19th Century abolitionist was ahead of his time

Frontier minister planted the seeds of racial justice.


By CAPI LYNN Statesman Journal


The old, but sharp, black and white photograph, dated October 1888, is in a cherished scrapbook in the basement of First Congregational Church. It shows Obed Dickinson leaning against the doorway of the seed shop he owned and operated on Commercial Street.


Dickinson was a successful frontier businessman, cultivating garden seeds on his 21 acres and shipping them throughout the United States. But Dickinson’s most important contribution to the Salem area was as a pioneer preacher.  He was a minister of the First congregational Church in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and his 14 year tenure was embroiled in controversy because of what was referred to as “Negro sympathy.”


He invited blacks into the church, baptized them and married them, and he was criticized for being so brazen.  He continued to preach about the sings of slavery, despite recommendations that he stop.


Dickinson was a major figure in Oregon black history, according to Dr. Darrell Millner, a professor in the black-studies departments at Portland State University.


“I think he’s also been a lost and neglected figure,” Millner said.  “Most people don’t know his story.  He was far ahead of his time.”


The backlash he suffered is well documented in newspaper archives.


The Oregon Statesman newspaper referred to the church with an offensive racial term, and Dickinson was personally attacked in editorials by Asahal Bush, a powerful politician.


“The church withstood a lot from the community,” said Willie Richardson of Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers.  “I think Dickinson and First Congregational Church, ore than any other entity at that time, really unveiled the kind of hatred and racism that was pervasive in this community.”


Jeanne Humphreys, a member of the First Congregational Church congregation since 1945, is caretaker of the church’s historical documents.  Among the treasures is a leather-bound journal containing notes from early meetings, including names of people received into the congregation and details of plans to build a new church.  The elegant script writing on the yellow pages is thought to be from Dickinson’s hand.


Dickinson arrived in Oregon in March 1853.  He and his wife were newlyweds when they embarked on a 17,000-miles journey around Cape Horn.  They traveled with seven other couples from the New England-based American Missionary Society, all assigned to minister in the western territories. It took the Dickinsons 18 days to get from Portland to Salem.


Dickinson arranged to hold his first Salem church meetings in an abandoned log-cabin schoolhouse.  He described the room in his writing as “dirty almost as a big sty, its floor covered with mud.”


He sent quarterly reports to the home mission, reports that today are among the archives at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University.  Author Egbert S. Oliver compiled many of those report for the book “Obed Dickinson’s War against Sin in Salem.”


In the foreword, Oliver described Dickinson’s reports as “the most discursive, most comprehensive, most honest and complete” of those of any of the early Congregational ministers sent to Oregon.


Dickinson was the target of further contempt after presiding over America and Richard Bogle’s wedding in January 1863, and hosting a reception for the black couple.  The fallout came at an inopportune time for the church, which was trying to raise money for construction of a new building.  Members asked Dickinson to wait until the new church was finished before preaching on such an “exciting” topic.


Dickinson didn’t flinch, not even when fund-raising came to a halt.


“He was totally dedicated,” Humphreys said.  “I think we should give his wife some credit.  I would have been out of there.”


Charlotte did her part to further her husband’s cause, teaching four young black women in the evenings at their home. She had been a schoolteacher before coming to Oregon.


Ministering in the frontier was not a glamorous job and the pay was paltry.  Obed and Charlotte lived on little or no income.


Their poverty continued until he left the ministry.  Obed launched his seed business in 1865 while still serving the church.


Less than two years later, Dickinson resigned from the church and turned his attention toward expanding his business.  It continued to thrive even after his death in 1892 at age 74.  His wife died the following year and is buried next to him.