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Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?

November 28, 2012

Story by Pete Shaw

“When is history not history?” asks Walidah Imarisha, at a recent Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon? presentation sponsored by the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project.  Imarisha, a Portland State University and Oregon State University instructor, poses the question to our group after we have spent 90 minutes examining, wrestling with and, mostly importantly, discussing with one another the history of black people and black communities in Oregon. The question is imposing – forcing us to look to the past and present for answers, and demand an honest reckoning for the future.

There are small posters on the walls of our conference room in the Midland Branch of the Multnomah County Library, forming a timeline of history ostensibly relating to black Oregonians. On one, there is a picture of Marcus Lopes, the first person of African descent in Oregon. Another item features Alonzo Tucker, a black man who was lynched in Coos Bay. A local newspaper described the lynch mob as “quiet and orderly” and found the lynching was not an “unnecessary disturbance of the peace.”

Portland State University and Oregon State University instructor Walidah Imarisha.

Time may move along, but progress can seem frozen in its eddies. A law prohibiting black people from voting remained in the state constitution until 1927. A connection to the Confederacy with a law prohibiting interracial marriages, only repealed in 1951. An item about Legacy Emanuel’s 1970 expansion that ripped a hole in the Albina neighborhood, after the project lay stagnant for nearly two decades resulting in vacant lots and boarded up buildings. It is still being completed. A photo of Mulugeta Seraw, the Ethiopian graduate student and father beaten to death by two skinheads in 1988. Laws, events, customs–all the stuff not just of history, but also of resistance, achievement, and ultimately, survival.

In 1844, pre-state Oregon declared slavery illegal. But making slavery against the law and embracing a diverse society are two different items, and from its beginnings Oregon was modeled as a white homeland. That same 1844 law ordered all black people out of the Oregon Territory under threat of lashing. This “Lash Law” mandated black people be publicly flogged every six months; however, before it could be enforced, it was modified and the whippings were replaced with forced labor.

In 1849 another law excluded any more blacks from settling in the territory. The passing of the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850, granted free land to Whites only. The 1859 constitution included in its Bill of Rights a racial exclusion clause banning black people from emigrating to Oregon, as well as prohibiting them from owning land and entering into contracts. Although the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution rendered such exclusion illegal, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the ban was officially repealed from Oregon’s constitution.

This history, hardly exhaustive, is the substrate of the state of Oregon, and yet it tends to be seldom acknowledged, and, when recognized, usually depicted as an artifact of the past. This is one point where history is not history – when events are isolated, ignored, or otherwise relegated to a sphere where that is rarely discussed and where the societal effects of that history dwell without context. When you digest and discuss all those images and descriptions on the wall – as Imarisha encourages you to do with people whom you do not know – a narrative emerges. These snapshots that unto themselves seem aberrant, the work of vile individuals or groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, start running together, becoming a movie with obvious currents that formed with the state and flow into the present.

Measure 11, establishing mandatory minimum sentencing for several crimes, was passed 150 years after that first exclusion law. It applies to all defendants over 15 years old and require the accused of the listed crimes be tried as adults. Despite making up only 4 percent of Oregon’s youth population, black youth account for 19 percent of Measure 11 indictments. It seems William Faulkner was right: the past isn’t even past.

But if our state story reveals some of the horrific and disgusting acts committed, laws promulgated, and customs enforced, it also depicts acts of resistance that in themselves form a narrative. Resistance is a slippery concept, for its successes may come incrementally and some seem nothing more than drops upon a toxic pool.

The Hazlewood Building on Weidler near the Memorial Coliseum used to be home to Dude Ranch, a jazz club. It is the only remaining building of the approximately ten jazz clubs that were destroyed to make room for the Memorial Coliseum and the interstate freeway. Photo by Pete Shaw.

