CRESWELL — Kim was like a lot of kids born and raised in Creswell over the decades, and easily recalled Oregon summers with her cousins, getting ice cream at the Dairy Queen, running around Holt Park, and taking family bike rides to the iron works.
“It felt small and comfortable, because I was a kid,” she said. “Now it feels small and uncomfortable.”
Creswell adopted “The Friendly City” as its slogan decades ago. Today, like many small and rural communities across the country, the town’s residents are struggling with racial, social and cultural discord – seven months into a global pandemic, weeks removed from devastating wildfires and only days before the Nov. 3 election.
In times like these, a slogan doesn’t define a community. Behavior does.
How does Kim, now in her 20s and a woman who still fondly remembers her graduation party at Los Cabos – “because Los Cabos was incredibly important to all of us!” – become the focus of hateful, violent threats from her neighbors? When did advocating for marginalized people in your hometown become so offensive?
What might John Andrew Jackson Creswell think of the friction in his namesake city?
His behavior gives us a clue.
Like most stories, there are no saints, few heroes and plenty of villains. And a tale like this one, mixed with historical material, will have its murkier parts, either implied by the “public record” or confirmed by the “official” one.
In 2015, two history professors published an in-depth research paper on the life of John Andrew Jackson Creswell. The historians are from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and the research paper was titled “Forgotten Abolitionist: John A.J. Creswell of Maryland.” It was authored by John M. Osborne and Christine Bombaro. It chronicles Creswell’s evolution as a business person, politician, abolitionist, and, ultimately, U.S. Postmaster General.
In the 75-page research paper’s foreword, Matthew Pinsker, an expert on the Civil War era, wrote:
“ … Creswell became a great figure, an important ally of even greater men like Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and Ulysses S. Grant. Anyone who cares about or teaches nineteenth-century American history should want to understand his evolution and use it to help explain what the Civil War meant to American society.”
The Maryland politician and businessman was indeed friend and confidante for both Lincoln and Grant. Creswell and his wife were so close to the Grants that they were at his bedside when he died. Creswell moved from a pro-slavery Democrat to a “radical” Republican abolitionist during his lifetime. When Grant made him U.S. Postmaster General, he revolutionized the mail with visionary efficiencies and rooted out political-based corruption.
And, importantly historians noted, he hired women and newly freed Blacks into key jobs across the country. These roles in post offices forced reluctant property owners to allow Blacks on to their property to deliver mail and exchange money with local female postmasters for stamps and fees.
Creswell’s greatest moment might have come when he was chosen to deliver in Congress the opening argument for the Thirteenth Amendment. It was his connection to the post office, however, that likely led to the town taking his name.
Osborne, the professor who co-authored the research paper, said there was no obvious connection between John A.J. Creswell and Oregon. Two “Creswell post offices” remain open today: The one in Oregon and one in North Carolina. Creswell, N.C., has a population of less than 300 and was incorporated in 1874, near the coastal areas of the northern Outer Banks. It appears the town was named after John A.J. Creswell, although an article uses the debunked “Angel James” middle names.
Oh, the names. Cresswell. John Angel James Creswell. Jno. A.J. Creswell. The research paper notes there were numerous misspellings and errors in historical documents and printed reports, perhaps even as part of the Library of Congress’ preservation efforts. It has caused confusion, but all roads have led back to John Andrew Jackson Creswell.
Several months ago, Tracey, a 30-something mom, wife and full-time employee at a nonprofit in Eugene, was nearing her home in Creswell. Driving along West Oregon Avenue, the picturesque Creswell Area Historical Society building sat on the corner of 10th Street. It was late afternoon, and a young girl who appeared to be between 13-15 years old stood on the sidewalk holding a single sheet of 8.5-x-11 printer paper. She had written “BLM” on it.
Instinctively, Tracey steered her car into a parking lot and retrieved a Black Lives Matter sign from her trunk, determined to support a message of equality and reinforce the young girl’s courage. A few minutes later, another woman pulled over and parked, opened her trunk, and pulled out a BLM sign. Two women and a young girl in Creswell. All strangers a few minutes earlier.
“There is safety with staying silent,” Kim said. “It’s the easy option. Where you can just choose to be silent. I saw (Tracey) and that young girl were not staying silent. So I stopped to join them.”
They were bonded together now, for better and worse, as they stood on the sidewalk, absorbing explicit profanity and hateful taunts from cars and trucks, some more recognizable as the occupants circled the block multiple times.
The history professors detail the heat Creswell took as he stood up for the abolitionist cause in his day. Osborne and Bambaro describe his historic speech in Congress this way:
On January 5, 1865, John Andrew Jackson Creswell of Maryland stood in the House of Representatives and said quite simply that “So long as we hesitate and delay this work we can have no peace.” The “work” he referred to was the abolition of slavery. Representative Creswell delivered his speech on the day that Congress was expected to begin debate on the proposed Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
As the first congressman called to the floor, and representing a state that had just abolished slavery on its own by popular vote, Creswell set the tone for this historic decision, condemning slavery as an “unmitigated evil.” It was an especially striking statement from an experienced politician who had migrated across the political spectrum over a long career in a hotly contested Border State.
