By Abayomi Azikiwe Editor, Pan-African News Wire Black August Series No. 2
After 40 years of incarceration the “voice of the voiceless” remains a focus of international attention
Mumia Abu-Jamal speaks at a memorial for Fred Hampton in Philadelphia. Source : commonnotions
During the late 1960s, Mumia Abu-Jamal became a youth activist in the city of Philadelphia where a succession of racist police chiefs engaged in widespread abuse against the African American community.
Philadelphia has a centuries-long history of African self-organization dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the Free African Society, African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and other institutions were formed by Richard Allen, Sarah Allen and Absalom Jones.
During mid-19th century, the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society provided avenues for men and women to build support for the Underground Railroad and the movement to completely eradicate involuntary servitude in the antebellum border and deep southern states. By the 1960s, the city became known as one of the first municipalities where African Americans would rise up in rebellion on the north side during the late August 1964.
Max Stanford (later known as Muhammad Ahmed), a co-founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) in 1962, was from Philadelphia. RAM proceeded the Black Panther Party (BPP) and sought to form an alliance with Malcolm X (also known as El Hajj Malik Shabazz), a leading spokesman for the Nation of Islam and later the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). RAM advocated for the development of a revolutionary movement in the U.S. and consequently became a target of the Justice Department.
In 1969, Mumia joined the Black Panther Party at the age of 15 when the organization was deemed by the then Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) J. Edgar Hoover as the “greatest threat to national security” in the United States. The Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) had a special division which was designed to monitor, disrupt, imprison and kill various leaders and members of African American organizations from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the BPP as well as a host of other tendencies. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) since the mid-to-late 1970s indicate that the BPP was a principal target of the U.S. government and local police agencies.
Why was the BPP considered so dangerous by the leading law-enforcement agency inside the country? In order to provide answers to this question it must be remembered that between 1955 and 1970, the African American people led a struggle for civil rights and self-determination which impacted broad segments of the population in the U.S. helping to spawn movements within other oppressed communities.
The Black Panther Party was first formed in Lowndes County Alabama in 1965. Its origins grew out of the organizing work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose field organizer, Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) was deployed to the area in the aftermath of the Selma to Montgomery march in late March of the same year. Working in conjunction with local activists, an independent political party was formed known as the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). The group utilized the black panther as its symbol while rejecting both the Republican and Democratic Party.
In subsequent months, there were other Black Panther organizations formed in several cities including Detroit, Cleveland, New York City and other urban areas. In Oakland, California during October of 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
This movement represented an emerging phase of the Black liberation struggle where there were calls for armed self-defense, mass rebellion and the political takeovers of major municipalities by those who had been excluded from the reins of official power. Thousands of African American youth flocked to the Black Panther Party viewing the organization as a symbol of uncompromising resistance to racism, national oppression and economic exploitation.
Mumia and the BPP
Although the BPP was projected in the national corporate media as gun toting militants willing to use weapons against the police when they were threatening the Party and the community, most of the work of the organization revolved around distribution of its weekly newspaper, the establishment of free breakfast programs for children, community health clinics for the people in the most oppressed areas of the African American community while building alliances with revolutionary forces among other sectors of the population including, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans and whites committed to fundamental change within U.S. society.
Mumia noted the diversity of programmatic work during his tenure in the BPP of the late 1960s and early 1970s in his book entitled “We Want Freedom”: “As the Breakfast program succeeded so did the Party, and its popularity fueled our growth across the country. Along with the growth of the Party came an increase in the number of community programs undertaken by the Party. By 1971, the Party had embarked on ten distinctive community programs, described by Newton as survival programs. What did he mean by this term? We called them survival programs pending revolution. They were designed to help the people survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the first step in the revolution to produce a new America.… During a flood the raft is a life-saving device, but it is only a means of getting to higher ground. So, too, with survival programs, which are emergency services. In themselves they do not change social conditions, but they are life-saving vehicles until conditions change.” (https://www.commonnotions.org/blog/tag/Mumia+Abu-Jamal)
On December 4, 1969, the Chicago police under the aegis of the Illinois State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan and the Chicago field office of the FBI, raided the residence of BPP members on the city’s west side. Two Panther leaders, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed while several other occupants of the house were wounded.
These police actions along with hundreds of other attacks on BPP chapters across the country resulted in the deaths of many Panther members and the arrests and framing of hundreds of cadres. Numerous BPP members were driven into exile as others were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
The Voice of the Voiceless from the Streets to Death Row
On December 9, 1981, Mumia was arrested in Philadelphia and charged with the murder of white police officer Daniel Faulkner. He was railroaded through the courts and convicted on July 3, 1982. The following year, Mumia was sentenced to die by capital punishment. He remained on death row until 2011 after an international campaign to save his life proved successful.
However, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole. Mumia and his supporters have maintained that he is not guilty of the crime of killing a police officer.
After his sojourn in the BPP, Mumia utilized his writing and journalist skills learned in the Party to become a formidable media personality in Philadelphia. He was a fierce critic of police brutality and a defender of the revolutionary MOVE organization which emerged during the 1970s in the city.
Mumia was a co-founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in the 1970s. He worked as a radio broadcaster and writer exposing the misconduct of the police surrounding the attack on the MOVE residence in August 1978. In 1979, he interviewed reggae superstar Bob Marley when he visited Philadelphia for a concert performance.
While behind bars Mumia has become an even more prolific writer and broadcast journalist. He issues weekly commentaries through Prison Radio where he discusses a myriad of topics including African American history, international affairs, political economy, the deplorable conditions existing among the more than two million people incarcerated in the U.S. along with police misconduct. (https://www.prisonradio.org/correspondent/mumia-abu-jamal/)
A renewed campaign entitled “Love Not Phear” held demonstrations around the U.S. and the world during the weekend of July 3 marking the 40th anniversary of his unjust conviction in 1982. Love Not Phear says that it is committed to the liberation of all political prisoners including Mumia Abu-Jamal.
An entry on their website emphasizes that: “The landscape has changed over the last 40 years, a time frame that also marks the years Mumia has been incarcerated. The fight for the release of political prisoners requires a recalibration in order to challenge police corruption and racism as they have evolved in this new landscape. We cannot deny the racism, corruption, and misconduct that permeated the so-called ‘Halls of Justice’ during Mumia’s arrest and unjust kangaroo court trial. The people today know the truth; commonplace bribed witnesses, suppressed evidence, biased judges, and backroom deals put Mumia behind bars.” (https://lovenotphear.com/)
Mumia through his attorneys have filed another appeal based upon evidence related to prosecutorial misconduct which has been further revealed over the last four years. The hearing will take place on October 19 in Philadelphia. Supporters of Mumia and other political prisoners will attend the hearing in this latest attempt to win the long-awaited freedom for this activist who is now 68 years old
Racism is still the driving force behind U.S. political imprisonment
Political imprisonment in the United States exists primarily as a tool of racist repression. It is aimed disproportionately at people of color, as well as others engaged in anti-racist struggle. Whether in the fight against racism at home or against racist foreign policies, wars, occupation and colonialism, the overarching purpose of political imprisonment is to intimidate and try to crush militant forms of anti-racist struggle.
By treating U.S. political prisoners as “common criminals,” the criminal justice system individualizes each case as if they are somehow separate from their social contexts. This ignores root causes and impedes the development of political solutions to the underlying issues for which people have been arrested.
Readers can discern for themselves what is revealed in the findings presented here, and in the US Political Prisoner list this article analyzes. The large number of people of color and others involved in the anti-racist struggle arrested for their activities is sadly predictable. Our entire history and existing political and economic institutions are founded and advanced squarely on the foundations of racism.amertkan political prisoners
The problem is the entire U.S. social, political and economic apparatus. It’s the system that must change. Only when that happens will political prisoners find justice and true liberation in the U.S. We fight for the liberation of Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal. But as wonderful as winning freedom for individuals may be, without a political solution, little is accomplished regarding the causes for which these prisoners have sacrificed their freedom.[Source: syracuseculturalworkers.com]
Not all U.S. political prisoners are in jail for explicitly anti-racist struggles. There are those in prison for opposing the whole fabric of militarism and war, women who have defended their bodies from abuse, striking blows against patriarchy, and eco-defenders.
Recognizing the racism that permeates U.S. political imprisonment does not diminish the validity of the struggles for which they were arrested. Without exception, racism and anti-racism is a factor in every facet of U.S. popular movements. For instance, all anti-war and anti-imperialist struggle has a fundamentally anti-racist aspect. The one existing imperial power in the world today is the U.S./NATO Empire, an Empire centered among mostly White nations, in service to global capitalism and western geopolitical hegemony. That Empire is the primary global purveyor of the exploitation and dispossession of Black, Indigenous, and other colonized peoples in the nations of the Global South.
“…We are convinced that African people, including the African diaspora, play a leading role in all revolutionary and transformational struggles. African and Indigenous peoples have been specially targeted for repression and exploitation from the very beginning days of the global spread of capitalism. Today, in the U.S., the movement for the rights and self-determination of Black people has, above all else, shown that it is not a temporary struggle but that it has staying power.
There is a thread that connects the struggles of the very first enslaved people through the historic Civil Rights Movement to the… Black Lives Matter uprisings today. The struggle for Black liberation in the U.S. is huge, mature yet young: multigenerational, experienced, politically savvy, and enduring. The successes of Black liberation struggles have always, in every instance, opened the way for other struggles. The struggles against slavery and for Black voting rights led directly to the women’s suffrage movement. The Civil Rights Movement was a foundation for an endless list of struggles, including anti-war, anti-poverty, women’s rights, Latin American and Asian liberation movements, disability rights, gay rights, and more. (Indigenous defense of the land and its people is, of course, the oldest movement in resistance to Empire in the Americas.) Thus, we can say that the prominence of African heritage political prisoners in the U.S. is a situation that concerns all of us.”