For example, in Bend in 1925 there was a sign that read, “We Cater To White Trade Only.” The black community in Bend, already aware of the local restaurants in which they were unwelcome, protested the sign. The city council agreed to remove it and similar Jim Crow signs, with the expectation that black people would now police themselves. Though the victory may seem Pyrrhic, it was an important step for those forced to daily encounter the signs and be reminded of the ways in which they were unwanted. It took thousands of these small largely unknown victories, won by tens of thousands of people you and I will never know, that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Many of the institutions that shape our lives today are rooted in the Oregon constitution, and the legacy of the exclusion clause can be seen by observing where those institutions grant favor. One of the most glaring examples lies in housing and development. For the black community in Oregon, it has often been a history of taking and denial. Since homeownership is a foundation of generational wealth development, it becomes clear that Oregon’s black community is being denied an opportunity to develop wealth.

The places where black people could own property were limited through extra-legal means, such as The Portland Real Estate Code of Ethics (1919), which mandated real estate agents refuse to sell to people whose race would “be determined to lower property values in that neighborhood.” During World War II, over 13,000 black people moved to Vanport to build ships for Kaiser – a sixfold increase in the number of black people in Oregon. The Vanport flood of 1948 forced integration on Portland, as black survivors moved a couple of miles north to the Albina neighborhood, the only place the city would allow them to resettle.

The 1960 construction of Memorial Coliseum resulted in the destruction of over 400 homes and many black owned businesses, and created a physical rift in the community, particularly in Jumptown, the cultural center that ran between NE Williams and King. The construction of the interstate highways destroyed over 1100 housing units in South Albina.

A sign on NE Alberta Street tells the story of redlining in Portland’s past.  Photo by Paul.

Banks refused mortgages to black people who tried to move outside “acceptable” boundaries, and often refused them within the red lines as well, because those loans were considered risky. More recently banks were willing to lend money in the form of subprime loans, often when people actually qualified for prime loans. These subprime loans largely targeted minority communities, and the current foreclosure crisis has hit communities of color hard. Black and Latino homeowners have been almost twice as likely as white people to lose their homes to foreclosure, a result, according to the ACLU in a recent lawsuit against Morgan Stanley, of the seemingly illegal and certainly unethical decision to encourage predatory mortgage loans to low-income African American borrowers.

Despite the trauma, a black community is still extant in Portland. As Imarisha noted when one black woman stated, “I don’t feel like I live here. I survive here,” sometimes survival is winning. “For a black community to exist here in Portland is incredible,” said Imarisha, “because it wasn’t supposed to exist at all.”

History is not history when some actors are denied acknowledgement of their roles at the expense of other actors who have parts that remain privileged. The importance of Why Aren’t There More Black People In Oregon? is difficult to understate. It keeps the unprivileged stories alive. Though Imarisha has made this presentation all over the state, she has only met one person who attended an Oregon public school who was aware of it. None of the ten people in our group who had attended school in Oregon had been taught this information. That is when history is not history.

The Hill Block Building was built by Charles H. Hill, Albina’s first mayor. Located at the corner of Russell and Williams it was at the center of the business district for Albina.

But history is history when people refuse to let go, when they fight for their stories to be heard, and when they spread those stories to other people who in turn pledge to keep them alive. That is real power of this presentation. It is not a lecture. It is a series of discussions, some one-on-one, some in groups of four or five, and some with the group as a whole. Real people and their stories spoken, life breathed into the material hanging from the walls.

When a woman notes how in the early 1950s the majority of restaurants in Portland would not serve black people, we see how that step taken in Bend in 1925 formed a link in a chain to today where, at the very least, such obvious segregation is unacceptable. When a man talks about how he has to pay an extra fee for his son to play in the school jazz band, it is easy enough to draw a line between the razing of four or five jazz clubs that stood in the way of the future Memorial Coliseum. Their demise meant not only fewer opportunities to experience a unique American art form, but also fewer popular culture venues where white and black people actually mixed. Though jazz has declined in popularity to the extent that students must pay extra for it, still it survives, vibrantly. That is a victory.

This is where the Hill Block Building stood. 40 years later, the Legacy Emanuel expansion has yet to be completed. Photo by Pete Shaw.

Much of the physical structure of the black community in Portland has been demolished many times over. Nature took a hand in Vanport, but it was the usual systemic oppression of the  wealthy and powerful that led to Memorial Coliseum, the construction of the interstate highways, and the expansion of Legacy Emanuel. The black community has rebuilt every time. These are all huge victories.