Creswell’s speech was thunderous and vivid in its imagery as he used legal, moral, economic, logical, and religious arguments to persuade many of his still-wavering colleagues to ratify the amendment.
The scene in Creswell a few months ago bore no resemblance to the cover of Harper’s Weekly Magazine on Feb. 18, 1865.
That day, the national magazine featured an illustration of John A.J. Creswell, standing in front of huge crowds, all celebrating the final passage of the Thirteenth Amendment – ending slavery.
Creswell had opened the debate on the floor of the 38th Congress weeks earlier, and made the case for the Thirteenth Amendment, the first of the “Reconstruction Amendments.”
Osborne and Bambaro write more on his speech:
Speaking with the authority of an experienced business lawyer, Creswell demolished the long-held claims of slavery’s economic value to the nation. … Though economic motivations were central to his argument, Creswell also reminded his listeners that the issue was a moral one. He spoke of his pride in participating as the righter of a great moral wrong, helping personally “to contribute to the rights of humanity to a downtrodden race.”
His wasn’t the first, but it was one of the loudest voices proclaiming that Black lives mattered. Still, Creswell was not necessarily motivated by idealism, particularly when he first approached abolition. A pragmatic businessman, he utilized his communication skills to broker compromises that served the greater good. A strong economy should be good for everyone. Motivated, paid labor is better than a slave-based system, he argued.
Creswell’s anti-slavery stance came from his experience as a businessman in Maryland, and he noted it was a national issue, stating that “so far as we have advanced at all we have done so in spite of slavery, and by driving it before us. And so it is everywhere.” The economics were bad for America.
Osborne said a few weeks ago that “in many ways, Creswell’s journey was typical of the Republican Party itself” at that time. “The party was founded to combat the political dominance of slave-owning states. It was not ‘abolitionist;’ that was still a fringe ideology before 1860.”
Osborne cautioned that he was speaking as an observer, not in his capacity as a history professor. “This is all, certainly, my read after our research. He was a businessman, a politician for business, who found a home with the Republicans, and like the Republicans he came to embrace the word ‘abolitionist’ that had been an antifa-like dirty word before 1861. He took leadership seriously enough to play a big role in Reconstruction, putting his qualities to work on the massive and influential stage of the U.S. Post Office.”
Ascribing people’s motives is always hard, particularly from a 100-plus year view. As Osborne said, Creswell’s leadership, political oratory and actions as Postmaster General give us a good idea of his character.
“I was 100% a joiner,” Tracey volunteered, and it’s easy to see that. “I played sports as soon as I could … baseball, basketball, track and cross country … in high school it was softball, cross country, swimming, band — I played french horn in marching band.”
Eager to get out of the “tiny little town” in California where she grew up, Tracey struck out at 17 on her own and moved to Missouri. She started college, studied psychiatry, worked in public service. “Things didn’t work out,” but she met her husband there, and they moved to Creswell about 15 years ago to be near his family and start one of their own.
She can point to events and people who helped shape her, but everything comes down to her 5-year-old daughter, she said.
“My greatest motivator is my daughter. She’s just starting to grasp concepts. You want to teach and care for your kids; I want to teach her about the importance of loving all people. I want to make sure she’s a compassionate person.”
Like all parents, she wants her child to have a better life than she did.
“I’ve always generally tried to be helpful to others. I grew up very poor; at one point I lived in a fifth wheel with two adults and three kids. I carried that forward into what I wanted to do in my life, which was to always pass kindness.”
Tracey describes a personal, educational journey as an adult. She delved into Oregon’s history on race relations, “which is so dark,” she said, referencing the Territory’s founding with restrictive clauses for Blacks. “I’ve been trying to know more and learn, and I’m still learning. I’m fortunate that my employer offers training. We’ve created an ‘equity library’ and have a culture that allows us to study these issues at work, too.”
The equity, diversity, and inclusion training “shook something” in her, she said.
Tracey, who recently came out as bisexual, also draws upon the experience of being closeted for 20 years. “You want to take the hate that you’ve been given and turn it into love for others. This discussion around social justice and looking at my daughter, it all exploded and makes me want to do more.”
She said that “do more” goes beyond a rally to raise awareness or show support. “I’ve developed an interest in government, council and legislative issues. All of a sudden I am really watching, and seeing rights stripped away from people. I’m ready to participate in local government.”
Her role at work allows her to be a problem-solver, she said. She applies for grants and multi-tasks on behalf of families in need. “Diapers for your kids? Let’s figure it out. Need food? Need clothes? I’m the person to help you get it.
“You cry constantly, and it never feels like you’re doing enough.”
Helping during the wildfires at the Masonic Lodge was the latest effort.