AFGJ has maintained a list of U.S. Political Prisoners since 2013, when Stan Smith of the Chicago Committee to Free the [Cuban] Five put that list together for the first time, counting 38 U.S. Political Prisoners. Due to a lack of capacity at the time, we did not undertake an update again until 2018, when we were able to hire Nasim Chatha to help us organize a new comprehensive and updated list. Nasim had been our intern in 2012 and had written some of our pioneering work on the related theme of Prison Imperialism. (Prison Imperialism focuses on the export of the US mass incarceration model to other countries.)
How we define who is a “political prisoner” is a classification always open to debate. We note that some organizations, such as the Jericho Movement, do not list people as political prisoners unless they have asked or agreed to be so listed. As we noted in our 2020 report,
“There is a concern that prisoners may experience further targeting and harassment as a result of attention brought by well-meaning supporters. We very much respect that. For our purpose, we are trying to build a comprehensive list that reflects the overall extent and reality of politically motivated arrests in the United States. We are not involved in direct advocacy. For political prisoners who have specific solidarity campaigns, we have tried to provide links. If there are no advocacy organizations linked, they may not exist or be wanted.”
We are not attempting to maintain a complete list of all U.S. political prisoners. Instead, our list is of U.S. political prisoners who are also prisoners of Empire (PP/POEs). There are, for instance, animal rights activists whom we do not include. A person arrested for direct action against the inhumane conditions suffered under the conditions of factory farming, or to liberate animals from pens where there is no freedom of movement, is not included, unless there is some element directly related to the struggle against the underpinnings of Empire.[Source: thejerichomovement.com]
Even under socialism, under nations in resistance to Empire, sometimes even under locally autonomous communities, there are animals kept and exploited under conditions that can only be described as cruel. But one cannot simply blame Empire for this, even when and if it exacerbates the problem.
How, then, do we define political prisoners who are also prisoners of Empire? Our August 5, 2020 report on political prisoners states:
“Our definition of political prisoners refers to people who are incarcerated for alleged crimes related to resistance and liberation from repression. We believe that these cases should not be treated as isolated, ‘common’ crimes, but [cases that] require a political solution. In many cases, those in jail are there because of false allegations or because they were framed and railroaded through the courts. Our list is not only of political prisoners, but also of what we term “prisoners of Empire.” By that, we mean people who are jailed because of activities that constitute a direct challenge to the national and international dominance of U.S., NATO, and transnational capitalist imperialism.”
We also note in our listing that,
“…political prisoners […] require a political solution […] Whether the circumstances of the alleged crimes are true or false, we strenuously reject the individualized and out-of-context treatment of these cases as simply ‘common crimes.’ Our listing of these prisoners does not constitute an endorsement of the tactics or immediate goals of every individual. We also recognize that people have a right to resist oppression, and the failure to do so can be, itself, a crime against the people. In many cases, those arrested have been set up, falsely accused, railroaded, and/or denied adequate defense and basic human rights. More often than not, they have received harsher sentences than usual because of the political nature of their activities.”
Although the origins of our PP/POEs list date back to 2013, this is only the second comprehensive analysis we’ve published. The first analysis was in response to the 2020 uprising sparked by the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd. We admit that what we have could be significantly augmented.
We need another major and exhaustive review of the definitions, criteria, and categories we employ. Towards that end, we’ve established a committee that will spend the next year revising all aspects of the list. This is an ongoing process, and if you have suggestions for improvements, we want to hear what you have to say. Feel free to send your suggestions to James@AFGJ.org.
One must also look at the back stories behind the numbers and trends. For instance, in 2018, we listed 50 political prisoners. After several minor revisions in the interim, in which the total was steady, we published a major update in August of 2020, following the peak of the 2020 uprising. We found that after the 2020 uprising, the number of PPs/POE had risen by 12.28% to 57.
As of the present moment, the number has diminished to a count of 55 U.S. PP/POEs, as of August 10, 2022. The decline in the overall number can be attributed to paroles, completed sentences, as well as deaths, of several PP/POEs. Especially, over the past two years, several Black PP/POEs arrested in crackdowns during the previous century have died in prison or been released after decades behind bars. These include the MOVE 9 and participants in historic Black liberation struggles, both armed and unarmed.
In 2020, we found 38.60% of PPs/POE were Black, and just over 72% were people of color. Today, the percentage of Black PP/POEs has dropped to 34.55% (19), while the overall number of people of color who are PPs/POE has dropped to 69% (38). Of the other PP/POEs who are people of color, 10.9% (6) are Latino; 5.45% (3) are North “American” Indigenous; 3.64% (2) are Asian-American (non-Arab, Middle Eastern, or Central Asian); and 16.36% (9) are Arab, Middle Eastern, African Muslim, or Central Asian (one PP/POE is of Pakistani heritage, and one PP/POE is included under both Latino and Arab, ME, etc.-heritage categories).
As for the last category, we have included these together because we’ve found it difficult to find statistics related to these specific ethnic groups. Instead, we find the closest readily available statistics have to do with Muslims in prison—and Muslim is not an ethnicity and can include people from all over the world, including those who are not necessarily people of color.
Although Muslim or perceived-as-Muslim peoples are not ethnicities, they are discriminated against as if they were, targeted as a class because of their actual or perceived religious identification. Similarly, prison population statistics regularly confuse the count of Latino prisoners by counting most of them simply as “white.”
The racist application of the “criminal justice” system is a feature of the entire system, not just of political imprisonment, which itself reflects a larger reality. For instance, we find that Black persons are incarcerated at a rate 3.5 times higher than that of Whites.[Source: benjerry.com]
We need to place the differences and the total number of PP/POEs within context. Among the U.S. PP/POEs, it is significant that just over 14.55% (8) of the total are those incarcerated for their activities during the 2020 Uprising. There are also still two PP/POEs that remain in jail for activities related to the Ferguson uprising in 2014, following the extrajudicial killing of Michael Brown. If we add those together, we find that 18.18% of U.S. PPs/POE have been jailed in relation to charges stemming from the birth and continued growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.[Source: cnn.com]
How do we determine who and how many are PPs/POE because of anti-racist struggle? We count 22 of 55 PPs/POE, or 40%, arrested for domestic anti-racist actions. As an international solidarity organization, AFGJ is keenly aware that U.S. foreign policies and international relations are extensions of the same policies, attitudes, and actions that drive domestic racism. U.S. wars, sanctions, blockades, and Prison Imperialism are overwhelmingly wielded against nations with a large majority of people of color, countries of the Global South. We find that 11 PPs/POE are in jail for actions of international solidarity with specific nations targeted by Empire (as Noam Chomsky defines it, “an integrated policy of U.S. military and economic supremacy”).
Another 8 are people involved in activities of self-determination, liberation, and defense of their territories from occupation, war, sanctions, and blockades.
Among them are Simon Trinidad from Colombia, Ivan Vargas from Colombia, Alex Saab from Venezuela, the Virgin Island Three, Mun Chol, Myong, and Leonard Peltier (in defense of the Lakota nation in occupied South Dakota). Together, these represent 34.55% (19) of those engaged in struggle directly against the international application of U.S. racist and political repression. When we combine those arrested for domestic and international resistance to U.S. racism, we find that 42 of 55 PPs/POE, 76.36%, are incarcerated for acts of anti-racist resistance.
In other words, more than three quarters of US/POEs are in jail for activities that can be described as anti-racist.Simon Trinidad [Source: prenasural.com] Michael “Rattler” Markus [Source: unicornriot.ninja]
We also count 5.54% (three) PP/POEs jailed for eco-defense. 7.27% (four) were arrested for activities generally or directly opposed to U.S. militarism and wars. 7.27% (the Cleveland Four) are in prison for generalized resistance to the U.S. political system and global capitalism. 3.64% (two) women are in jail for defending themselves from their abusers or rapists.
As for the last category, the reality is that there are hundreds if not thousands we might include in that category. We need to pose several questions and investigations to determine who and how many of these there are and who, if not all, could be considered Prisoners of Empire. We ask the reader to be patient with us as we delve into this complex and challenging area of research for next year’s report.
For now, we include Maddesyn George and Fran Thompson as emblematic cases for which we know there is a much higher total.Maddesyn George. She is a native woman sentenced to six and a half years in prison on manslaughter charges after she defended herself against a white man who raped and threatened her life. [Source: freemaddesyn.org]
We also note that there is overlap in some of these categories. For instance, Fran Thompson is included as a woman arrested for self-defense and an eco-defender, exacerbating her prosecution and sentencing. There are other cases where people are counted in more than one category.
At the 2013 Tear Down the Walls conference in Tucson, Arizona, Margaret Prescod of Global Women’s Strike argued that all those interned under the inherently racist and classist U.S. model of mass incarceration are political prisoners. That may not be our definition, but who can honestly claim she was wrong? Ana Belen Montes [Source: tutorialathome.in] Fran Thompson [Source: kansascityabc.wordpress.com]
In our list of classes of political imprisonment, we include those held in immigrant detention centers and those still held in occupied Cuba at the Guantánamo prison. But they are not counted among the 55 PPs/POE that we document.
