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In Portland, we pride ourselves on our forward thinking. We boast a huge number of bike commuters. We take the quality of our food and water seriously. Recycling and compost trucks come through more regularly than garbage collectors. We fight for equality and stand up against corporations who have insidious practices. One need look no further than the frequent downtown demonstrations to understand how passionate Portlanders can be about equality and justice. But despite the arms-wide-open feeling of our modern-day Rose City, there’s still the reality that we’ve got a diversity problem. In fact, Portland is routinely described as America’s whitest major city.
As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s important to realize that even the most generous demographic figures put Portland’s African-American population at around 6 percent, even though two-thirds of the state’s African-Americans live here. There are many reasons for this, one simply being that Portland is relatively cut off from other urban hubs, compared to cities on the East Coast. But the unfortunate truth is that long before the rise of those blue-and-yellow equality bumper stickers that we now see so often, Portland was also one of the most segregated cities outside of the South.
Despite the fact that much of the 20th century provided both legal and institutionalized obstacles, African-American families still carved out a rich history in Portland. To both honor and educate about the perseverance of Portland’s black community, the Oregon Historical Society is presenting an exhibit entitled “A Community on the Move,” which will highlight the courage of black residents in the tumultuous times of the 1940s and ’50s, before the civil rights era .
On exhibit from February 1 to June 28, 2015, “A Community on the Move” will provide interactive displays, educational tours for all ages, public programs and community discussions. The exhibit is organized by the Oregon Black Pioneers, an all-volunteer organization who make it their mission to “research, recognize and commemorate the culture and heritage of African-Americans in the State of Oregon.”
What makes this exhibit so groundbreaking and important is that it highlights an era in black history that’s often overlooked, our retrospective attention instead grabbed by the horrors of slavery or the more visible confrontations during the civil rights movement. As the third exhibit organized by Oregon Black Pioneers, “A Community on the Move” will highlight this period of transition, as well as provide some context within the entire scope of African-American history in the State of Oregon.
Though it’s not a widely known fact, some of the original African-American settlers in our state came via the heralded 2,000-mile Oregon Trail. Settlement options were short-lived, however.Some of the nation’s harshest exclusion laws were put into place, designed to keep African-Americans out of the state entirely.
These laws were not always strictly enforced, but they kept many African-Americans from settling in the new state and forced those already residing in the area to live under the constant threat of expulsion. The dawn of the 20th century brought further opportunities for black citizens, as work opened up in the hotel industry and on construction of the transcontinental railroad.
Due largely to railroad jobs, Portland’s African-American community grew to around 2,000 people. During this early 20th-century period, Oregon saw its first black doctor, lawyer and police officer. Several black-owned newspapers were established. But obstacles abounded. The Ku Klux Klan grew in influence and held some sway over city politics during the 1920s. In one instance, that hate group even “donated” lumber to force an African-American church to move from Northwest Portland across the river to the “right side of town.” Portland soon became one of the most segregated cities outside of the South. Despite these barriers Portland’s black community saw leaders rise up, such as Beatrice Morrow Cannady, who was one of the first African-American women to graduate from law school. Beatrice fought to repeal Oregon’s exclusionary black laws in 1925.
“A Community on the Move” showcases one of the most notable periods of growth within Portland’s African-American population. As World War II took hold, Portland became an important hub in shipbuilding, and these new job opportunities drew many black workers to Portland. Within a few short years, Portland’s African-American population swelled tenfold, from around 2,000 to over 20,000 people. Despite the opportunities for work, Portland still held firm with its segregationist policies. Most black shipyard workers were relegated to housing projects between Portland and Vancouver, which became a temporary town called “Vanport.” At one point, Vanport even grew to be Oregon’s second largest city.
Though good jobs led to an economic boon for its residents, nature was not kind to the fledgling city of Vanport. A devastating, levee-breaching flood demolished the city, setting entire houses afloat and displacing thousands of residents. From there, African-Americans faced segregated housing policies, a lack of a public accommodation law that would prevent discrimination and further displacement by the construction of Memorial Coliseum and Interstate-5. Pushed into Northeast and North Portland neighborhoods, Portland’s African-American population persevered despite these barriers, and “A Community on the Move” documents the trials and triumphs.
Modern-day Portland is a city that celebrates equality and diversity, even though Oregon was originally structured to be exclusionist toward other races, especially African-Americans. The black community is still largely concentrated in Northeast Portland and the Albina district. The effects of redlining (the practice of banks marking off swaths of the city as “high risk” for investment, largely due to a racial component) and gentrification continue to be issues faced by the community. Despite our focus on equality, Portland’s urban landscape is growing whiter, as documented in the 2010 Census. Even the inner North and Northeast neighborhoods saw almost 8,000 African-Americans leave the area during the prior decade. More and more, minorities find themselves pushed to the outskirts, creating a dearth of diversity within Portland’s celebrated neighborhoods that feature bike lanes, hip and unique shops, boutiques and restaurants.
It’s the hope of Oregon Black Pioneers to continue to educate and inform about the history of African-Americans in the area, in order to help the general public understand how the racial history of our city has produced its current landscape. As seen in the recent Trader Joe’s controversy in Northeast Portland, gentrification is still an issue that’s at the forefront of many peoples’ minds. As Oregon Black Pioneers board member Kim Moreland puts it, “When land becomes valuable or attractive, it’s the disenfranchised people who get pushed out.”
Perhaps one of the most interactive features of what “A Community on the Move” has to offer will be the community dialogues that are set to take place as a series of conversations and panel discussions with leaders of Portland’s African-American community. One of these will include the Portland State University connection with Vanport. According to Moreland, PSU has been a hub of scholarly discourse about African-American history and current issues.
Oregon Black Pioneers (OBP) also strive to gather information about historic places that have special significance to African-Americans throughout the state. In partnership with Oregon Historic Preservation Office, OBP has initiated a crowd-sourced project to identify Oregon’s African-American historic sites and places. Project leaders are asking the public to continue submitting information about potential sites. The group has discovered sites in Eugene, La Grande, Corvallis, Portland and other communities to ensure that significant historic sites such as the Golden West Hotel in Old Town (a black-owned hotel that once served as a beacon of African-American culture) continue to be respected. While the group’s ultimate goal is to identify and register places of significance as historical landmarks, their efforts also often simply reveal new information that can be used to educate the public. “A Community on the Move,” in addition to previous exhibits and several published books, has been the fruit of that labor. The project is being managed by Gwen Carr, Chair of the OBP Education and Research Committee.
With Portland being so white, and seemingly getting whiter, “A Community on the Move” comes at a time when a dialogue about race is especially important. Understanding the moving parts of history is one of the best ways to ensure it doesn’t repeat itself. The Oregon Historical Society and the Oregon Black Pioneers are leading the way in shining a light on the past to ensure that the forward-thinking city of Portland can continue to make progress in the future.
(Additional information about the exhibit can be found at Oregon Black Pioneers website: http://www.oregonblackpioneers.org/)