Skinner Butte Park, one of Eugene’s oldest parks, is rich with local history and recreational opportunities. Located on a hill on the north edge of downtown Eugene, the park includes 100 acres along the Willamette River.
The indigenous Kalapuya people, who inhabited the Willamette Valley before the arrival of the Euro-American settlers, called the butte “Ya Po Ah” meaning very high place. It later was renamed after Eugene Franklin Skinner, the founder and first settler of Eugene City.
A beautiful place, overlooking the city skyline, Skinner Butte has been the location for some high points in Eugene history, including a viewpoint for the 2017 total solar eclipse. Unfortunately, it also has been a site for a some of our city’s historical shameful past. In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through Eugene with the Daily Guard reporting “huge crowds.” The day ended “with fireworks display and a large cross-burning on Skinner Butte that cast a reddish glow over the town.”
Oregon's racial makeup has been shaped by three Black exclusion laws that were in place during much of the region's early history. These laws, all later rescinded, largely succeeded in their aim of discouraging free Blacks from settling in Oregon early on - ensuring that Oregon would develop as primarily white.
White immigrants who came to present-day Oregon during the 1840s and 1850s generally opposed slavery, but many also opposed living alongside African Americans. Many were non-slaveholding farmers from Missouri and other border states who had struggled to compete against those who owned slaves. To avoid a similar competitive situation in Oregon, they favored excluding Blacks, although a small number did settle in region. A few immigrants brought slaves to Oregon during this time, taking advantage of the lack of enforcement of Oregon's anti-slavery laws.
Early laws in the 1840s required any whites who had slaves to “remove” them “out of the country.” In 1844, voters passed a law whereby any free Black person who “refused to leave” the state would be “subject to lashing”; while this law was soon revoked, another law was passed in 1849 that claimed, “it shall not be lawful for any negro or mulatto to enter into, or reside” in the state. Finally in 1857, when the Oregon State Constitution was formally ratified and enacted, delegates included an “exclusion” clause against Black people. Incorporated into the Bill of Rights, the clause prohibited Blacks from being in the state, owning property and making contracts. Oregon thus became the only free state admitted to the Union with an exclusion clause in its constitution.
Being more than 95-percent white, 85-percent native-born and mostly Protestant, the Oregon population became a perfect target as the Ku Klux Klan of the South grew and recruiters entered new territory in the West. “While the Klan may have been new to the state, the attitudes and issues it exploited were not. Racism, religious bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiments were deeply entrenched in the laws, culture and social life of Oregon, and few Oregonians questioned the Klan's doctrines of white supremacy, Protestantism and "One-Hundred Per Cent Americanism," according to Oregon Encyclopedia, a project of the Oregon Historical Society.
Oregon soon became home to the largest Klan organization west of the Mississippi River with more than 35,000 sworn members in 50 separate chapters across the state. The Oregon Klan also printed its own newspaper and exerted its power in state politics. While Klan membership never exceeded 4% of the state’s population, its members held key positions in government, business and community life, and heavily influenced public affairs.
They managed to have a big influence in the 1922 and 1924 elections. At its height in 1923, the Eugene chapter had 450 members with the chapter’s highest-profile campaign attempting to remove all Catholics from local office and Catholic teachers from the public schools.
The Klan was publicly associated with at least five assaults on Oregonians, including two mock lynchings in Jackson County, and was suspected in the 1924 murder of Timothy Pettis, a Black resident of Marshfield, now known as Coos Bay.
Under the weight of this violence, other violent acts by Klansmen around the country and financial mismanagement, the central chapter of the Klan in Oregon dissolved by 1925 and by the end of the 1920s, the association had almost completely died out in the state.
Eugene continues to grapple with this racist past. In 2016, University of Oregon (UO) President Michael Schill commissioned a report by historians to evaluate whether the names of Matthew Deady and Frederick Dunn should be removed from UO buildings. The UO Board of Trustees unanimously decided to rename Dunn Hall, a building that commemorated a former UO Classics professor who had served as the Exalted Cyclops of the Eugene Klan chapter in the 1920s. In June 2020, the school’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to rename Deady Hall, the oldest building on campus, because of the racist views held by its namesake.