We do know this—even if we added the 36 inmates in Guantánamo, the thousands held in immigrant detention centers, the many women jailed for defending themselves against their rapists and abusers, and, therefore, in resistance to the patriarchal underpinnings of the Empire, these inclusions would only underscore what we already know: political imprisonment in the U.S. is a tool of racist as well as other easily identified forms of repression both at home and abroad, and all of these cases require political solutions, not individualized and decontextualized punishment.
Ultimately, systemic change is needed, which is another way of saying revolution.
A righteous tidal wave of anger followed people seeing the nine-minutes-plus videotaped police lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis late May 2020. Racist monuments glorifying the slave-owning Confederacy came tumbling down, especially in the Deep South. These acts to take down the statues were part of historic mass protests that swept the country during the summer of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The enslaved Black “Mothers of Gynecology” are now honored in this memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Two years earlier the monument paying homage to J. Marion Sims, once praised as the “father of modern gynecology,” was removed from Central Park in New York City, following many years of protest.
What led to the removal was a growing understanding and anger that Sims, a 19th century gynecologist in Montgomery, Alabama, used enslaved Black women as guinea pigs, experimenting on them with new medical techniques without using anesthesia or obtaining their consent. His techniques resulted in unspeakable torture.
Sims believed that Black women did not experience the same kind of pain as white human beings. Black people were nothing more than chattel to Sims and his ilk, who viewed them as less than human and actually treated them worse than animals. This was the prevailing view of enslavers in the South and even in some regions of the North.
Black women during this period were denied the right to control their own reproductive systems and destinies, starting when they were adolescents. This is horribly similar to the recent case of the 10-year-old girl from Ohio, raped twice, impregnated, and in order to receive an abortion, was forced to travel to Indiana, because of the fascistic anti-abortion law in Ohio. The doctor who performed that abortion is now being threatened with prosecution by the attorney general of Indiana, using a legal technicality to harass and punish her.
Treated as property, enslaved Black girls and women were systematically raped and sexually assaulted by white plantation owners and treated as “breeders” to produce more enslaved people. The enslaved grandmother of the great Mississippi activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, was forced to give birth 21 times as a result of this barbaric treatment.
Honoring those who resisted
In Montgomery where Sims first performed his horrific experiments, a stunning new monument was unveiled Sept. 24, 2021. “Mothers of Gynecology” includes figures representing Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, three of the 11 enslaved women who were unwilling participants in Sims’ depraved procedures. Anarcha was reportedly pregnant at age 17 during this time.
The statues, located at the More Up Campus, are almost 15 feet high and were created by local Montgomery artist and activist Michelle Browder. The campus is dedicated to changing how history is remembered, “by finding creative ways to honor the voiceless, the minimized, the ignored.” (anarchalucybetsey.org)
Browder says of her motives, “The endeavor is to change the narrative as it relates to the history and how it’s portrayed, regarding Sims and the women [who] were used as experiments. They’re not mentioned in any of the iconography or the information, the markers.
“No one talks about these women and their sacrifices and the experimentations that they suffered,” Browder said. “And so I feel that if you’re going to tell the truth about this history, we need to tell it all.
“There’s more to this history than Dr. King and Rosa Parks, and the Confederacy.” (al.com, Sept. 27, 2021)
The monument is a gut-wrenching reminder of the strategic role that slavery played in establishing the U.S. as the most powerful imperialist country in the world, through the ongoing systematic and systemic repression of Black people as an oppressed nation.
As every Confederate monument comes tumbling down, new monuments should eventually take their place, honoring those who gave their life’s blood to resist and destroy the monstrous institution of white supremacy.
The Tuskegee Experiment was a 40-year research project that studied the effects of the disease syphilis when left untreated. Black rural farm workers were the subjects of the U.S. government-sponsored study and were kept in the dark as they were being left to suffer. A whistleblower revealed the unethical and morally unjust aims of the study after he went to the press in 1972.
For four decades, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) studied the effects of the untreated disease in 600 Black men from Macon County, Ala. Starting in 1932, 399 of the 600 sharecroppers to be studied were already afflicted with the venereal disease. The farmers were led to believe that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a term used to describe a number of unknown ailments. The Tuskegee Institute, also in Alabama, was the site where the study took place.
The disease spread to the families of the men in a devastating fashion. By the end of the experiments, 28 men died from the disease, another 100 died from complications related to the disease, 40 of the wives contracted syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.
After several years, a foundation in New York has apologized for its role in the infamous experiment. The Milbank Memorial Fund said its role was to pay for the funeral expenses of the deceased men, up to $100, if their widows agreed to an autopsy allowing doctors to further study the bodies of their dead husbands, the Associated Press reported.
The fund’s apology came with a donation to Voices of our Fathers Legacy Foundation, a descendants’ group. The Milbank Memorial Fund said it became part of the study in 1935 after the U.S. surgeon general at the time, Hugh Cumming, asked it to. Milbank gave a total of $20,150 for about 234 autopsies, according to a study by historian Susan M Reverby.
Christopher F. Koller, president of the Fund, said there is no justification for what happened. “The upshot of this was real harm,” he told the Associated Press.
In 1972 when Peter Buxtun, a White PHS venereal disease researcher, got the insidious nature of the study out to the public by way of the Washington Star, Sen. Edward Kennedy called several Congressional hearings over the matter, which Buxtun and other researchers testified. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class-action lawsuit, which was later settled for $9 million. The settlement also included free treatment to the surviving study patients and their families.
In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which helped develop guidelines for human medical research and was sparked by the findings at Tuskegee. On May 16, 1997, then-President Bill Clinton apologized to the study participants and their families, calling the act “racist.”
Taken from a Sept. 23 audio column on prisonradio.org.
Her name, Breonna Taylor, has become a chanted and shouted call in protests, along with those of many other Black people killed by the state with absolute impunity.
In a recent decision, a grand jury* in the state of Kentucky did not issue a single indictment of murder against the police officers who broke into her apartment, shooting more than a dozen times.
At least six shots hit Breonna as she lay in her bed. The policemen were ostensibly carrying out a raid against drug trafficking, but, note that they did not find any drugs.
Only one cop, who had been fired before, now faces charges. He is accused of endangering neighbors by shooting at their apartments.
Philosophers sometimes conduct thought experiments to see all sides of a controversy. Imagine, if you can, that a 26-year-old white woman named Breonna Brezinsky, who worked as a technician in medical emergencies, is killed, shot in her bed by half a dozen police officers in a misguided raid.
What do you think would happen to those police officers?
The case of the Black woman, Breonna, reminds me of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, a 21-year-old Black man, shot in his bed after being drugged in the early morning hours of Dec. 4, 1969, in Chicago. Fifty years later, and the lives of Black people still matter.
From the imprisoned nation, I am Mumia Abu-Jamal.
*A grand jury does not determine a person’s innocence or guilt as a jury in a criminal case, but investigates a possible crime, accuses one or more persons and establishes the charges against them.
In the wake of the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, monuments to White supremacy have been falling across the country. This moment builds off the recent efforts following the racist killing of nine black churchgoers at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the White supremacist violence in Charlottesville, as well as generations of unheeded protests and advocacy amongst Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
Here in Los Angeles, where a plaque erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy commemorating the dozens of Confederate soldiers buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery was removed in 2017, the University of Southern California has recently removed the name of its fifth president, noted eugenicist Rufus B. von KleinSmid, from its Center for International and Public Affairs. On June 20, in Father Serra Park next to El Pueblo, the historic birthplace of the city, Indigenous activists tore down a statue of Junipero Serra. Otherwise, public attention has largely focused on the well-documented history of brutality of the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department—further accentuated by the murder of 18-year old Andres Guardadoin Gardena—District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s handling of police misconduct cases as she faces a stiffening re-election, and the fast-changing political dynamics around re-envisioning community safety.
His epitaph reads – “He Was A Man.”
Los Angeles, however, still has a fair number of ex-Confederates in its midst. The Glendale neighborhood of Rossmoyne takes its name from the estate of the Confederate soldier and eventual federal judge Erskine Mayo Ross, who is also the namesake of the city’s Ross Street. Hilgard Avenue, which forms the eastern boundary of the UCLA campus in Westwood, is named for Eugene Hilgard, the UC Berkeley geologist, and chemist who served in the Confederate Nitre Bureau, assisting in the South’s war-making capacity. Hilgard’s colleague in both the Nitre Bureau and at Berkeley was Joseph Le Conte, the slave-owning White supremacist co-founder of the Sierra Club, whose name adorns the LAUSD middle school in East Hollywood. And then there is Captain Cameron Erskine Thom, safely ensconced in the 26th-floor mayoral portrait gallery in City Hall, whose monuments are not so easily torn down.
Thom’s Memorial in Evergreen Cemetery. Source: FindAGrave.com
Confederacy in a Boyle Heights Cemetery
There are few places that still reveal the varied and discordant strata of the region’s history better than Evergreen Cemetery, the oldest private, non-religious burial ground in Los Angeles. Since its opening in 1877, the once-fashionable cemetery has become the final resting place for an array of characters from the city’s past, stretching from real estate barons to carnival workers in the “Pacific Coast Showmen’s Association.” Evergreen, while open to most Angelenos of color, was initially racially segregated, and distinct ethnic and racial enclaves remain to this day.
A still-active cemetery that sees families tailgating next to gravestones or neighbors utilizing the track along its perimeter, Evergreen has for many yearsbeen severely neglected, a victim of water rationing from the state’s recent drought as well as revocation of its operating license and legal action stemming from circumspect burial practices.
