Louis Southworth, slave who bought his freedom and homesteaded near Oregon coast, chosen as namesake of new park

Jamie Linger

By CHERI BRUBAKER, YachatsNews.com Louis Southworth, who traveled the Oregon Trail to Oregon in the 1850s as a young Black slave, bought his freedom for $1,000 in 1858. As a free man, he homesteaded near Alsea Bay just east of Waldport and eventually donated land for the area’s first school. […]

By CHERI BRUBAKER, YachatsNews.com

Louis Southworth, who traveled the Oregon Trail to Oregon in the 1850s as a young Black slave, bought his freedom for $1,000 in 1858. As a free man, he homesteaded near Alsea Bay just east of Waldport and eventually donated land for the area’s first school.

So when the city of Waldport was searching for a name for a new 12-acre park, Jesse Dolin, a destination coordinator for the Oregon Coast Visitors Association who grew up near Southworth’s one-time homestead, suggested naming it after the prominent early Black resident.

In May, the Waldport City Council officially agreed on the name Louis Southworth Park. In August, the visitors association contracted with a bronze artist to create a statue of the Black homesteader for a signature entrance to the park. It drew on its public arts budget funded by Travel Oregon’s rural cooperative tourism program.

LONG TIME IN THE MAKING

The Waldport City Council devoted years to determining the best use of the big field that was formerly the campus of Waldport Middle/High School.

The land became available when the Lincoln County School District, with $3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, moved the school out of the tsunami zone in 2013. As part of the agreement with FEMA, the city of Waldport could only use the site for a park or open space — no asphalt and no buildings, other than a restroom.

For almost a decade the city held meetings, gathered ideas, comments and made plans. Then, progress stopped.

“We had plans, but we had no money,” Waldport City Manager Dann Cutter said.

But now with funding from the federal government stimulus plan, the city is trying to get the project moving.

The first piece of the 12-acre puzzle is the entrance off the current parking lot along Crestview Drive. The bronze statue – likely of Southworth sitting on a bench playing his fiddle – will be cast by artist Peter Helzer of Eugene.

WHO WAS LOUIS SOUTHWORTH?

It is not clear if Southworth’s first name was spelled Louis or Lewis. While his father’s last name was Hunter, Louis was born into slavery and therefore given the surname of his enslaver, James Southworth of Tennessee. It was James Southworth who brought the young man with him to Oregon.

Historical accounts of Louis Southworth’s life and birthdate vary — his gravestone says July 4, 1830. Historians agree that in the early 1850s, Southworth came to the Oregon Territory on the Oregon Trail. He arrived in Oregon even though an 1844 exclusion law passed prohibited Blacks from settling in Oregon.

The Corvallis Weekly Gazette Times reported that Southworth bought his freedom around 1858 with $1,000 earned by working in gold mines in southern Oregon and California and playing the fiddle at gatherings and schools.

Peggy Baldwin, an Oregon genealogist with a master’s degree in library science, wrote about Southworth in the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Encyclopedia as well as the essay, “A Legacy Beyond the Generations.”

She wrote that Southworth first settled in Polk County around 1870, establishing a livery stable and blacksmith shop in downtown Buena Vista. He married Mary Cooper in 1873 and learned to read and write at Buena Vista Academy where his stepson, Alvin McCleary, attended school.

According to an account by McCleary, Louis Southworth and a white friend, Jim Doty, traveled four miles up the Alsea Bay, selecting land on both sides of a creek — Doty settling on the north side and Southworth on the south. The land had been claimed by a white man who abandoned it, and the man’s father allowed Southworth to settle it, Baldwin wrote.

Between 1880 and 1885, Southworth built a house and barn, had more than 10 acres of land in cultivation and 27 acres cleared and sown in grass.

Louis Southworth is shown with his violin in two historic photos from later in his life. His skill at the instrument helped him buy his freedom, and he loved it dearly. When told he would have to choose between leaving his church or quitting the instrument, he opted for the former, saying “I could not think of parting with the fiddle.”

He became a fixture in the town of Waldport, ferrying people across upper Alsea Bay and often playing his fiddle at dances. He proudly and infamously cast his vote in the election of 1880, rowing across the Alsea Bay in a storm to do so.

Perhaps most notable was Southworth’s donation of half an acre of land on the Alsea River east of Waldport for the area’s first school. He became one of its three school board members.

But the local Baptist church told Southworth he couldn’t attend services unless he stopped playing his fiddle.

“Was brought up a Baptist,” Baldwin wrote about Southworth in her essay. “But the brethren would not stand for my fiddle, which was about all the company I had most of the time. So I told them to keep me in the church with my fiddle if they could, but to turn me out if they must; for I could not think of parting with the fiddle. I reckon my name isn’t written in their books here any more; but I somehow hope it’s written in the big book up yonder, where they aren’t so particular about the fiddles.”

