PSU Portland Civil Rights Project Script
Although the early period of the African American experience in Portland has been fairly well documented, after 1955 there is very little documentation, particularly of the civil rights movement in Portland. As an effort to remedy this, the PSU PDX Civil Rights Project’s goal is to add this important part of history to the public record. In this presentation, we focus on the areas of employment, housing, and education.
Oregon has a long history of discrimination against African Americans. During the 19th century, a series of Black exclusionary laws were passed, which excluded African Americans from even coming to Oregon. This included an exclusionary clause in Oregon’s Constitution, which was not repealed until 1926. However, evidence shows that African Americans lived in Oregon despite the exclusionary laws, many living in the Portland area. Most of the information here focuses on African Americans in Portland.
During the first half of the 20th century, most African Americans in Portland were employed with the railroads. The only employment available to African Americans on the railroad was as chefs, waiters, or porters, also known as “red caps.” The majority of these men were recruited from the South, as far East as Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The recruiters from the railroads promised higher wages than their current employment offered, and many of these recruits were farmers and sharecroppers. This allowed many railroad men to earn a living wage and most were able to own their own homes and pay for their children’s college education: [Michael “Chappie” Grice quote]
Other large employer’s in Portland for African American men and women were at the Portland Hotel and the Golden West Hotel. The Portland Hotel hired African Americans, however they were not allowed as patrons of the hotel. On the other hand, the Golden West both hired and catered to African Americans.
In the early 20th century most of these businesses were located downtown, where most African Americans lived and worked. After the construction of the Broadway Bridge, much of the African American community moved into the Albina neighborhood, and African American-owned businesses followed their clientele across the river.
World War II changed the face of African-American employment in the city. The booming war industry attracted large numbers of African Americans from other parts of the United States seeking employment and between 1941 and 1943; fifteen to twenty thousand Africans Americans came to Portland, many of whom found work at the Kaiser shipyards. [multiple quotes]
The war ended and the 1948 flood of Vanport caused many African-Americans living in the Portland area to leave the city due to poor housing and poor employment prospects. Those that remained faced a highly discriminatory job market. Education and experience were less important than skin color in the hiring practices of Portland businesses, and institutionalized racism forced many into lower paying, menial jobs. Even though Oregon had passed a Fair Employment Practices Act in 1949, there was little enforcement and few businesses were willing to hire African American professionals. Various groups led boycotts against discriminatory businesses, including Fred Meyer and Grandmother’s Cookies: [multiple quotes]
Labor unions were notoriously discriminatory towards African Americans, and limited their ability to obtain higher paying blue-collar jobs. This discrimination caused a ripple effect on other businesses. Dr. Booker Lewis, an African American dentist recalls the impact it had on his business: [Dr Booker Lewis quote]
In the 1950s and 60s African American owned businesses faced tremendous hardship because of the construction of the Memorial Coliseum, the I-5 Freeway, and the Lloyd Center. I-5 diverted traffic away from the streets where African American businesses were located, and less traffic meant fewer customers. Construction for the Memorial Coliseum and I-5 caused many African American businesses to be torn down. [multiple quotes]
In the 1960s, Emmanuel hospital also moved into the Albina district, destroying 188 houses and other businesses. This essentially wiped out the heart of the community, forcing it to move to Union Avenue. Albina had been a vibrant area, complete with a nationally renowned jazz scene. The city told the community that the new hospital would provide jobs and create new business opportunities for the city. The city had also hoped to build a Veteran’s hospital on the site. Unfortunately after the project was already in motion and houses destroyed, funding fell through leaving vast amounts of land vacant. Construction on the empty lots did not start until 2008, which meant the land was vacant for almost 40 years. [multiple quotes]
Unemployment and poverty levels were consistently higher in African American neighborhoods throughout the 20th century. In Portland in 1960, 8.2% of African Americans were unemployed versus 3.7% of whites. The census also showed that while most families in Portland earned an average income between $10,000-$25,000 a year, most African American families in the city earned $10,000 or less a year. The census also showed that most African Americans were employed as either clerical or service workers. [quotes on employment]
One of the areas African Americans could hope to find work was in the public sector. These were more stable positions; however, the majorities were employed in building maintenance and trade positions. In 1968 3.2% of the city’s employees were African American, a comparably high percentage, though all but 24 of these employees earned a lower end wage. The Model Cities Program during the late 1960s opened up new employment avenues for African American professionals and some recall how it helped their careers: [Alcena Boozer quote]
Emergency services were one area where the government failed to integrate. In the years between 1954 and 1968, there were only 9 African American Portland police officers, and there were no African American firefighters employed by the city. Dick Bogle recalls his experiences as a Portland Police Officer: [Dick Bogle]
Other African Americans became business owners, some catering to a predominantly African American clientele, such as Charlotte Rutherford’s Black Fashions on Union Avenue: [Charlotte Rutherford quote]
By the early eighties, the Police department only had 13 officers employed with none above the rank of Lieutenant, and only one African American Sergeant. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Portland appointed it’s first African American police chief, Charles Moose.
