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Re-Imagining Maxville

Listening to the Land and Creating Brave Spaces

By Pam Moore  

In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing this story of a little-known logging community in Oregon—long a ghost town—and how Whitman students are helping envision the site’s future as a place for learning, creativity and healing.  

Tatiana Villegas ’23 was a junior when she received a text message from her friend and fellow Whittie, Hannah Paul ’22 inviting her to participate in a project called Re-Imagining Maxville.  

Villegas, a sociology-environmental studies major from Seattle, had no idea that message contained a unique opportunity to apply the lessons she’d learned from her science classes to her studies of society and community. But she was intrigued, nonetheless.  

The project is envisioning an environmentally and socially just future for the community of Maxville, a place known for both its natural beauty—and its problematic past.  

According to Whitman Associate Art History Professor Lisa Uddin, who is spearheading this student-experience initiative, the intention is “to visualize the shape of and programming for an outdoor education center on 240 acres of newly acquired traditional Nez Perce homelands that includes the 94-acre historic site of the racially-segregated logging town of Maxville, Oregon.”

As a previous fieldwork site for both Whitman’s Semester in the West and Land, Water, Justice course, Maxville shares a connection with Whitman. “ Re-Imagining Maxville is another iteration of that relationship, with an emphasis on what an outdoor education center can be when it’s responsive to Black people, Indigenous people, and immigrants of color,” says Uddin, whose areas of expertise include Black Studies, urbanism, and environmental humanities.  

Villegas was drawn to the project, not just because it sounded interesting but because it was clear that her perspective as a student of color was crucial. Voices like hers were needed “to answer questions about how students of color would learn in the future space, given the complexities of its racist past,” says Villegas, who identifies as mixed-race and Indigenous.  

So, for several days in June 2022, this group from Whitman—Villegas along with Uddin and fellow students of color Paul and Nia Combs ’22—visited the site to explore and engage with the land. Throughout her time on the site, Villegas kept coming back to the question of how Maxville’s history impacts the present—and what a new future could look like.

Photos of students at Maxville segregated school

Maxville’s Past  

Just 44 miles southeast of Walla Walla as the crow flies, Maxville lies about a two-hour drive from the Whitman campus. In the early 1920s, it was a burgeoning logging community. The Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company, which owned the town, recruited experienced African American loggers to relocate there. But at the time, Oregon’s law prohibited “free Negroes” from moving to the state. While the logging crews included both Black and white employees, the community was divided, with Black employees and their families relegated to segregated housing and education.  

The Great Depression brought a sharp decline in lumber demand, and in 1933, Bowman-Hicks ceased operations in Maxville. By the time the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center (MHIC), was established in 2008, Maxville had long been a ghost town.

Since acquiring the site in June 2022, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, Gwen Trice, along with a diverse group of stakeholders and partners, including Whitman, has grappled with the challenge of bringing it back to life.  

“Now the question is how to reimagine Maxville and its timberlands. And how do we make it into this brave space where we can include students of all ages in the work that we’re doing there?” Trice says.  

Maxville’s Future

“Now the question is how to re-imagine Maxville and its timberlands. And how do we make it into this brave space where we can include students of all ages in the work that we’re doing there?” Trice says.  

Maxville’s Future

Top priorities for the future space include creating an environment rich with learning opportunities, and one that treads lightly on the land while acknowledging the fraught experiences of those who lived there when it was a segregated logging town from 1923 through 1933.  

Both controversial timber practices and racial injustices shaped Maxville, Trice says. “It's about the healing of the land and the people and looking at the traumatic components of part of that.” Trice, whose ancestry includes Black members of the Maxville community, sees archaeological digging, the study of migratory species and native flora and fauna, creative writing, visual arts, and healing from trauma as just a few of the activities that will take place on the Maxville site.  

Whitman students hiking on the Maxville site

Whitman & Maxville

“It was an obvious love connection!” Uddin says of her initial impression of Trice. “Given my work on histories of Black space-making and Gwen’s work to transform 240 acres of Nez Perce homelands and the historic site of a segregated logging town into an outdoor education,” a collaboration was inevitable, Uddin says. In collaboration with architectural historian Henry Kunowski, they landed on Re-Imagining Maxville, which Uddin calls “a short summer project that would allow Whitman students of color to brainstorm possibilities for the Maxville site.”  

According to Trice, Whitman students’ input has been invaluable to the initiative. “They bring their generational inspiration and a sense of wonder that gives us insight unique to their cultural background as to how to re-imagine this space.” Uddin agrees, the “pragmatism, tenderness, and generosity” the students bring to the work is informed by their identities as “Black and Indigenous women and queers of color.” As Maxville is applying to be a certified International Dark Sky Place, one of the ideas the group generated was to include astronomical study at Maxville.  

Meanwhile, Villegas, who serves as the president of Whitman’s Queer Trans Students of Color Club, says the experience has only deepened her commitment to promoting diversity. For her, the project was a real-life reminder that the patterns we see in society mimic the natural world—for better and for worse.  

Through her environmental studies courses, she was already keenly aware that ecosystems thrive on biodiversity. Re-Imagining Maxville reminded Villegas that “healthy communities can only flourish when they acknowledge multiple perspectives”—a lesson she’ll carry with her from Whitman and Maxville.  

Published on Feb 28, 2023
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