OREGON’S RACIST PAST

In addition to the exclusion law of 1844, the 1857 Oregon Constitution indicated, “No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein.” Southworth appears to have been living in Oregon already and thus would have been exempt from the racist ban. The prohibition was not repealed until 1926.

In her account for the Oregon Historical Society, Baldwin said hostility toward Blacks was expressed openly in the early days of Oregon’s statehood, such as by Asabel Bush, publisher of the Oregon Statesman, equating Negros voting to goats and cows running for office. It’s not surprising, Baldwin wrote, that only 54 Blacks were counted in the 1850 census, and the share of Blacks in Oregon didn’t pass 1% until 1960.

Southworth appears to have been held in high regard in the Waldport area. The creek he settled on was named Darkey Creek and the road off what is now Oregon Highway 34 was known as Darkey Creek Road.

Historic name of a road near Southworth's  homestead

Darkey Creek Road was renamed to Forest Service Road 3489 some 14 years after the name of the nearby creek was changed to Southworth Creek.

The name using the archaic slur was shocking for many modern-day Oregonians unaware of Southworth, his history and contributions to Waldport. While it was likely not meant to be derogatory — and some suggested Southworth may have named the creek himself — the name did not survive the test of time.

Outrage over the name made national news in 1999 when the Oregon Geographic Names Board initially voted not to change the name from Darkey Creek to Southworth Creek. Six months later, after public outcry and with new board members onboard, the board decided renaming the creek after the man better reflected his contributions to the community.

It took another 14 years to change the name of the road along the creek — Darkey Creek Road — after a push from Siuslaw National Forest staff. The state removed the road sign in 2013 or 2014 and the gravel road is now known as Forest Service Road 3489.

WHY SOUTHWORTH?

Dolin, the tourism official who suggested Southworth as a namesake, says diversity, equity and inclusion are part of his agency’s work. Proposals with that focus get priority when seeking funding from Travel Oregon, he added.

“We’re trying to address systemic racism in a real way,” Dolin said.

People should know about Southworth, Dolin says, and know the stories, even the ones that are uncomfortable to tell. He acknowledges the work in Coos Bay to remember Alonzo Tucker, who was hanged in broad daylight from a bridge in 1902. Dolin asks rhetorically, “How much are we not telling?”

For Dolin, the Southworth project is also personal. He’s says he’s offended by racism and intolerance. And he’s passionate about the history of the community. And he says he would like the stories of the First Nations in the area also be told and be included in school curriculum.

BRONZE SCULPTURE

It was a shared connection to the novelist Ken Kesey that prompted Dolin to ask Helzer to do the bronze of Southworth.

Helzer’s work includes the statue in Eugene’s Broadway Plaza of Kesey reading to his grandchildren, and a statue of Rosa Parks at the Eugene bus station.

Older man in cap and t-shirt stands side by side with a bronze statue of a man in Christian religious garb about his size, resting his hand on the robed sculpture's shoulder.

Sculptor Peter Helzer poses in 2016 with a bronze statue commissioned to honor Brother Dan Grogan, one of the original founders of Marist High School in Eugene.Yachats News

With more than 200 works public spaces, Helzer says as he’s gotten older and more established, “I’ve gotten much more selective about the projects I take on.”

“The Southworth story is a compelling one,” he says.

But there are details to be worked out. First, it must be determined at what age Southworth will be portrayed. It hasn’t yet been decided if Southworth will be sitting or standing, playing or holding the violin. Helzer is also limited to the few photographs available, two of which are Southworth as an old man and one as a young man.

Helzer indicated the Southworth project – which will likely take a year — may his last big project. “It seems like a fine way to end a forty five-year career. I turned 74 this year, and bronze isn’t getting any lighter.”

Helzer says Southworth had a “certain genius” for building community and building trust.

“That seems to be consistent throughout his life and wherever he lived,” he said, “And whomever he was with quickly came to trust him and work with him.”

Southworth graves

Louis Southworth is buried in Crystal Lake Cemetery in Corvallis along with his wife, Mary Cooper. (Photo by David Nishitani)

Southworth lived east of Waldport until 1910 when he moved to Corvallis, purchasing a house in a neighborhood of Victorian houses in what is now a commercial section of downtown. In the next few years his health took a turn for the worse, and at the end of his life he ran into financial difficulties. Community members came to his rescue, raising money to pay the rest of his mortgage.

In 1913, when he was 84 years old, he married Josephine Jackson, who was 31 years his junior. Jackson, a nurse, was taking care of him. During their wedding, he lay in bed as she stood beside him. He died in 1917 and was buried beside his first wife in Corvallis’ Crystal Lake Cemetery.

  • Cheri Brubaker is a freelance reporter on the Oregon coast who can be reached at [email protected]
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