African-American owned businesses have also had a difficult time in Portland’s history. In 1981, two off-duty Portland police officers tossed four dead opossums in front of the African American-owned restaurant, the Burger Barn. Police Commissioner Charles Jordan fired officers, Craig Ward and Jim Galloway. However, an independent investigator declared the incident an “ill-advised prank” and re-instated the officers with back pay. Many people recall the impact of the opossum incident: [multiple quotes]
Another incident happened in February of 1990 during the Union Avenue/ Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard street name change. Bernie Foster, the African American owner of the Skanner newspaper and the driving force behind the street name change, called for a boycott of businesses supporting the Union Avenue name. Within days his business was firebombed and he his business annex was destroyed, along with the Skanner’s archives. As these examples show structural racism was evident in Portland even into the 1990s.
Housing has been a perennial problem for African Americans in Portland.
At the turn of the 20th century, the African American community was concentrated on North Broadway near Union Station as most African Americans were employed by the railroad industry. With the advent of streetcars and the opening of the Broadway Bridge in 1913, the majority of African Americans moved across the Willamette River to Portland’s eastside. At this time, the African American population was about 1,700.
In the 1920’s, the Portland Realty Board made it official policy to prevent African Americans from moving outside of the eastside neighborhoods they already occupied. The 1919 guidelines established by the Portland Realty Board declared it unethical to sell property to African Americans and Asians in white neighborhoods and the rules were so strictly enforced that going against this was cause for losing one’s realtor’s license. Restrictive housing covenants continued through the early 1950s.
During the 1930’s, The African American population became more established in the Williams Avenue district. Homeownership rates increased from 23.4 percent in 1910 to 42.6 percent in the mid-1930s. Even though housing discrimination was a serious issue, many African Americans lived throughout the city in integrated neighborhoods. [multiple quotes]
World War II created a labor need in Portland’s shipyards and housing shortage in Portland. Prior to World War II, there were fewer than two thousand African Americans in Portland, but from 1941 to 1943, Portland’s African American population increased by 20,000 to 25,000. Many pre-war residents took in the newcomers: [multiple quotes]
The population boom created a need for an estimated 37,000 housing units, but the Housing Authority of Portland built only 4,900 units. Industrialist Edgar Kaiser intervened and built Vanport north of Portland and the Housing Authority of Portland also added housing projects at Guild’s Lake and Swan Island. Some people still recall the new housing developments:[multiple quotes]
After the war ended, the Portland City Council began to destroy the war-era housing to make way for industrial development. Both Guild’s Lake and Swan Island’s housing developments were torn down. In 1948, Vanport was also destroyed in a flood, and housing became a critical issue in Portland. Between 1940 and 1950, Portland’s African American population increased by 7,500 residents, and about half crowded into the Williams Ave district. At this time, the African American community was concentrated in four neighborhoods south of Fremont Avenue: Lower Albina, Elliot, Irvington, and Lloyd.
The post-war period also brought urban renewal to Portland. In the 1950s, the city approved a proposal to build the Memorial Coliseum in the lower Albina district, displacing hundreds of African American families. 476 homes were destroyed, 224 of those were owned by non-whites. Many people remember the impact of the Memorial Coliseum’s construction: [multiple quotes]
Urban renewal continued with the Construction of I-5 and Emanuel Hospital. In 1960, four out of five Black Portlanders lived in Albina. Local African American community groups such as the Albina Neighborhood Improvement Program (ANIP) did put up a fight against these municipal projects but in the end their efforts were to prove futile. In the end, almost 800 homes and businesses were destroyed during the 1950s and 1960s for urban renewal.