Dome from the Hill Block Building, located on the Northwest corner of NE Russell and Williams. The building was razed during the Legacy Emanuel expansion. It now lies in Dawson Park, across from Legacy Emanuel. Photo by Pete Shaw.

Perhaps history becomes history when it expands beyond boundaries and reaches a greater audience. The point of Why Aren’t There More Black People In Oregon? is meant not to focus solely on the black community and its history, but to explore issues of race, identity, and power in the greater community.

The struggles and victories of black people are not unique. As can be seen with Multnomah County Sheriff Staton’s collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Latinos are facing their own trials. The exclusion laws from the early Oregon Territory and Oregon state constitution echo loudly, as the brave people proclaiming themselves Undocumented and Unafraid speak of the terror they experienced from being identified as people who do not belong, and whose existence within the community can be severely punished. The same scenario is going on nationwide.

A history that ignores uncomfortable aspects – whitewashes them, if you will – so that what is presented is a sanitized account with no accountability, is at best insular. It does not require thought, and therefore, does not challenge. It only asks that we accept its narrative as truth. It is mythology, not history.

The posters that form a timeline ostensibly related to black Oregonians actually relate to us all. They are a part of our history, informing our present and likely our future as well. How just a future we craft largely depends on how wide and deep a sense of history we bring along on the journey forward.

“When we see these events as part of a cycle,” Imarisha said, “then we can see what is really happening and can create a place we want to live in.”

For more information about the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project go to: http://oregonhumanities.org/programs/section/conversation-project/#id1056. For more information on Walidah Imarisha’s upcoming programs see: www.walidah.com.

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26 Responses to Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?

  1. Henry MamaBear on November 28, 2012 at 5:08 PM

    The Other Day I Was Talking To My Grandmother, A 94 Year Old retired Nurse And She Mentioned That When She Was In Nursing School at Good Sam In 1938, The Nurses We’re Allowed To Choose Whether Or Not To Care For Black Patients. I’m Proud To Say She’s The Kind Of person That DID Choose To Care For TheM, A Few Years Later Going On To Live In Africa And The Philippines. Just Another Piece Of History I Thought I Would Share.

    • lorena on June 28, 2013 at 9:14 AM

      I was very surprised to see that you hadn’t added just how huge the membership of the KKK was in the early to mid-1920s in Oregon. The 1922 backing of their candidate in brought in a KKK governor, Walter M. Pierce, and many other officials and legislators around the state, and were the most powerful political force in Oregon then by far. You can see photos in the State and local archives from then in almost every parade in towns with parades—the KKK prominent and in full gear, including the women’s auxilliary and children in their little white hooded cloaks. The Oregon KKK who even had their own newspaper for a bit and members stopped being members mostly only due to the leadership and in-fighting…not that they had changed their minds. This is a good article to start off with if you would like to know more about this: http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/ku_klux_klan/

      • lorena on June 28, 2013 at 9:22 AM

        Plus, this is a pretty good timeline (wished it had been written in a better font) of US and Oregon history of race, immigration and education. http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/412697

        • Peter Shaw on June 30, 2013 at 4:23 PM

          Thank you Lorena. I will pass on the timeline to Walidah Imarisha.

          • Kip Carlson on July 3, 2013 at 9:23 PM

            While I’m sure the Ku Klux Klan was no friend of African-Americans in Oregon in the 1920s, I believe the main target of their efforts was Catholics, and particularly Catholic schools.

            Thank you for an excellent story that provides valuable background to understand issues we may have trouble facing even today, but must face.

  2. Kendall on November 28, 2012 at 8:24 PM

    Thanks, Pete. Good work putting this important story together. I posted it to Facebook with thanks to you and Walidah Imarisha.

  3. Däv on November 29, 2012 at 5:47 AM

    I’m reminded of the first 7 or so pages of this article: https://docs.google.com/open?id=0Bzgjzmswuf9ZSnBsU25EZGo4b28

  4. john shaw on November 30, 2012 at 2:49 PM

    I’ve been around a long time in brooklyn, ny and now nj. Again, I am so proud of Peter Shaw, and his wife Jessica Ly who supports his endeavors. I enjoyed his article and his obvious devotion “to the cause”.