Near the entrance of the cemetery stands the weathered, but still imposing obelisk that marks the grave of Cameron Erksine Thom. His epitaph reads—“He Was A Man.” Indeed, Thom’s life stretched the arc of 19th-century America. Born in Culpepper, Virginia in 1825, Thom, whose father was an officer in the War of 1812 and was a longtime Virginia state senator, studied law at the University of Virginia before heading west for California in search of gold, arriving at Sutter’s Fort in late 1849. After a brief and stint as a prospector, Thom relocated to Sacramento, where he opened a law practice.
In his later career, Thom served two additional stints as Los Angeles District Attorney—in which he was the lead prosecutor of the racist lynch mob that brutally murdered at least 17 Chinese immigrants in the 1871 Chinatown Massacre…
An appointment as a deputy agent for the U.S. Land Commission brought Thom to the small town of Los Angeles in 1854 to help resolve property disputes stemming from the end of the Mexican War. In short order, Thom was appointed both City Attorney and District Attorney for Los Angeles, and in 1857 he was elected to the California State Senate to represent a district that covered the near entirety of Southern California, a position Thom held for two years, covering the 9th and 10th legislative sessions.
In his later career, Thom served two additional stints as Los Angeles District Attorney—in which he was the lead prosecutor of the racist lynch mob that brutally murdered at least 17 Chinese immigrants in the 1871 Chinatown Massacre—and he was elected the 16th Mayor of Los Angeles, a position he held for two years, from December 1882 to December 1884. Having invested heavily in real estate, Thom co-founded the city of Glendale and was at one point the city’s single largest taxpayer.
Thom also served as an incorporator and board member of the Farmers and Merchant Bank, a charter member of the Southern California Historical Society, a member of the 1888 City of Los Angeles Board of Freeholders that rewrote the city’s charter, a founding member of the California chapter of the Society of Colonial Wars, and a member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, among his many civic and professional activities.
Thom’s grave at Evergreen Cemetery. Source: FindAGrave.com
Noting his death at the age of 89 on February 2, 1915, the Los Angeles Herald remarkedthat Thom was one “of the most prominent, best-loved and oldest pioneers of Los Angeles” and that he “took a conspicuous part in the upbuilding of Southern California.” The Los Angeles Times was equally laudatory, noting that “the company of several hundred persons who assembled to do honor to his memory was the most notable gathering of leading men of the old school scene at any similar service in the city in recent years.” In the midst of describing his West Adams home as “evidence everywhere of refinement, culture, and wealth,” The Times makes a brief, passing reference to another element of the life of “Capt.” Thom—his service to the Confederacy.
The life of Cameron Thom and his family embodied the early history of Los Angeles, and the corresponding development of the United States, through their efforts to uphold and expand White supremacy. From birth, Thom was surrounded by and benefited from the institution of chattel slavery. Berry Hill, the Thom family’s 600-acre plantation, was run by 200 enslaved persons. As noted in My Dear Brother: A Confederate Chronicle, a collection of the family’s correspondence, “The Negroes were singled out for their abilities: taught carpentry, iron-work, shoemaking…and of course, the various skills required in the growing of tobacco, for long months of cultivation by many careful hands were needed to bring the money crop from seedbed to curing barn, to hogshead, and finally to market.” On his Gold Rush journey to California, Cameron and his compatriots had enslaved persons with them—per his family’s correspondence, “They proposed to buy eight conestoga wagons, to equip them with all necessary supplies, and to man each with its own Negro wagoner and cook.”
Thom was also supportive of the 1859 effort to divide California into two states, an undertaking supported by Southern politicians hoping to extend slavery to the Pacific.
Moving west did not diminish Thom’s connection slavery—in fact, Thom used his tenure in the State Senate to try to undermine California’s status as a free state. In 1859, Thom proposed legislation to rework the state’s forcible apprenticeship laws to allow for the importation of enslaved Black youths into California. Chronicling the machinations in “Freedoms Frontier: California and the Struggle Over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction,” Professor Stacey Smith quotes from The Sacramento Daily Unionthat the intent of Thom’s bill was “negroes under the age of 21 years, the property of Southern gentlemen emigrating to the state, may be admitted and held in bondage until they have reached a majority.” Thom was also supportive of the 1859 effort to divide California into two states, an undertaking supported by Southern politicians hoping to extend slavery to the Pacific.
In March 1863, Thom, one of the most notable political figures in early Los Angeles, would leave his recently motherless child—named Albert after the Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnson and who would die before his father’s return to Los Angeles—and his adopted home to take up arms in support of the Confederacy. In a letter sent to his brother Pembroke weeks before departing, Thom wrote, “God grant a speedy termination of this terrible struggle, but may it never end until the South has all her right is my most ardent prayer.” Thom would eventually reach Virginia, and he spent the next two years in various volunteer aide positions through the end of the war. With the benefit of a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson, Thom returned to Los Angeles, to live the next fifty years amassing wealth and high esteem.
Exterior front view of a two-story house belonging to lawyer Cameron Erskine Thom, hidden behind trees on the southwest corner of Main and Mayo Streets, Los Angeles. Photo via the LA Public Library
Cameron Thom’s antebellum support for Southern interests, and his eventual joining of the Confederate army, was very much keeping with Los Angeles in the early years following its American conquest. Though a county of less than 12,000 in 1860, Los Angeles had a sizable contingent of southern-born residents, a number of which held influential roles. The powerful local Democratic Party machine, known as “the Democracy,” was part of the broader statewide pro-slavery “Chivalry” faction of the party.
After the Civil War, Cameron Thom’s California-born wife would follow her husband’s efforts to propagate a racist social order through her work with the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Born Belle Cameron Hathwell in Marysville, California, she was the younger sister of Thom’s first wife Susan, who had passed away in 1862. Belle was 34 years younger than Thom, and according to the early Los Angeles chronicler Harris Newmark, Thom’s goddaughter, whom he helped name.
In January 1899, Belle Thom co-founded the Los Angeles Chapter, No. 277, of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (“UDC”), five years after the national organization was formally organized. The local Los Angeles weekly journal The Capital, in reporting the group’s founding, quotes directly from the UDC’s constitution in laying out the group’s purpose, “To collect and preserve the material for a truthful history of the war between the States; to honor the memory of those who served and those who fell in the service of the Confederate States, and to record the part taken by Southern women, as well in the uplifting effort after the war, in reconstruction of the South, as in the patient endurance of hardships and patriotic devotion during the struggle.”
In California, which historian Kevin Waite notes had more monuments to the Confederacy than any state outside of the South…
Less than six years later, the Los Angeles Times, discussing the upcoming UDC state convention in Los Angeles – to which Belle Thom was a delegate—noted that the state organization had over 1,000 members, and Los Angeles Chapter, with its 128 members, was one of the largest. In 1905, and so too today, greater Los Angeles would boast three different UDC chapters.
In early 20th century Los Angeles, the UDC’s events were a mainstay of the society pages. A 1903 “Ye Halloween Charity Ball,” per the Los AngelesTimes, “struck out a note of originality highly enjoyable to the brilliant throng of society folk who tripped the light fantastic and otherwise participated in its joys.” Planning for the Los Angeles Chapter’s February 1905 Charity Ball—“one of the gala events of the season”—began in December 1904. In December 1917, the Robert E. Lee Chapter was set to host on the same day both its “annual bazaar” and “an old-fashioned plantation dinner at which a large number of men from the Naval Reserve Camp at the harbor will be entertained.”
The UDC was not a benign social club, but rather one of the driving forces for enshrining the “Lost Cause” mythology across the county and whitewashing the real cause of the Civil War—the preservation of slavery – from history. In an updated preface to “Dixie’s Daughters,” a history of the organization, historian Karen Cox writes, “UDC members became leaders of a movement that looked not only to past to memorialize the Confederate generation but also to the future in hopes of shaping a New South that, absent slavery, would continue to emulate the Old South in its preservation of White supremacy.”
In California, which historian Kevin Waite notes had more monuments to the Confederacy than any state outside of the South, the UDC similarly played an outsized role in transporting the White supremacist propaganda west. “Women played the leading role in California’s Confederate renaissance,” writes Waite. “They did so primarily through the UDC.” After Belle Thom’s death, the UDC would go on to install the Confederate memorial in Hollywood Forever, where dozens of former Confederates would ultimately be laid to rest, in 1925, and open “Dixie Manor,” an old soldiers’ home for aging Confederate soldiers, in 1929.
…his mayoral biography in City Hall notes his “foresighted investments made him a wealthy man”—was in part a result of his ability to exploit the financial ruin of the Californios, the once-powerful Mexican landed gentry…
Writing three days after her passing, the Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Carr lamented, “The death of Mrs. Cameron Thom takes away one of the last grande dames who ruled California society before the flappers and the movie stars came in. In the 1880s, Los Angeles, in its upper crust, was almost a Southern town. And Mrs. Thom was a leader of that old southern group.” California-born, Belle Thom helped imbue early Los Angeles society with the spirit of “Dixie,” by co-founding a chapter of the UDC that helped enforced a racist social hierarchy far beyond the borders of the former Confederacy.
Cameron de Hart Thom, the son of Cameron and Belle, brought the family’s support for institutional racism squarely into the twentieth century through his work in real estate. Cameron Erskine Thom’s much-heralded prescience and real estate acumen—his mayoral biography in City Hall notes his “foresighted investments made him a wealthy man”—was in part a result of his ability to exploit the financial ruin of the Californios, the once-powerful Mexican landed gentry, through land disputes and lawsuits in the decades after the end of the Mexican War.
