by Barbara Forrest-Ball Manager, OSU Deaf and Hard of Hearing Access Services, Liaison with Commission on the Status of Black Faculty and Staff, OSU Faculty Advisor, Letitia Carson Project | Header image: Pegrowe62 (Peggy A Rowe-Snyder) Wikipedia
Iam a person with intersecting identities. I view myself as a work in progress—a state of continual becoming. Events both past and present continually transform my identity as a Black woman.
Recently, I participated in a series of events which affected me both personally and as a member of society. On May 25, the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, I attended the first annual State of Black Affairs Summit sponsored by Oregon State University’s President’s Commission on the Status of Black Faculty and Staff Affairs. Juneteenth was celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time on Monday, June 20. Both of these events were powerful in their own right. But it was the Letitia Carson Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18 that had the most impact. Standing on an open expanse of land with a group of colleagues, friends, and community members, we honored the remarkable story and tenacious spirit of a courageous Black woman who lived in Oregon in the mid-1800s. We also paid homage to the Kalapuya, the Indigenous people who originally owned this land. Letitia Carson represents fearlessness in the face of racial discrimination at a time when Black-identified people were still enslaved in parts of this country, and her story is quite remarkable.
Who is Letitia Carson?
We don’t know much about Letitia’s life. She was an enslaved Black woman born in Kentucky. In 1845, she came to Oregon with David Carson, who was born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States. We don’t know the exact nature of their relationship, but Letitia did give birth to their daughter, Martha, while traveling on the Oregon Trail (they had a son, Adam, several years later). David filed a claim for 640 acres as permitted for married couples by the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850. Once officials realized that David and Letitia weren’t married—it would have been illegal since she was Black—their claim was reduced to 320 acres.
In 1852, David died without a will. One of his neighbors, Greenberry Smith, was assigned as the administrator of David’s estate. He did not recognize Letitia and her children as David’s heirs because Letitia was Black. In fact, he may have thought she was David’s slave. Smith sold everything David owned, including his land and possessions. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Letitia had to actually buy back her own personal items and a few head of cattle to sustain herself and her children.
However, because Letitia was living in Oregon when the Black exclusion laws of 1844 and 1849 were not in effect, she was able to sue Greenberry Smith twice: first to recover her property that was unlawfully sold, and second for compensation from David’s estate. She won both lawsuits and was awarded damages and court fees.
A Black woman, in Oregon, in the 1800s, successfully sued a white man, with a white jury hearing both cases. This is nothing short of amazing!
The Letitia Carson Legacy Project
The Letitia Carson Legacy Project was formed in 2021, and its goal is “to preserve, interpret, and activate a plot of land in Benton County’s Soap Creek Valley which was once home to Letitia Carson.”
Soap Creek Valley is north of Corvallis. Homesteaded through the 1800s, the federal government acquired the land in 1941 as part of Camp Adair. In 1947, after the military quarters was deactivated, Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) acquired 6,200 acres of this land, including most of the land that was claimed by David and Letitia Carson. Currently, the land is included in OSU’s beef ranch.
The university recently recognized the significance of this land as it relates to Oregon’s history of both Indigenous and Black people and as such, realized its obligation to honor those who came before. Part of that work includes sharing Letitia Carson’s incredible story.
Other partners have joined Oregon State in this effort, including Oregon Black Pioneers, Black Oregon Land Trust, and Linn-Benton NAACP. The event on June 18th was the one-year anniversary of the first time the group gathered on the land.
Representatives from all four partners were present at the event. Lauren Gwin, Associate Director of the Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, introduced Zachary Stocks, who is the Executive Director of Oregon Black Pioneers—“Oregon’s only historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of African Americans statewide.”
Stocks regaled attendees with the fascinating tale of Letitia Carson. And while I was familiar with Letitia’s story, hearing Stocks make history come alive was just as thrilling as the first time I heard it.
Stocks encouraged us to take a moment to look around us and take a picture of this beautiful land. This is the picture I took:
Jason Dorsette, Executive Director of Institutional Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion at Linn-Benton Community College and current President of the Linn-Benton NAACP, spoke with passion about the dual celebrations of Juneteenth at LBCC and the Letitia Carson Project as he shared the importance of the life of Letitia Carson. The website Juneteenth.com defines the event as, “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.” For many of us Black Americans, Juneteenth is our Independence Day.
Shantae Johnson is with the Black Oregon Land Trust, a “a nonprofit community trust dedicated to ensuring that Black farmers and land stewards in Oregon permanently and collectively own their land.” She has spoken of Letitia Carson as a collective Mother to Black women, a sentiment I strongly share. When Shantae first visited the land with her partner and children, they saw a herd of elk. They felt the herd was welcoming them to this special place.
The most special guest was David Martin, a direct descendant of Martha Carson, Letitia’s daughter. He is a soft-spoken man who was appreciative of the outpouring of well-wishes and gratitude from the attendees.
While the majority of those gathered were in celebration mode, several students from the College of Agricultural Sciences were also working, gathering and examining soil samples as part of an effort to better understand the land and its history.
According to the Letitia Carson Legacy Project website, the following activities have been planned for 2022 and 2023:
- Creation of a digital history exhibit and traveling “pop up” exhibit
- Archaeological exploration at the homestead site, starting June 2022
- Small-scale, on-site programming, including field trips and public events, that are compatible with current management
- Outreach to engage and activate the OSU community and external partners
As this project continues to evolve, I hope that we will learn more not only about Letitia Carson, but also other fearless Black pioneers who, against seemingly insurmountable odds, challenged, succeeded, and thrived despite the harsh, race-based laws of the 1800s. Currently, we are going through a painful upheaval of social change in this country, and many fear the fabric of our nation may be irrevocably torn. It is all the more crucial to look to Letitia Carson and other courageous trailblazers of the past as examples of what we can accomplish in the present.
For more information about the Letitia Carson Legacy Project or the organizations supporting the project, please visit the following websites:
Oregon State University: https://letitiacarson.oregonstate.edu/
Oregon Black Pioneers: https://oregonblackpioneers.org/
Black Oregon Land Trust: https://www.blackoregonlandtrust.org/
Linn-Benton NAACP: https://linnbentonnaacp.com/
If you would like to become involved in the project, please contact Lauren Gwin (Lauren.Gwin@oregonstate.edu) or Larry Landis (Larry.Landis@oregonstate.edu).