gospel Choir.

The exhibit and related museum programs are supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust. Awarded last month, the $18,000 award will help fund key 2019-20 equity and inclusion initiatives at the museum.

“‘Racing to Change’ offers an important opportunity to address the history of institutional racism at universities, in museums and in the wider community,” said Ann Craig, director of exhibitions and public programs at the museum. “The museum is committed to dismantling longstanding inequities and collaborating with communities of color to develop interpretive and educational programs that work toward more inclusive understanding of our past, present and future. We are grateful to the trust and its many contributors for supporting these much-needed efforts.”

Carr said she hopes the exhibit will be an inspiration to people — particularly young people — in the local and campus communities.

“We hope visitors will take away from this exhibit that young people were at the forefront of making their voices heard and were catalysts for change,” she said. “We want to inspire the Eugene and UO communities to continue the work of addressing racism and equality locally.”

Carr will present a talk Nov. 14 at the museum titled “Illuminating Oregon’s Early Black History.” The talk begins at 6 p.m. and is included with regular admission.

—By Kristin Strommer, Museum of Natural and Cultural History