Black home ownership also declined during this period, dropping from 57 to 46 percent. Key factors in this decline were the large-scale displacement due to urban renewal, wide-spread unemployment among the Black community, unfair loan terms asked by banks, and the real estate industry’s discriminatory inflation of housing prices. Several people recall the problems they faced finding housing: [multiple quotes]
By the late 1960’s, America’s racial climate was at a fever pitch. Riots swept across the country, including two in Portland. There was a small riot in Irving Park in 1967, but in 1969, Portland experienced four days of riots along Union Avenue:[multiple quotes]
The city’s longstanding neglect and mistreatment of the Black community had left many Portland African Americans frustrated and disillusioned.
Throughout the 1970’s, residential segregation remained present in Portland and this led to sustained school segregation. By 1970, the median value of homes in the Albina area was two thirds of the value of homes in the rest of Portland.
By the 1980’s, systematic disinvestment in Albina changed the landscape of north and northeast Portland, characterized by absentee landlordism and redlining by the banking and real estate industry. In addition, predatory lenders and speculators bled the Black community with unjust contracts. During the 1980’s, the value of homes in Albina continued to drop to 58 percent of the city’s median. Housing abandonment, crack cocaine, gang warfare, prostitution, redlining, speculation, economic stagnation, and population loss all negatively affected the Albina area. Many residents remember how serious the situation was in Albina: [Shamsud-Din quote] [multiple quotes]
The situation changed in the 1990’s as the city began to reinvest in Northeast Portland, making it far more attractive to white Portlanders. After years of efforts and fighting to clean up the Albina area, the flood of White owned businesses and white homeowners received the help African Americans had fought for over the past five decades. By the end of the 1990’s less than one third of African American Portlanders called Albina home.
The history of Portland’s educational integration began in 1867 with the founding of “the colored school,” a segregated school with 26 African-American students, twenty-one boys and five girls. The school lost funding just five years later and in 1873, 30 African-American students were admitted to the newly integrated Portland Public Schools.
Prior to World War II, student enrollment was based on housing distribution so segregation was a relative non-issue in Portland’s schools. However, structural racism in the schools deeply affected many African American students. Several recall songs and coursework that portrayed African Americans in a very negative way: [quotes from Dick Bogle and Carl Deiz]
By the time African Americans reached high school, the impact of structural racism was obvious. The disparity in a High school graduation rates between whites and African during the 1940’s was astonishing: 40 % of whites in contrast to 10 % of African Americans attained their high school diploma. Some of this inequality can be explained by economic factors, such as the need to work in order to live, while other reasons include a lack of interest in school caused by the prevalence of racism in the classrooms.
World War II brought many African-American workers to the Pacific Northwest because of new job opportunities in the shipyards. Restrictive housing covenants and racism by realtors led to de facto segregation. As a result, Portland’s African-American residents lived primarily in the Albina area of inner-Northeast Portland. Many of the new African American residents who stayed in Portland were just starting their families and their children attended either Holliday or the old Eliot elementary schools. Humboldt was also popular with African Americans and had several African American teachers: [multiple quotes]
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against legalized educational segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education making segregation on the basis of race unconstitutional. The Brown ruling had minimal impact in the already desegregated Portland Public Schools, but de facto segregation based on housing patterns and other discriminatory practices was still a serious issue. De facto segregation continued to intensify into the 1960’s as the population of African-Americans residing in Albina increased to over 15,000, largely as a result of housing restrictions.
Nine of Portland’s 94 public schools enrolled 73% of the African-American students in Portland, who were being served primarily by the Boise, Eliot, King, Holladay, Irvington, and Humboldt schools. In the 60’s, the African-American graduation rate increased to 30-40% but was still disproportional to that of white students, which increased to 60-70%. Many people recall what school was like for them during the 1960’s: [multiple quotes]
In the aftermath of the Brown decision, Portland undertook several studies of the public schools to determine how to better serve its African American population. In an attempt to further integrate Portland schools, a plan was implemented that transported African-American students out of their neighborhoods to predominately white schools, and scattering African-American teachers among various white schools. The administrative transfer program was unpopular with many African Americans who viewed it as a way to close their neighborhood schools and further disinvest in their neighborhoods. [Hardy quote]
In the early 1970’s, the Portland school board adopted a new plan, cleverly called “Portland Schools for the Seventies.” This plan accelerated the already unsuccessful administrative transfer program and by the mid-1970s, almost 90% of the students being bused were African American. It also called for the creation of Early Childhood Education Centers in all of the Albina area grade schools. Several Albina area middle schools were closed to create the new Education Centers, which caused uproar among many parents. These solutions didn’t cure the core issue of having under-funded the schools in the Albina area, which caused much of their underperformance.