In 1870, Thom purchased 2,700 acresof the once 30,000-acre Rancho San Rafael from the blind 88-year-old, Catalina Verdugo, the daughter of Corporal Jose Maria Verdugo, who had been ceded the land by the Spanish empire in 1784. Thom also received 724 acres of Rancho San Rafael from the infamous “Great Partition of 1871,” where 28 individuals received 31 different tracts of lands due to questions around book-keeping and actual ownership. Thom would go on to sell a portion of his land to his nephew and longtime business partner, the fellow Confederate Erskine Mayo Ross.
Thom’s sons, Cameron de Hart and Erskine Pembroke, operating from suite 414 in the Bradbury Building in Downtown, went about selling subdivided portions of the old Rancho San Rafael their father had acquired, which at that point had been renamed “Bellehurst,” in northeast Glendale. In the Saturday evening edition of the March 29, 1913, Los Angeles Herald, the Thom brothers ran a prominently sized ad, declaring “Bellehurst – NOT a Fairy Tale.” The ad asked readers to imagine a pastoral lot with unobstructed views, “with all the delights of fresh country air, wholesome surroundings, fine neighbors, clean streets, in a fine residence section…this is no fairy tale.”.
In 1920, Cameron de Hart Thom co-founded the Glendale Realty Board, which would become today’s Glendale Association of Realtors, serving as the organization’s charter Vice President, and later its president. Writing in his 1922 “History of Glendale and Vicinity,” JC Scherer extolled the virtues of the organization in uplifting the city, claiming it as “one of the progressive factors in the development of the community.” The realtors, according to Scherer, “have been instrumental in bringing many families to this city and most of them take personal responsibility in the fact that Glendale is “The Fastest Growing City in America.”
The work of Cameron de Hart’s fellow realtors laid the foundation for Glendale earning the designation of a “sundown” town, where no Black people were functionally permitted after dusk.
The work of the Glendale Realty Board made clear that the “fine neighbors” from the 1913 Bellehurst ad and the inflow of new families were to be exclusively white. As detailed by Douglas Flamming in “Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America,” in responding to a 1927 survey from the all-White California Real Estate Association on how Glendale enforces racial restrictions, the board president William McMillan asserted, “The Glendale Realty Board, and the Glendale brokers, as a whole, cooperate in every way to keep Glendale and “All American City,” and by enforcing race restrictions, we have been able to keep our standard well up in the front of “All American.”
McMillan would go further in the survey form, responding to the question of how “this important problem” could be dealt with by the real estate industry: “In an American town like Glendale, which has the smallest percentage of foreign population of any city in the State, that by insisting on the subdividers putting in and enforcing suitable race restrictions, we can maintain our high standard of American citizenship.” And while a population of Japanese was moving into one part of the city, they were “mostly gardeners,” and “all property carries race restrictions against Asiatics.”
Per the Glendale Realty Board’s rationale, Whites were the only group who were truly American. Discriminatory real estate practices, then, were expressly positive for the flourishing of “American” communities. A decade before the implementation of redlining, organizations like the Glendale Realty Board were devising ways by which to embed discrimination into the fabric of cities. The work of Cameron de Hart’s fellow realtors laid the foundation for Glendale earning the designation of a “sundown” town, where no Black people were functionally permitted after dusk. In a July 16, 1963, Los Angeles Times article around allegations of the city’s racism, Glendale’s city attorney Henry McClernan bluntly states, “no Negroes are living in Glendale. Some come into the city in the daytime to work as domestics.”
L.A.’s Uncelebrated Legacy of Confederacy Still Lives On in 2020 Across the County
Writing in his 1915 “A History of California,” the historian and educator James Guinn gushed, “The life story of Captain Thom is as full of interest as a romance and contains as many thrilling experiences as a detective story or a tale of the South Seas…It is indeed almost a fairy tale from some enchanted volume of ancient lore.” Contrary to Guinn’s hyperbole, the lives of Cameron Thom and his family were not “fairy tales,” but rather ubiquitous reflections of racial discrimination in California.
Cameron Thom was far from the only Confederate to find a home in the Golden State, UDC chapters held sway from San Diego to San Francisco, and most major cities in the state had realty boards devising exclusionary tactics. What is noteworthy about the Thoms is that over the course of roughly sixty years, the family would go from taking up arms against the United States to using real estate to enforce segregation, a clear distillation of white supremacy’s evolution, and adaptation.
There is also Thom’s mayoral portrait in City Hall. Set against an indistinct background, Thom is a well-coiffed and prominently bearded man shown in his later years, staring quietly into the distance. The four-sentence description below the portrait is almost equally devoid of context…
With its longtime identity as a boomtown fixated on the future, Los Angeles has largely forgotten about Cameron Thom. The Long Beach Camp #2007of the Sons of Confederate Veterans bears the name Captain Cameron Thom. In the Verdugo Mountains, overlooking the city of Glendale in what was once the Rancho San Rafael land grant, is the 2,462-foot peak, Mt. Thom. While not an official designation, and per Glendale historians Katherine Peters Yamada, Mike Lawler, and Rich Toyon, the peak has been called a variety of names, “Mt. Thom” can be found on Glendale city park maps and municipal telecom contracts.
In the South Park neighborhood of Downtown, there are three alleys—Cameron Lane, Catesby Lane, and Pembroke Lane—that bear the names of Thom’s three sons that reached adulthood. In a November 1964 audio recording of her reminisces of early life in Los Angeles, Thom’s daughter Belle Buford Thom Collins, known in the early society pages as “Jette Thom” prior to her marriage to a London theater manager, recounts that her father fell into extensive land holdings in that for years went undeveloped, “Where the Standard Oil Building stands at the corner of Hope and Olympic” west to Figueroa. “The only thing that remains to remind us that it was once his property,” the octogenarian notes, is an alley, “a little strip of land,” Thom had named for his son, Pembroke. That alley is still visible on LA County assessor maps, and while the development around L.A. Alive has reshaped the area, Thom’s three sons can still be found south of Pico.
There is also Thom’s mayoral portrait in City Hall. Set against an indistinct background, Thom is a well-coiffed and prominently bearded man shown in his later years, staring quietly into the distance. The four-sentence description below the portrait is almost equally devoid of context, incorrectly noting his 1854 arrival to Los Angeles from Virginia, and lists a few assorted events that occurred during his mayoralty—acreage set aside for Elysian Park, the founding of the Historical Society of Southern California, a production of “School for Scandal” – meant to convey Los Angeles’s continued emergence into a major city. Left unmentioned is his service to the Confederacy, as well as his ultimately failed prosecution of the 1871 Chinatown Massacre.
The aptest testament to Cameron Thom remaining in Los Angeles, however, is a parking lot. The southeast corner of 3rd and Main Street in downtown was the site of Thom’s longtime home. County parcel maps and city planning documents for the site still read “Property of C.E. Thom.” Where once was Thom’s opulent estate is now a surface parking lot, and where the last rumblings a long-planned second phase to a residential development was an environmental impact report filed back in 2015. The property also serves as the very northwest corner of Skid Row, the epicenter of homelessness in Los Angeles. A line of tents rings the perimeter of the lot.
Civic leaders may not construct monumental structures honoring Thom or other Confederates along Broadway or Sunset, but Union Station was built on what was once Old Chinatown…
That the site of Cameron Thom’s mansion is now the boundary of Skid Row, a mostly Black neighborhood that reflects the structural racism underpinning the region’s unaffordability and housing crises, is the perfect testament to his legacy. Thom and his family, along with other such early “pioneers,” set about constructing Los Angeles for the exclusive benefit of White people.
That the West, and Los Angeles specifically, would be the triumphs of Whiteness was actively promoted by civic boosters. The Press Reference Library’s 1915 “Notables of the West,” a collection of biographies sent to newspapers across the country, begins with “A Word in Advance” from the Los Angeles journalist Otheman Stevens.“Because the great West frowned on white men,” writes Stevens, “and presented to his advantage its redoubts of deserts, mountains, freezing cold, withering heat, vast pathless stretches, inhabited by savage beasts and more savage barbarians, the white man conquered it.” Writing in 1924, the year of Belle Thom’s passing, the longtime Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce trade manager and harbor official Clarence Matson pronounced, “Angle Saxon civilization must climax in the generations to come…The Los Angeles of Tomorrow will be the center of this climax.”
Civic leaders may not construct monumental structures honoring Thom or other Confederates along Broadway or Sunset, but Union Station was built on what was once Old Chinatown, the palaces of culture and 1980s high-rises on Bunker Hill sit on the ruins of the multi-ethnic neighborhood redlined and “urban blight”-ed out of existence, and Dodger Stadium dominates Chavez Ravine as a result of red-baiting and broken promises of affordable housing. The creation, and brutal enforcement, of White space that uplifted statues across the South similarly compelled the contours of Los Angeles’s development and growth.
There are plenty of monuments to be toppled in Los Angeles—start thinking about what should be built in their place.
While updating the plaque beneath Cameron Thom’s City Hall portrait can be a minor corrective for the gauzy narratives Los Angeles has devised about its past, such a move does nothing to improve communities that have suffered from decades of antipathy or outright brutality, or for the hundreds of thousands of Angelenos who sit dangerously at the margins due to the convergence of COVID-19 and structural racism.