“Doing more for the community naturally shaped me into who I am. It’s not enough for me to just sit by and feel like I’m doing enough. There’s nothing wrong with people donating and researching and learning. For me, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
“It goes back to my kid. Always. I want her to feel that innocence when she looks at people.”
Kim and Tracey are not the actual names of the two Creswell women who helped organize a rally to support Black people. They have been identified on social media, their home addresses and workplaces revealed, and their families have borne the brunt of harassment.
The women do not self-identify as Marxists or Socialists and have no record of looting, burning or destroying property in protest. After their experiences as the targets of abuse that day with the young girl, they were motivated to do more. To stage a peaceful rally, they said.
The vitriolic reaction by certain residents led to a postponement, they emphasized, not a cancellation of a rally. They plan to still hold a rally, calling for empathy and change.
How controversial and difficult could that be?
Difficult enough to force the mayor to resign three months early. The longtime Creswellian who has volunteered his time as an unpaid city councilor and mayor for nearly a decade endured threats because the City was discussing equity and inclusion. Two weeks later, Councilor Martha McReynolds Jr. followed suit, leaving her non-paid position early following a barrage of hateful language and social media attacks. The idea of equity and inclusion was so controversial, the city council tabled the entire matter, and has ended any further conversation, at least until a new mayor and council are elected and seated.
The anger, fear and misinformation bubbled up and spilled onto community message boards and “us vs. them” public displays. Gatherings that were billed as American flag-waving events instead turned into political rallies – with U.S. flags, desecrated with images and words, mixed with flags of the Confederacy and fringe conspiracy groups, such as “QAnon.”
The history of the Confederacy is clear. Its legacy of slavery, hatred, violence and white supremacy is well-documented. How does the flag of traitors fly freely in our community?
And QAnon? It’s a crazy conspiracy theory that is morphing into an ideology, seeping into mainstream discussions under the guise of “save the children” sloganeering meant to further obscure its origins. Those who are entranced by its beliefs will hardly be convinced, but for the unfamiliar, here is all you really need to know about “Q,” an alleged government whistleblower with inside information:
QAnon was founded on the belief that the current president is secretly leading a global fight against Hollywood celebrities and Democratic political leaders who form a cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles and harvest the blood of children. Tom Hanks is one of the celebrities identified as harvesting children’s blood. It also holds that John F. Kennedy Jr., dead for nearly two decades, is alive, and planning to reveal himself and endorse the current president. “Q” predicted that JFK Jr. would appear at a July 4 celebration in South Dakota, which didn’t happen. In fact, JFK Jr. hasn’t revealed himself on any of the four occasions “Q” predicted that he would so far.
Confederate flags and QAnon flags were prominently displayed during Creswell’s July 4th “people’s parade” this summer, and again during “flag-waving events” around the area and in front of City Hall. The hateful imagery and language manifested in violent threats online.
It all seemed a long way from the John A.J. Creswell who led the charge to end slavery.
Kim and Tracey were disappointed when the City ended its pursuit of an equity-and-inclusion statement.
“Creswell had a great starting point on the equity resolution; it should have been more publicized and open to the public,” Tracey said. “People don’t usually dig into their local community. Bringing it up in an open forum would have been better. You can’t have a virtually all-White group making an equity decision; you need people outside of the government. You need someone outside who has been through that.”
Kim is still trying to process the reaction to the BLM signs that afternoon, the planned rally, and the equity-and-inclusion discussions.
“It was awfully heartbreaking to see the knee-jerk reaction to something they don’t know about. They were so quick with threats of violence. They were so enraged. They have a strange concept that supporting Black Americans is un-American.
“It’s frustrating and heartbreaking. These are people who are my neighbors.”
The women came to realize that the vocal critics who helped shut down the originally scheduled rally didn’t represent the entire community. People began encouraging them along the way.
“After that day on the street with the teenager, we were blasted online,” Tracey said. “Other people of Creswell started speaking up for us, and telling us they were terrified. They started coming out of the woodwork. A person asked, ‘Can you start something, because I’m in.’ Everyone got excited that there were like-minded people. We weren’t totally outcasts on Facebook pages.”
All of it seemed to connect for Kim, too.
“I’ve always been raised in non-traditional environments. I was home-schooled, went to college for art – an area of study where you find non-traditional paths and marginalized communities. I’m a queer person. I think of my own experience and being treated poorly. And you look around at how the Black community is being treated and it’s so much worse, and you can’t just stay silent on these issues.”
And it comes with a cost, she said.
“It’s stressful to be involved in such a small community with these issues. You know – to a painful degree – how much they disagree with you, even to the point of violence. You have to watch your back everywhere you go in your own town, your own backyard.”
Said Tracey: “We’re not done supporting people of color. It’s a movement that isn’t stopping.”
Sounds a lot like what John A.J. Creswell was saying on that historic day he advocated for the end of slavery.