On the second day of Black History Month, Lane County commissioners unanimously approved a resolution that acknowledges the destruction of Lane County’s first Black neighborhood, commits county public works projects to follow the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and memorializes the history of the Ferry Street Village.
At the Feb. 2 Lane County Board of County Commissioners’ meeting, Director of Public Works Dan Hurley presented the item to commissioners, prefacing that he has lived in the area for most of his life but hadn’t heard of the bulldozing of the Ferry Street Village until a co-worker shared the article “Civic Unity Comes to Lane County” by Mike Wolfe, published in the Lane County Historian in its Fall 2019 issue. “It’s a failing of our education system to not highlight our local and Oregon black history,” Hurley said.
In the 1940s, Black residents couldn’t live safely within the Eugene city limits due to deed restrictions against selling or renting to people of color and being a “sundown town,” according to board materials. In 1948, Lane County issued a notice for the Black residents to vacate the area to build the Ferry Street Bridge on the north shore of the Willamette River in Eugene. On July 16, 1949, the county obtained a court order that demanded the area be vacated within 10 days. On Aug. 24, a bulldozer destroyed all of the homes in the area and a neighborhood church. To construct the bridge, 101 people living on the site (65 of whom Black and 36 white) were displaced to three new sites without water, electricity or sanitation services.
According to “Civic Unity Comes to Lane County,” a Lane County commissioner directed bulldozers to raze beyond the borders that had been initially outlined in the notices, resulting in residents scrambling to collect their possessions and flee.
At the meeting, Hurley said there is no visible physical evidence of the Ferry Street Village or memorial installations for public education about the history of the county’s first Black neighborhood.
“I bet most people would be completely shocked, and had no idea that this occurred here in the county,” Lane County Commissioner Heather Buch said. “It’s great to know that information even though it’s a poor, bad horrible history. But we need to know it in order to move forward in community and work on race conversations and how we can as a county lead in that direction.”
Commissioner Jay Boziviech agreed, saying people need to learn this history just as we learn about the Holocaust, Korea and World War II. “Understanding that we don’t hold the current residents responsible, just as I don’t hold the current German population responsible for the Holocaust,” he added. “We have to understand our past to move forward into the future.”
Buch said she first heard about the Ferry Street Village in an email from a resident. She then brought it to the board. On July 21, 2020, the board directed staff to draft a resolution acknowledging the neighborhood and exploring installing a memorial as part of a larger walking tour of the Black experience in the area, according to board materials.
Commissioners unanimously approved a four-part resolution that acknowledges the history of the Ferry Street Village and that public works projects have historically disproportionately affected people of color. Lane County will also commit $10,000 to memorialize the first Black neighborhood. The county will work with the city of Eugene on the project.
The resolution also commits Lane County to adhere to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Hurley said only federal projects are required to follow that law. “But we are committed to doing that for all large public works projects,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Hurley said that he and other Public Works staff met with Eric Richardson, executive director of Eugene/Springfield NAACP. Richardson was excited about the memorial and at the idea of incorporating it into a walking tour of Black history of the area, Hurley added.
The city of Eugene started public outreach on art installation by BIPOC artists at the new Riverfront Park and four others including Alton Baker Park, which was once a part of Ferry Street Village. The city has asked the county to provide $10,000 to develop plans for a memorial. Hurley said he would return to the board during the next budget period to ask for more money to complete the memorial.
Although the razing of the Ferry Street Village happened more than 70 years ago, Hurley said Willie Mims, whose parents purchased the Mims House and offered it as a safe haven for Black travelers, is likely the last living resident. Hurley added that Mims has memories of living in the neighborhood. “It would be great to memorialize this while he’s still with us,” he said.