To dismantle the legacy of Cameron Thom, Los Angeles, for the first time in its 239-year history, must be reconstructed in a way so as to fully and unambiguously recognize the humanity of its entire populace. This work has been ongoing for generations, but an expansive vision for a more just Los Angeles can be seen in the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets in the past month; in Professor Melina Abdullah and Black Lives Matter’s presentation to the City Council calling for a budget truly reflective of people’s needs and values; in the work of the JusticeLA coalition other community activist groups pushing the county towards decarceration; in the tireless advocacy of the LA Street Vendor Campaign and the vendors themselves to demand recognition that was for too long denied; and in the envisioning and creation of the 1.3-mile long Destination Crenshawin the heart of historic Black Los Angeles, that, as chronicled by Sahra Sulaiman, “Will not just be a place to celebrate unapologetically Black contributions, but also a place where it is safe to be unapologetically Black in Public: A Black Space, full stop.”
There are plenty of monuments to be toppled in Los Angeles—start thinking about what should be built in their place.
Pulse oximeters give biased results for people with darker skin, and the consequences can be serious.
“Oximeters remain another disturbing materialization of how white supremacy has been built into our systems and infrastructures of perception—even programmed into the very machines we rely on to quantify danger when someone can’t breathe.”
COVID-19 care has brought the pulse oximeter into many American homes. This compact medical device, costing as little as $20, clips onto a fingertip and helps gauge how much oxygen is making it to the blood. When COVID-19 fevers moved through my household earlier this year, everything suddenly revolved around the number on its tiny screen, which reports oxygen saturation as a percentage. Normal readings are in the range of 95 to 100 percent; my husband could only sleep if I stayed up to make sure his readings didn’t plummet into the 70s again. Our doctor said to go back to the hospital if the device’s reading dropped to 92 and stayed there, but most nights it hovered along that edge. I began to wonder exactly what this object was telling us.
To picture what’s happening inside a pulse ox—as health care providers call it—start by thinking about what’s happening inside your body. Blood saturated with oxygen is bright crimson thanks to iron-containing hemoglobin, which picks up the gas molecules from your lungs to deliver them to your organs. In the absence of oxygen, the same hemoglobin dims to a cold purple-red. The oximeter detects this chromatic chemistry by shining two lights—one infrared, one red—through your finger and sensing how much comes through on the other side. Oxygen-saturated hemoglobin absorbs more infrared light and also allows more red light to pass through than its deoxygenated counterpart. Adjusting for certain technicalities using your pulse, the device reads out the color of your blood several times a second.
To “see” your blood, though, the light must pass through your skin. This should give us pause, since a range of technologies based on color sensing are known to reproduce racial bias. Photographic film calibrated for white skin, for example, often created distorted images of nonwhite people until its built-in assumptions started to be acknowledged and reworked in the 1970s ; traces of racial biases remain in photography still today. Similar disparities have surfaced around several health devices, including Fitbits . How had designers managed to avoid such problems in the case of the oximeter, I wondered? As I dug deeper, I couldn’t find any record that the problem ever was fully fixed. Most oximeters on the market today were initially calibrated primarily for light skin, and they still often reproduce subtle errors for nonwhite people.
“A range of technologies based on color sensing are known to reproduce racial bias.”
In medical and technology communities there is a perception that this bias isn’t a big deal. To understand why, I reached out to manufacturers, doctors, researchers, and government regulators to ask for any updates to these previously documented issues. Many responded along these lines: “The errors haven’t really been dealt with, but here’s why it doesn’t matter.” Others thought the stories that get told about the harmlessness of racial disparities reveal the very opposite : unequal standards that have become normalized. It all matters—the errors, the history that produced them, the future they’re being built into, and the justifications about racism they reveal in U.S. science and medicine.
In 2005 a team of physicians studied oximetry’s racial bias in critical detail. The group often works at the famous mountaintop Hypoxia Lab , founded at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) by John Severinghaus , inventor of blood gas analysis, who did foundational work in medical devices for anesthesiology. “In our eighteen years of testing pulse oximeter accuracy,” the team noted in their article, “the majority of subjects have been light skinned. . . . Most pulse oximeters have probably been calibrated using light-skinned individuals, with the assumption that skin pigment does not matter.”
But after hearing about a range of “unacceptable errors in pulse oximetry” among Black wearers, the UCSF study was “specifically designed to determine whether errors at low [arterial oxygen saturation] correlate with skin color.” Since errors don’t tend to show up at healthy oxygen levels, a special protocol is necessary to check accuracy at lower oxygen, which better simulates an actual health crisis. The doctors collected readings with a range of people using several pulse ox models, then checked their readings against a different kind of test based on arterial blood gas, the “gold standard” test for oxygen levels. (The latter measure is more invasive, requiring blood from an artery, which is why the pulse ox is often used as a proxy in hospitals.)
“Most pulse oximeters have probably been calibrated using light-skinned individuals, with the assumption that skin pigment does not matter.”
Crosschecking these two measures over 1,067 data points, the team found a clear pattern of errors. For nonwhite people the machines mostly tended to overestimate saturation levels by several points. The study only included participants who identified as Black or white, but the authors noted that degrees of errors have also been observed among Latinx, Indigenous, and many other nonwhite people. The team’s follow-up study , published in 2007, focused on safety errors for people with “intermediate” skin tones and included a larger group of women. This more detailed data again found a clear pattern: pulse ox “bias was generally the greatest in dark-skinned subjects, intermediate for intermediate skin tones, and least for lightly pigmented individuals.” Racial errors grew significant at lower oxygen levels, starting around 90 and growing widest in the 70s.
In principle, the implications can be troubling. The night we first got a pulse ox, my husband woke up with his oxygen at 77. In their studies of that low saturation range, the UCSF doctors noticed “a bias of up to 8 percent . . . in individuals with darkly pigmented skin,” errors that “may be quite significant under some circumstances.” Thus, for a nonwhite person, a reading of 77 like my husband’s could hide a true saturation as low as 69—even greater immediate danger. But EMTs or intake nurses might not be able to detect those discrepancies during triage. The number appears objective and race-neutral.
Indeed, while the oximeter is a key tool for some patients in deciding when to go to the hospital, it’s also what they use at the hospital. Clinical guidance about giving oxygen tends to be loosely keyed to a certain threshold of oxygen saturation; protocols recommend particular interventions at 88, 90, and 92 percent, for example. Racial errors in these higher saturation ranges tend to be narrower disparities of one to four percentage points, but they still can mislead if they go undetected. In particular situations, another study notes, errors of that margin “may severely affect the treatment decisions in borderline cases.”
This might seem like a fine point, but medicine is made of fine points that turn into ordinary decisions. Using the UCSF data, one company’s illustrations demonstrate the skin color variability of three brands of pulse oximeters (Nonin, Nellcor, and Masimo) for one of the most common clinical decision points: a reading of 88 percent. Pulse ox readings can also be affected by conditions such as anemia, jaundice, poor circulation, and nail polish. Physicians in a clinic may not distinguish errors stemming from an underlying condition and those caused by the device’s bias on darker skin. The UCSF lab data are revealing on this point. The study participants were “healthy, nonsmoking” Black and white young people in their twenties and thirties, mostly UCSF medical students, none of whom “had lung disease, obesity, or cardiovascular problems.” This pool of participants allowed the researchers to isolate skin color calibration errors alone, eliminating misreadings due to underlying comorbidities.
“Pulse ox bias was generally the greatest in dark-skinned subjects, intermediate for intermediate skin tones, and least for lightly pigmented individuals.”
Most hospital protocols now recommend starting oxygen at 90. Below that threshold damage to vital organs such as the heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys becomes an immediate danger. In a mixed general population, a true blood oxygen saturation of 88 percent would, on average, produce a pulse ox reading of 89 to 90 using the most common meter in hospitals. In that case, guidelines would correctly suggest going on oxygen. But Black patients, equally in crisis at 88, would get an average reading of 91—just above the intervention threshold.
Physicians disagree on the clinical significance of these discrepancies. Do slight racial errors really matter in practice? Like any vital sign, pulse ox readings are one among many factors considered when making a critical care decision. Most caregivers I spoke to noted that a nurse or doctor on careful watch, drawing on a range of other information, would use their training to pick out patterns and place numbers in broader context alongside a patient’s perceived sense of distress. One critical care specialist told me she felt that the errors found by the UCSF studies would not change the care that patients with darker skin receive where she worked. I could imagine how that may be true in particular cases such as hers, but no one had collected reassuring evidence about the topic at her hospital—much less nationally or globally—so I found myself staring at the disquieting graphs of the only systematic data available as she told anecdotes about how she would contextualize such readings. I hung up the phone feeling unsettled by her words: there was “usually” no way this could matter, she said. Her insights helped me formulate a more elusive question: What about those moments that fall outside usually?
In my own experience this spring, the hospital’s pulse ox gave a reading of 91 exactly as I arrived at the ER with trouble breathing. I was told that around 90 might mean I needed oxygen, while 91 meant wait and see. This seemed to be the rule of thumb in use, though it did not appear hard and fast. I did not receive crosschecks such as an arterial blood gas test. Such procedures are much more common in critical care units, but 95 percent of people coping with coronavirus today never end up there. The ER nursing team around me seemed to be looking at the pulse ox numbers very closely. They were wary about the “happy hypoxia” associated with COVID-19. Before long my oxygen came up a few points and I was sent home, still with difficulty breathing, now with instructions to keep isolating and buy a pulse ox. I am white, and these calls worked out. But a Black person with the same pulse ox reading at intake could have been at or below the threshold to get oxygen. How would anyone have known for sure?
These concerns don’t end with clinical practice, either. Medicare reimbursement also uses pulse ox measures as key thresholds, with much less nuance than a nurse or doctor. At a reading of 88 or 89, Medicare will reimburse for oxygen at home, but at 90 it won’t. In effect, this means people with darker skin may have to be sicker in order to qualify for the same treatment as people white skin. This could lead to delays in recovery, worse outcomes, and greater likelihoods of future comorbidities as patients wait for the meter to catch up to bodily realities.
