For over 40 years, the Anderson’s were the only Black residents in Harney County, Oregon in the far southeast end of the state. At well over 10,000 square miles, Harney County is roughly the size of Massachusetts. Now their story is finally being recognized thanks to a committed community group in Burns that is raising funds to install markers on their graves. Oregon Black Pioneers supports the project, as was asked to help spread the word about this important rural Oregon family and the campaign to honor their legacy.
There is scarce information available about the Anderson family. At some point in the 1910s, brothers Oscar and Walter Anderson moved together to Harney County to take up ranching, but it is unclear where they arrived from. Oscar established his homestead on Trout Creek, just north of Burns. Walter established a ranch of their own at Juniper Lake, some 90 miles further south in the eastern shadow of Steens Mountain. Though separated geographically from each other, and from just about everyone else, the family became an important part of the regional community. In a 1970 letter, the administrator of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge wrote of the Anderson’s “they were well respected, nice people and it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that they were Black. They attended public dances, rodeos, and other public entertainment, just the same as did the white people”.
About 15 years after he began ranching in Harney County, Walter married. His wife Martha joined him on the ranch and the two spent another 25 years there before Walter’s poor health forced them to move to Portland in 1952. In Portland, the couple purchased the shuddered Medley Hotel and renamed it Hotel Anderson. Walter died in 1958, and records indicate Martha worked as a nurse for a time. She also became an author, publishing Black Pioneers of the Northwest, 1800-1918 in 1980, just a year before her death.
Oscar’s fate is unknown, but both Martha and Walter are buried in the Burns Pioneer Cemetery in unmarked graves.
In July 2020, members of the group Rural Alliance for Diversity (RAD) in Burns saw a Facebook post from the Western History Room at Harney County Library which mentioned the Anderson’s and their unique story. Upon seeing this, they contacted Oregon Black Pioneers to see if OBP could support them in a project to raise awareness and funds for the creation of a grave marker for the Anderson’s. OBP helped brainstorm some potential opportunities and RAD members got to work creating a GoFundMe campaign for $1400 for the markers. They also purchase copies of Martha Anderson’s book for the library.
Stories like that of the Anderson’s are especially important to celebrate. Oregon’s Black history is not limited to Portland or the Willamette Valley, and at a time when Black Oregonians were even more concentrated in urban areas then they are today it is incredible to consider the perseverance and courage of people like Oscar, Walter, and Martha Anderson.
Oregon Black Pioneers was founded in 1993. Its mission is to research, recognize, and commemorate the culture and heritage of African Americans in the State of Oregon. Its vision is to be the premier resource for information about Oregon’s African American culture and heritage. For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.