"Righting the Wrongs of Black History"

Carol Turner and David Groff, West Minster Presbyterian, Co-Chairs of the Interfaith Alliance welcomed a crowded room of those attending the Interfaith Alliance’s first meeting of the year.  John Elizalde, First Unitarian, and Co-Chair of the Becoming Poverty Aware & Communication Action Team, introduced featured speaker, Joy Alise Davis, Executive Director of the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF). Originally from Jamaica, Joy Alise grew up in Ohio, and received her Masters of Urban Design at Miami University. She has expertise working on social sustainability projects, including racial equity strategies, collaborative design strategies, project development, civic engagement and community data analysis.

As Executive Director of PAALT, she has devoted herself to social justice issues  involving  the African American community in Portland.     Originally neither the City of Portland or the State of Oregon welcomed African Americans.

Oregon had a law prohibiting slavery from the earliest days of its provisional government in 1843. However, it wasn’t enforced, and a number of early settlers from Missouri came with one or more slaves to help work their new Willamette Valley farms. In 1844, the Peter Burnett-led legislative council amended the law to allow slaveholders two years to free male slaves and three years to free female slaves.

In  1857 an all-white male Oregon constitutional convention was held.    A clause was approved in the state constitution which read:

No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate,  or make any contracts.” under penalty of law.  At the same time Oregon voters cast ballots decisively   voting down slavery.    In 1860, Oregon’s black population was just 128 in a total population of 52,465.  

World War II produced a change in established norms.  The U.S. had just had its fleet sunk and there was an urgent need for ships to fill its navy.  African Americans joined  the thousands  coming from  cities and towns back east and the south to work in Northwest shipyards.  Swan Island  and  the Oregon Shipyards drew workers  in Portland, as did Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver.  Shipyards operated 24 hours per day, producing one Liberty ship each per week.

The need   for housing was great.  Vanport, an immense prefab housing complex was constructed  on the site currently   occupied by Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway. Construction began in August 1942  and Vanport  became home to 40,000 people, about 40 percent of whom were African-American, making it Oregon's second-largest city at the time, and the largest public housing project in the nation.   Vanport was   destroyed at 4:05 p.m. on May 30, 1948, when a 200-foot (61 m) section of the dike holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a flood.  Miraculously only 15 lives were lost.

When the war ended,  many of the “newcomers” returned back east or to the south.  However, many African Americans decided to stay here.  Realtors observed a red-line practice whereby African Americans were not allowed to buy property outside certain boundaries, basically Union Avenue to the west, Lombard to the north, NE 33rd to the east, and E Burnside to the south.  By 1950 this area had become a vibrant part of the city with thriving neighborhoods, churches, and  stores.

Don Frazier, Pastor of Genesis Community Fellowship, remembers growing up there, how everybody knew everybody, people sat out their porches of a summer night,  kids played on the street and families dressed up of a Sunday morning to go to church.  It was a neighborhood that felt like home.

The Albina district also  housed a vibrant night life with clubs, restaurants, and music,  which Jim Thompson has described in his book “Jumptown”,  as “the Golden Years of Jazz”.    Oregonian reporter, John Kellin reported in  March 2015 about a History Hub discussion held at Kennedy School.  "For the first time in our lives, we had money," said Ben Johnson, who came to Portland in 1943 when he was 13 with his parents so his father could help build ships. He said that his mother, a schoolteacher, had never made more than $16 a month. But his father was suddenly making $18 a week (or about $250 a week today) in the shipyards.

"We had discretionary income to spend and we wanted to spend it," said Johnson.    "Problem was, where could you spend it?  In part, he said, the answer was the night clubs such as the Dude Ranch. And his parents were far from alone. While there had been just a few hundred African Americans in Portland before the war, that number swelled to more than 20,000 during the war.  With that many people making good money and looking for places to spend some of it, the clubs began to flourish and, in turn, began to attract name acts such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Barnet and Nat King Cole. The scene also began to cultivate local talent.

Paul Knauls told of his experience  coming to Portland in the early 1960s and opening the Cotton Club.  He said that Portland had become a mecca of jazz and blues at that point and the clubs had begun to draw many white fans as well as black devotees. He listed acts such as Etta James, Diana Ross, Martha and the Vandellas and the Four Tops as among those who came through Portland at the time.

Bill Rutherford talked about how influential the music scene was on Portland youths and said that dances for young people often drew overflow crowds to venues such as the old Knott Street Community Center.  Eventually, most of the black jazz and blues clubs in Albina were wiped out by urban renewal.  Places like the Dude Ranch, the Savoy and the Acme became memories.

In 1958,  an Urban Renewal program was launched by the City of Portland to make possible the construction of the Memorial Coliseum, (now Moda Center), the Portland School District Administration building, and Legacy Emmanuel Hospital expansion.  Hundreds of homes and businesses owned by African Americans were claimed under “eminent domain” and demolished to make way for the new construction. Residents forced out of their homes and businesses were left to find accommodations elsewhere.  Many ended up in northeast and southeast Portland, separated from their community.  Gang members moved from Los Angeles to Portland bringing problems with them

Joy Alise  explained that efforts are now under way “to right these wrongs.”  The PAALF People’s Plan serves as a powerful tool for research, organizing, and implementation. By viewing the community as the drivers of change, this project engaged over 400 African Americans on their experience living in Portland. Empowering the Black community to assert their right to actively shape the city we live in, the  PAALF People’s Plan   hopes to ensure that solutions are informed by the people affected.

Although African Americans continue to “yearn” for their community,  lack of affordable housing has become another barrier to their return.  Nevertheless, efforts are being made  to support their “Right to Return”.  Joy encouraged Interfaith Alliance members to support organizations working to make this happen.  B. Gregg


Rukaiyah Adams  Source:  J. Maus/BikePortland – September 2017)

The “Albina Vision” would develop the 30-acre Rose Quarter with housing and businesses that respects history and embraces the future.

Rukaiyah Adams explained “What we envision is … putting bikes and walkers first and not just having them be unsafe crossing giant highways and streets.” She shared that her great-grandmother moved to the Rose Quarter after fleeing the violence of the Jim Crow south. “It was a lot like Ladds [neighborhood] today,” she said. “Imagine bulldozing Ladds Addition to build a soccer stadium.”    She wants to, “rebuild a community, not just the physical spaces” of a neighborhood that she refers to as “ground zero for the discussion about equity and history in Portland.”

The “Albina Vision wouldn’t seek to demolish the Coliseum. Rather,” Adams says, “Portland must be honest about the destruction of this neighborhood, not back away from that history. 

The way we see it,” she continued, “the homes of black veterans were bulldozed to build a monument mostly to white veterans — so this is our Robert E. Lee monument. We look at it and can appreciate the beauty and wanting to protect the architecture; but also feel like there’s a story about what we’re monumenting here-- that has to be told if it will be preserved.”