“People with darker skin may have to be sicker in order to qualify for the same treatment as people white skin.”
Some caregivers I spoke with sounded exhausted to field questions about pulse ox biases. They were beleaguered, no doubt, by a thousand other COVID-19 contingencies and more obvious manifestations of inequities. Even if they had never noticed glitches, it could be painful to wonder. Others I spoke to argued that any racial discrepancies at all were simply unacceptable. When people rely on devices for a snapshot, just as with Kodak film, shouldn’t everyone’s picture be equally clear? Anything less widens room for mistakes that may amplify existing inequalities. It creates a situation where hospital care teams need to work around the subtle racial biases of their tools.
“How is racism operating here? ” The physician, epidemiologist, and civil rights activist Camara Phyllis Jones urges health practitioners to ask this question throughout their work. In the case of pulse oximetry, errors of slight degrees mean a lot more than they otherwise might because of the larger patterns of inadvertent racism in hospitals they plug into. Nonwhite patients are already more likely to have identical signs classified as less urgent by physicians , as decades of research documenting unintentional medical racism shows. Measurement errors falsely indicating that hospitalized patients are safer than they are could further contribute to suboptimal care. As caregivers argue , “Any decision making rooted in implicit bias is detrimental” when “an incorrect assumption could literally mean the difference between life and death.”
Amid problems with unreliable testing for COVID-19, for example, some patients of color report being dismissed from the ER by doctors attributing their difficulty breathing to anxiety. In fact, in the name of combatting known treatment disparities in ERs, the Association of American Medical Colleges suggests hospitals “remove as much individual discretion as possible,” instead seeking “objective measures” to help doctors overcome “implicit biases that providers don’t even know they have.” In reality, the policy could further amplify the problem in cases where seemingly objective measures like pulse ox readings themselves display hidden racial bias. What happens when efforts to overcome physician bias rely on devices that are also biased?
On top of this, pulse ox data is a key vital sign being fed into the algorithms that increasingly guide hospital decisions . As reported in Nature and Science, many algorithms already suggest inadequate care along patterned racial divides: patients of color have to be sicker, on average, in order to receive the same interventions as white patients. They are less likely to be promptly identified for ICU admission, even with otherwise identical profiles. Yet algorithmic tools such as the EPIC “Deterioration Index” can only aspire to be as good as the instruments feeding data into them. With pulse ox disparities, what are machines learning from these distorted inputs? The proprietary EPIC Early Warning equation incorporates the Rothman Index , and half of the eight cut-off numbers for oxygen saturation built into that measure are in the range for racial errors. Like the problems magnified by “the coded gaze” of algorithms elsewhere , even small racial disparities could amplify unequal outputs.
Beyond the pulse ox alone, this also matters for other wearable chromatic devices and the algorithms they feed. Pretending that they are colorblind can further amplify how “Racism, Not Genetics, Explains Why Black Americans Are Dying of COVID-19 .” I called my colleague from MIT’s Little Devices Lab , Jose Gomez-Marquez, whose research involves prying open devices to understand their inner workings. He always knows the latest med-tech rumors, and I wanted to ask if there was some inside story about recalibrating oximeters more recently. Had there been some quiet racial justice work that already made corrections for its biased design?
“Nonwhite patients are already more likely to have identical signs classified as less urgent by physicians.”
None that he’d heard of, Jose said. Oximeters predated much of the current DIY digital medical technology scene, developed across Europe, North America, and Japan decades ago. Among makers today, the device is often considered simple to the point of being child’s play, in comparison to the cutting-edge spaces where most groups compete for prestigious breakthroughs and lucrative markets.
For devices shaped by “discriminatory design ,” as sociologist of science and technology Ruha Benjamin calls it, inequalities that are not intentional can still produce patterned exclusions and unequal rates of survival. The UCSF doctors who documented these disparities suggested “built-in user-optional adjustments” be designed into future models. But more than a decade later, I couldn’t find any examples on the market. The doctors also concluded that, at bare minimum, “warning labels should be provided to users, possibly with suggested correction factors.” I checked the box my pulse ox came in, but it only had fine print about inaccuracies linked to dark nail polish.
When I reached out to the team behind those breakthrough UCSF studies fifteen years ago, Professors Philip Bickler and John Feiner, they confirmed that they had not yet seen evidence of the change they hoped for around this issue. Bickler—now chief of neuroanesthesia, UCSF professor, and collaborating director of the Hypoxia Lab—said that as far as he was aware, “Manufacturers, as a group, have not responded at all adequately to this problem.” He notes that he views the current state of oximetry as a “great example of a bias in medical technology that disenfranchises a huge percentage of the earth’s population,” which especially worries him with “COVID-19 disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx populations.”
One pulse ox manufacturer, Nonin, sought to address race-based errors in their devices back in the 2000s. A page of their website explains their work so far in comparison to their larger competitors. Several other companies in the original study also graciously replied to my questions, but none provided data showing the problem has been fixed. I combed through published studies they pointed to for context. The most widely quoted was a study from 2017 , which several companies presented as a bright spot showing that oximetry readings were not racially biased among thirty-five infants. (Other studies have shown that babies’ low melanin production and the much thinner microstructure of newborn skin leave them less susceptible to chromatic measures’ racial bias .) This is reassuring news for infant ICUs but it does not tell us the device errors have been fixed for others: the study itself notes standing disparities for adults.
One of the largest manufacturers said they had reassuring internal data for one specific line of models, but that response left me wondering about the many other models they sell to hospitals today. Companies should create public-facing record and global historical memory of any such corrective work that already happened, behind the scenes of our health systems’ privatized patchworks, to let us all know clearly where things stand. After all, these are not new questions: while COVID-19 gives new emphasis to the pulse ox, the device has long been crucial for treating respiratory conditions with their own histories of chronic racial biases in diagnosis and care.
“Manufacturers, as a group, have not responded at all adequately to this problem.”
At present, there seems to be little consensus among doctors, too, about what to make of the available studies, including those cited in 2019 textbooks on the need to correct for devices’ racial errors. One such study still being reprinted from 1990 recounts data showing the pulse ox target used for white patients on ventilators, 92, often resulted in hypoxia for Black patients ; for this patient group, a pulse ox reading of 95 corresponded to an arterial blood gas reading of 92. Yet several doctors I checked with said they never learned this, even back in 1990. Should health care providers be aware of these significant errors, or are textbooks teaching doctors outdated corrections that could also potentially do harm by leading to confusion or wrong adjustments? Companies should be transparent, assessing and clarifying any margins of racial bias on their websites, because getting this wrong in either direction could amplify racial care disparities.
Until then, the pulse ox could be read as a case study of systemic racism in miniature—a nexus where, as anthropologists note, black boxes and public secrets often go hand in hand. Since the original UCSF study ended with a call to action, it is disturbing to track its afterlife in the medical literature and within the contours of the present pandemic. Later studies citing the UCSF work often imply the bodies of nonwhite people are to blame for making the device malfunction. Most recently, one 2020 study attributed race-based pulse ox errors to “co-morbidities upon which the device is used.” But the participants in that study had no underlying medical conditions; they were healthy young Black people.
In the 1990s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stopped allowing all-white male study samples. But mostly white study samples are still the norm; current guidelines suggest including at least two people with “darkly pigmented” skin in a group otherwise 85 percent white. Yet this can still obscure errors due to racial bias, by allowing those few participants’ data points to be cast as outers clusters in white-centric safety standards. As scholar of institutional cultures Sara Ahmed explains, this type of structure for “being included” still reproduces and recasts the norms of an unmarked white center, “against which others appear as points of deviation.”
Oneearly literature review commenting on pulse ox racial bias, for example, highlighted several studies showing “significantly more signal quality problems” for Black patients. It also covered one study that did not find any bias—but the reviewers noted that the last study only included four Black patients in a group of twenty-one subjects, so “the population size was probably too small to show up minor differences in pulse oximetry performance.” That study, critiqued as inconclusive to assess bias because it had under-sampled people of color back in 1991, included the exact ratio of Black participants that the FDA guidelines still recommend including today.
“Mostly white study samples are still the norm.”
The UCSF studies provided an illuminating alternative model to correct such issues: by collecting data for equal-sized subgroups, they broke the numbers down to check whether it was equally safe for each group. This showed something the FDA study designs had worryingly missed: the most common oximeters in U.S. hospitals at the time did not meet FDA thresholds of safety for people with darker skin . When those data points get blended into mostly white statistics, the data may look fine. In this, the pulse ox is also a microcosm for the problems facing our democracy. Equal safety does not mean majority-fits-all.
These devices’ subtle inequities are also haunted by much deeper histories of racism in science and medicine. During the time when corporations rose from plantations , machines to measure breathing were designed to quantify—and justify—racial hierarchies. These orders were built on the idea that skin color itself was a comorbidity. Medical doctors of the era argued that violent regimes of Black enslavement and Indigenous dispossession were not unjust because they held important health benefits for the supposedly inherently dysfunctional biologies of nonwhite people. Certain devices to measure breathing became part of larger machines to keep people in place, as historian Lundy Braun shows in her work on this medical legacy. This is part of larger patterns that scholars such as Dorothy Roberts and Anne Fausto-Sterling show get continuously encoded into medical school curricula and scientific health research taken to be cutting-edge . Even today, in many clinics, the spirometer often has a “race button” as a legacy of this disturbing history.
