After vandals target Oregon Historical Society, director vows, ‘Our mission will be undeterred’

Amid violent protests Sunday night in downtown Portland, several prominent statues were toppled, windows at Portland State University were smashed and police said gunshots were fired into an empty restaurant.

But the vandalism that seemed to gather the most ire from city and state officials occurred at the Oregon Historical Society, a bastion of diverse artifacts and exhibits on the 1200 block of Southwest Park Avenue.

Nearly a dozen windows in the institution’s pavilion were smashed, said Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk. Flares were tossed into the lobby, and a priceless quilt was taken. Preliminary estimates to repair the damage were about $25,000, Tymchuk told The Oregonian/OregonLive, though costs could end up higher.

The vandalism occurred during a protest organizers billed as an “Indigenous Day of Rage.” The action was eventually declared a riot, and three people were arrested.

Tymchuk was troubled that the society was targeted, especially given the institution’s recent efforts to tell a full and complete version of Oregon’s history, which is replete with ugly instances of white supremacy.

“We have been doing so much in leading the conversation, the uncomfortable conversation, on Oregon’s past and telling the unvarnished truth through our programming, exhibits, lectures and publications,” Tymchuk said.

Late last year, the society devoted an entire issue of its quarterly publication to Oregon’s unseemly history of racism. Earlier this year, the institution unveiled a permanent exhibit, meant to be the cornerstone of the museum, called “Experience Oregon.” Tymchuk said curators worked diligently with Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes “to make sure we were telling their story correctly and accurately.”

The quilt taken from the society’s lobby was a bicentennial heritage quilt, stitched by 15 African American women in the mid-1970s. The artifact had traveled the nation before going on display in Portland.

It was the society’s commitment to featuring exhibits that showed the diversity in Oregon’s history that made the vandalism so hard to fathom, said Rep. Tawna Sanchez, a descendent of the Shoshone-Bannock, Ute and Carrizo tribes who represents parts of North and Northeast Portland.

“The fact that someone would hijack Indigenous People’s Day to commit more violence is not appropriate,” she said at a Monday morning news conference. “The destruction of the Oregon Historical Society in any way, shape or form is unconscionable because that place is so amazingly part of the actual truth of our state.”

Amid the shattered glass and singed carpet were elements of hope, though. The windows could be repaired and none of the exhibits were damaged. Tymchuk said police recovered the stolen quilt a few blocks from the museum, wet but mostly undamaged.

Tymchuk has been inundated with texts and emails of support as news of the vandalism has spread, but when he arrived at the society Monday morning, he found a handwritten note on a napkin, wrapped around a single dollar bill.

“Hello,” the note began. “I’m homeless so I dont have much to give to you, just some of my bottle collecting money, but I saw your windows got broken and I wanted to help. You once gave me a free tour before the pandemic, so this is a thank you.”

The museum has received countless donations over the years, some in excess of $1 million, but “no donation means more to me and the society than this dollar,” Tymchuk said.

He was hopeful the society could reopen later this week, with a new exhibit on women’s suffrage and a virtual lecture later this month from renowned professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Tymchuk said he was drawing particular inspiration from the title of the women’s suffrage exhibit, which is called, in part: “Nevertheless, They Persisted.”

“Our mission will be undeterred,” Tymchuk said.

— Kale Williams; [email protected]; 503-294-4048; @sfkale

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