Structural racism within the schools had numerous consequences. African-American Students were being suspended and expelled at a much higher rate. On average their marks were less satisfactory than white peers. In addition, African-American High School completion rate was much lower than whites. By the summer of 1977 many in the community had expressed their concern over the problem of student achievement and were petitioning the school board to make some real changes. [quote]
Community leaders enlisted the help of the NAACP and the Urban League to confront the problem of “racial imbalance” in Portland Public schools. In late 1978, the Community Coalition for School Integration released a report titled: “Equity for the Eighties”, but the School Board largely ignored the report, which led to the rise of the Black United Front in Portland. The Black United Front, led by the charismatic Ron Herndon, staged a series of boycotts against the schools and the school board. In one particularly memorable incident, he got everyone’s attention at a school board meeting: [quote]
The Black United Front was successful in getting some change from the school board, including the appointment of a new superintendent, Mattew Prophet: Portland’s first African American School Board Superintendent. Prophet brought a new generation of African American educators into the Portland Public schools: [multiple quotes]
Although Superintendent Prophet was able to make some changes, schools in inner-Northeast continued to face serious problems. Reverend Alcena Boozer served as the principal at Jefferson High School and she recalls several of the issues she had to face, including an arsonist setting fires in the buildings: [multiple quotes]
Schools in inner-Northeast Portland continue to be under-funded and still face many of the same problems they did in the 1950s and 1960s.
These three civil rights issues – education, employment, and housing – remain serious concerns for many of Portland’s African American residents. Grassroots organizations continue to work for these three basic civil rights and hope that one day equality will exist in housing, education, and employment.
The Future of the Albina Community
Portland’s history is an area of particular personal interest for me since I have been an Oregon resident for almost 23 years, and a Portland and specifically Albina neighborhood resident for 12 of those years. When I first moved into Northeast Portland in 1998 at eighteen years old to NE 28th and Killingsworth, I did not know the history of the neighborhood. I didn’t know that I was able to find a great rental home with cheap rent in a culturally diverse neighborhood, years before it was officially named the Alberta Arts District, because of gentrification, and because of the urban renewal policies that began decades before, displacing African Americans, policies which continue to disproportionately displace African Americans in particular and low-income communities in general.
Gentrification and urban renewal has drastically altered the Upper Albina landscape. The Alberta Arts District now has an event called Last Thursday which over the summer of 2008, has resulted in growing tensions between the established Black community, whose neighborhood Albina was in the first place, and the newer artist and upper-income mostly white community, many of whom don’t know Portland’s African American community and the making of the Albina neighborhood. This gap in awareness needs to be addressed and soon. As to what solutions would be best, there are many disagreements.
Although newer Albina residents may not understand the public policies and private practices which enabled them to buy land and homes so affordably in Albina, once an awareness is reached through education and community outreach, solutions must be determined in order to ensure equity and justice. First, we must learn our histories in order to know the truth. Once we have learned the truths, many of which have been intentionally hidden from us, we can understand why and how society has taught us to fear and hate each other, and our differences. We are then empowered to resolve these conflicts, right these wrongs, learning to love ourselves and each other. We must reach out to each other and love each other in order for equity, equality, and justice to be achieved.
Some groups trying to resolve these conflicts:
Restorative Listening Project through the City of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement. For more info check out their website: http://www.portlandonline.com/ONI/index.cfm?c=45627
Last Thursday Steering Committee under the new direction of Magnus. You can contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org. There is A LOT of dispute over Last Thursday, so this may not be the way to go about change, an almost entirely white decision-making board making decisions about a culturally diverse community, but Magnus is very interested in reaching out to the community for feedback and inclusion at the decision-making table.
Also, you can contact me at: email@example.com.
*A lot more entries on these contemporary issues, as well as historical pieces particularly on the Portland and Oregon’s African American history will be coming soon. I think it is very important to learn about the African American history, which IS NOT taught in our schools or in most of our communities, in order to understand where we’re at as a society in terms of race relations. As well, it is important to become culturally-competent in order to live side-by-side in diverse neighborhoods, and for the future of cross-cultural and intra-racial community building as coalitions and as allies.