Oximeters, by contrast, were first conceived to monitor and protect the breathing capacities of those with privileged mobility. It is no coincidence that novelist Esi Edugyan imagined freedom’s trajectory as a hot air balloon ride over a sugar plantation: in fact, the idea for oximetry began at that height. Hot air balloon experiments I n the 1800s led to the development of blood oxygen saturation measures after scientist-adventurers became paralyzed while airborne, as made famous across Europe and the Americas by scientist Paul Bert ’s studies of the Zenith (though the pulse oximeter as known today wouldn’t be realized until decades later, by Takuo Aoyagi ). Now crucial to the practice of anesthesiology, the device was initially most popular among those able to reach high altitude: pilots, astronauts, mountaineers . Oximetry’s origins came from the sciences of safety for white flight, and pulse oximeters still protect people unevenly against a virus that causes difficulty breathing, in ways that some experts liken to falling oxygen at high altitude.
There is no reason to build these disparities into the next generation of technologies. Yet that is exactly what will happen if we don’t take active steps to remove existing racial biases. The pulse ox’s unequal metrics are one among countless converging factors that stack the deck against nonwhite people facing systemic inequities. Yet there will never be one single reset button for history, activists remind us; the hard work ahead is tackling each facet of such inequity as it comes into view. Rather than normalized inequalities, the pulse ox could become a case study in everyday repair work , as Toni Morrison calls it—small, material, mundane practices in the direction of justice. In the face of vastly unfinished racial reckoning and historical repair , it matters all the more to do the work of investing in the small chances for concrete action right now in our hands.
“Pulse oximeters protect people unevenly against a virus that causes difficulty breathing.”
Engineers at MIT, for example, say adding adjustable LED lights to pulse oximeters could enable devices to set individualized baselines for each wearer, tailoring accuracy and fostering equitable safety. The technical capacity already exists. Funding from the National Institutes of Health could help fast-track long overdue corrections as part of a broad consortium coming together to fix this problem, to share progress so far and resources moving forward. With COVID-19 death tolls already over 160,000 in the United States alone and rising daily, the pulse ox is a vital tool for survival. It should not work least accurately for those whose health is most in danger .
These patterned errors are disturbingly symbolic traces of whose safety our institutions and technologies were built for, leaving people of color to hope that less than equal will be good enough. Truly rethinking collective safety and justice means teaching the next generation—and trying to learn ourselves—how to build worlds that don’t normalize anymargin of error that would disproportionately obfuscate patients’ vital signs based on the color of their skin. Each moment until this work exists, oximeters remain another disturbing materialization of how white supremacy has been built into our systems and infrastructures of perception—even programmed into the very machines we rely on to quantify danger when someone can’t breathe.
Amy Moran-Thomas is Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology at MIT. Her research bridges the anthropology of health and environment (chronic disease, ecological and agricultural change, metabolism and nutrition) with ethnographic studies of science and technology (medical devices, chemical infrastructures, technology and kinship). She is author of Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic (2019) and teaches on The Social Lives of Medical Objects at MIT.
A Harvard researcher has declared that Africans are the only race that has 100 percent human DNA while the rest have Neanderthal DNA in them. While this seems controversial another separate study colludes with the Harvard study.
Dr. David Emil Reich, a genetics professor at Harvard, and his colleagues analyzed the genetic variants of 846 non-African people, 175 people who live in the sub-Saharan region of Africa, and a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal man.
They have found out that nine genetic variants found in humans are associated with specific traits that can be found in Neanderthals. The same genetic variants are the same ones responsible for such diseases, such as Type-2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, optic disk size, and biliary cirrhosis.
The Harvard researcher and his team also found that this Neanderthal DNA affects how keratin filaments developed. As opposed to humans, Neanderthals have more keratin filaments than humans making their skin tougher. This allows them to survive in harsh, cold, climates. That DNA was beneficial to the human survival in such climates.
A separate study conducted by Dr. Benjamin Vernot and Dr. Joshua Akey from the University of Washington yielded the same conclusion after the scientists analyzed the genetic makeup of 286 East Asians and 379 Europeans.
According to the duo, Neanderthal skin genes are present in Europeans and East Asians. On the other hand, the rest of the genes are not compatible with the human genome and they most probably become extinct. One area of the human genome where the Neanderthal DNA is absent is that which affects human language and speech.
Harvard researcher DR. Reich said that the goal of the study is to understand how this DNA impact the biological impact of how human and Neanderthal DNA flow. It will also show the scientists what genes have been preserved and which ones have been rejected through the process of natural selection.
This canyon in Jefferson County originally had the N-word in its name and was renamed John Brown Canyon in 2013. Many Oregon geographical features still contain the word “Negro” in their names. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Humanities)
The names serve as a reminder of the state’s colonial history while also providing clues to early Black presence
Editor’s note: This story contains racist epithets that some readers may find triggering. Watering down the toxicity of these words in the context of this story, we felt, would dilute the racist reality still present in Oregon’s geographic features.
Racist monuments have been toppling at the speed of reckoning throughout the country in the wake of George Floyd’s execution by police. Whether it be the statue of Thomas Jefferson being unceremoniously dismounted from the front entrance of the North Portland school that bares his name or Mississippi lawmakers voting to remove the Confederate battle emblem from their state’s flag this week, the layout of America is beginning to look different. However, in Oregon, some of the state’s legacy is more insidiously stitched into the fabric of its colonial roots.
There are more than a dozen geographic features in the state featuring the word “Negro” in their name, inlcuding Negro Ridge and Negro Hallow just southeast of The Dalles in Sherman County, Negro Gulch and Negro Knob mountain peak in Grant County, and Negro Creek in Douglas County. The use of the outdated term for Black Americans was used to replace the epithet “nigger” by the federal U.S. Board of Geographic Names in the 1960s across the country.
Locally, the president of that organization’s subsidiary, Bruce Fisher of the Oregon Geographic Names Board, describes his faction’s role as being more passive.
“We typically have to wait for someone to come with a proposal. We’re not proactive,” he said, “we’re reactive.”
Once a proposal is submitted, the 25-person board of volunteers goes to work on researching the history of the place, its surrounding area and how it came to be, to inform a vote on whether to move it up to the chain of command for a final decision.
One of the proposals they’ll consider in October is to change the name of Negro Ben Mountain in Jackson County. The mountain appears to derive its name from a local blacksmith who owned a shop at the base of the mountain in the late 1800s, a Black man by the name of Ben. While Census records show a man by the name of Ben Johnson and his wife, both listed as “mulatto,” living in the area, historians cannot say with certainty that they are in fact the same people, meaning the mountain’s namesake likely has been lost forever.
As part of the research for this proposal, the Jackson County commissioners were contacted and responded that they have “no opinion on the matter.”
The documentary pieces together the history of John A. Brown, Oregon’s first known Black homesteader.
“He made his life there,” said Stanton, who had no idea of the 900-acre canyon’s existence before the project, despite living in Oregon for more than a decade. “It’s a shame that this history was lost or that there wasn’t more documentation of it because how he got there, how he was able to thrive there — I’m just so curious to know more.”
What is known of the man further reveals a life of cultivation and defiance. Although it was constitutionally illegal for Black people to own property in Oregon at the time, he came in, likely by way of Canada around the time of the Gold Rush. After working the land for number of years, Brown managed to acquire the title to the 160-acre property close to the Deschutes River where he would grow fruits and vegetables, selling parts of his crop in nearby Prineville. Eventually he would sell part of his property, before dying in 1903 around the age of 63.
He’s said to have had a daughter, but a lack of documentation makes it difficult to trace the extent of his family tree. While there are rumblings of possible Brown descendants in the Portland-area today, no one can say with certainty at present.
A small headstone was erected in Brown’s honor in 2007 by the Crook County Genealogy and Historical Societies in Prinveville, where he’s buried.
Despite Fisher’s assertion that the Oregon Geographic Name Board is mostly passive, he does note it was actually then board member Jarold Ramsey who filed this name change proposal.
It was renamed from Negro Brown Canyon to John A. Brown canyon in 2013.
Problematic terrain doesn’t end with this canyon, or even anti-Blackness in the Beaver State though. Features named for “Dead Indians,” a “Jew Valley” and terms like “Chinaman” and the equally misogynistic and racist “squaw” permeate the trails, creeks and mountains that carve out Oregon’s majestic landscape in droves.
Fisher says his board is considering about 20 name-change proposals at present. “There’s been a lot more activity on (renaming offensive feature names) worldwide in the last year,” he said.
Once a proposal clears the federal level, the change is made almost instantaneously in their database, which will be reflected on digital platforms like Google Maps quickly. However, physical maps can take years to update, he said, because of a downtick in their usage in the face of the massive takeover of technology.
However, the pathway to upending Oregon’s colonial roots remains a tireless one.
Although the board is deciding whether to change the name of Negro Ben Mountain, the road that surrounds it bears the same name and is simultaneously out of their jurisdiction.
Examples as such are plentiful throughout the state.
“A number of our counties are named after people with backgrounds that were racist, pro-slavery or KKK,” said Fisher, who noted that Lane County is named for Joseph Lane, one of the state’s first legislators and a documented slaveowner.
Stanton said ultimately wiping offensive names from Oregon’s geography cuts down to something much deeper than policy: humanity.
“How can you value someone’s contributions if you’re disrespecting them in how you speak about them?” she said. “I think by correcting those names, it’s part of all the work that we’re doing to kind of rewrite history and re-tell Black people’s place in it because it’s been erased basically by the white supremacists who’ve written and told the history up until this point.”