  5. Marie on December 3, 2012 at 12:38 AM

    As black woman and immigrant I was assigned to the hospital of low class somewhere in the northeast Portland. I feel very uncomfortable being subject of discrimination because I am black on nowadays. When I was looking for house I was always detected to the the district where black community live. Anyways, I still have the choice to choose who I want to be in society.

  6. Anne Richardson on June 27, 2013 at 11:05 PM

    Williams Avenue was NEVER called Jumptown. Bob Dietsche titled his book about the Williams Avenue nexus of jazz clubs Jumptown, and people who read his book – and who never lived in the neighborhood – transferred the name of the book to the district. The area was known as Williams Avenue, not Jumptown.

    • Peter Shaw on June 30, 2013 at 4:31 PM

      Thank you for your comment, Anne, and you are correct, at least as far as Jumptown goes. I assume you are also correct about it being known as Williams Avenue: in a quick search, all I could find was that the area certainly was not called Jumptown. Regardless, I would assume the Jumptown idea (as I understand it, some folks in the city want to name the area around the Rose Garden Jumptown, and turn it into some shopping/entertainment zone) is another step to erase the history of the area, to cover up the past and ignore injustice.

      I should also add that the mistake was solely mine, not Walidah Imarisha’s.

      Again, thank you.

      Peter Shaw

  7. Joe on June 28, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    Hello,

    Thanks for the article.
    In this sentence:
    “The importance of Why Aren’t There More Black People In Oregon? is difficult to understate.”
    did you mean “overstate”?

    Joe

    • Peter Shaw on June 30, 2013 at 4:35 PM

      Hi Joe,

      I will relay your concerns to both my secretary and the editorial staff at the Occupier. For too long have they considered themselves deities, consumers of air rarer than you and I will ever know.

      Well, I have no secretary, and the editorial staff is top notch. Of course, “overstate” is correct.

      To err is human, but to proofread is numinous.

      Cheers,

      Peter Shaw

  8. Anthro on June 30, 2013 at 12:33 PM

    First off, this read as something uniquely Portland and less about Oregon as a whole. Additionally, I don’t think it was ever called Jumptown.

    • Peter Shaw on July 2, 2013 at 6:59 AM

      Hello Anthro,

      Walidah Imarisha’s presentation is about Oregon. I focused more on the Portland aspects of the presentation both because I live in Portland and because I assume most of the readership of what we publish is in and near Portland. These are not the best reasons, but they are nonetheless how I approached writing about Walidah’s presentation.

      You are correct about Jumptown. Please see Anne Richardson’s comment above for more detail.

      Thank you for your comment,

      Peter Shaw

  9. Blue Makeda on July 11, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    I have owned and operated a business in many major cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Miami, and after 60 years on the planet, decided to recently relocate to Portland. Now, I often wonder if that was a big mistake. You see, since I’ve been here for the past 6 months, I’ve been accused of being a drug dealer and money launderer; banned from a dental clinic “for life” because I questioned why they raised their prices after discussing an agreed amount; accused of being a thief; ignored at business meetings; denied housing and service at a restaurant; pulled from the Maxline to check my ticket; and, had my credit card number hacked! I never imagined that, in 2013, the people in Portland would not be as beautiful as the area is know for.

    So no, Portland is not as diverse towards Black people as they would like to believe or have others believe. It is a Red State with a semi-blue City! Thanks for the article. It makes understanding Portland people and politics a whole lot better.

  10. LJG on November 16, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    I enjoyed reading this article. Not only does it expose false complacency regarding Portland’s treatment of minorities- but it highlights groups and individuals fighting in the community to defend these groups.

    It is very much true that many white liberals see Portland as a kind of leftist Utopia. Particularly so if the city’s perceived values align with their own. However, the truth is perhaps best seen in Portland’s treatment of Occupy. On the one hand, there was support for the movement from various sectors of the community and activists of different stripes. And Sam Adams showed more restraint than say the Mayor of Oakland. But, when push came to shove, the movement in Portland and across the country was crushed- with city governments working hand in hand with Homeland Security. In the end, business and government interests trumped freedom and the first amendment.

  11. Tiffany on December 30, 2013 at 4:52 AM

    Hi, I need to do a presentation in February 2014 for Black History and Civil Rights in Oregon as an opportunity to educate co-workers. Can you send me some links for information on this topic. I am happy that co-workers are open and desiring to discuss this topic.

  12. Ian Devereaux on January 17, 2014 at 3:06 PM

    Now I have a better understanding of the hell I’ve endured here in Medford. I reside by the Rogue Valley Country Club my partner and I. I am a man of color and he is white. I drove a Mercedes and have been classified as a drug dealer and my life made a complete hell. I must admit that not all the people here in Medford share that same ideology. Racism still exist in this day and age. Do they hate me or themselves?

  13. Eddie Dee Williams on February 16, 2014 at 1:12 AM

    Racism book about Oregon: Police brutality, on the job discrimination, housing discrimination, traumatized by the KKK, attempted lynching’s by the Gypsy Jokers and the skinheads. Falsely inprisoned, mistaken identity, which led to two self defense, not guilty court decisions, due to Racism in the state of Oregon. My Memoirs:Justified License to Kill@ Barnes& Noble

    • Doctress on July 10, 2014 at 2:35 PM

      Are you talking about “America” in the 21st Century? I thought i was reading about the Jim Crow Era of the 1900′s. Are you sure you got YourSTory date right?

      Well, Oregon is not the only state with blatant racism and hostile savagery written all over the laws with smudging pages of history from the stint of brutality and massacre oozing out of the crevices. They established these laws and then break them with their actions.

      When black america unitize to rebel against this type of savagery, then they will back up and think twice. Until Two or three gather-to-gather in strength, then peace will abide. The only way to win is learn the laws, the loop holes, and back holes and the underground movements to assist.

  14. Will Rider on March 17, 2014 at 5:49 AM

    Hi IM thinking about moving to Roseburg, Oregon from Dallas Texas , As a black man is ir a good ideal ?

  15. Peter Shaw on December 2, 2012 at 11:37 AM

    Hi Jim,

    Thank you for your comment. First, the article was never written as an attempt to answer that question. As you may have noticed from the first paragraph–the first sentence in fact–the name of the presentation about which I wrote is Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?

    Second, I never wrote and I never referred to Imarisha saying Oregon was uniquely racist. In fact, in the fourth paragraph from the end I implied as much to the opposite saying the struggles and victories are not unique. What is unique, however, is that Oregon’s founding documents specifically made being black either illegal or highly undesirable. I am not aware of any state in United States that had clauses in their constitutions and laws as Oregon did.

    If you would like more information on this, Imarisha’s next presentations are in February. The one on the 9th is at the Belmont branch of the Multnomah County Library System; the one on the 20th at the St. Johns branch. Please see her calendar at: http://www.walidah.com/event/2013/02/01/month/all/all/1.

    Cheers,

    Peter Shaw

  16. Michael A. Burch on July 1, 2013 at 4:56 PM

    Peter,
    I am 64 and a native of Portland. Born just after Vanport flood. I recognize the corner of Williams and Russell and remember a lot of the activities and Black owned businesses in that area when I was a young child. I would really like to have the schedule of talks in this area if one exhists at this point in time. So much of our history has been lost and and or covered up. I was there for much of the changes mentioned in the article. Wow if we haven’t been deprived of this history in school. I could go on for days but will spare you in this venue. I hope to hear back: 503-282-5101,
    Michael

  17. Peter Shaw on July 6, 2013 at 5:59 PM

    Hi Michael,

    If you go to Walidah Imarisha’s website (www.walidah.com), click on “calendar” and that will take you to a listing of events she has. It seems she will not be doing this program until September, and it seems none of them will be in Portland. You can, however, find a video of one of her presentations at?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJ3sIXdQ2xw.

    I suggest catching it live. There is much interaction between participants, and it is clear participants would benefit from hearing what you’ve experienced. I have attended it twice, and it is wonderful hearing people tell of their experiences (well, maybe “wonderful” is not the best word for those experiences, but better they are told than forgotten)–it adds so much to an already excellent program.

    Thank you for your comment,

    Peter Shaw

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