A brief history of African-Americans in Portland

By Don MacGillivray


Preserving the past and using it to anchor and enhance the future of is of great importance to the welfare of society. It is for this reason we celebrate February as Black History month.

While Oregon was identified as a free state (from slavery) early settlers were often unkind toward ethnic groups with different origins. In the 1840’s the territorial government twice passed exclusion laws designed to prohibit slavery, but they also excluded “Negroes, Chinamen and Indians” from settling in Oregon.

They even passed a “Lash Law,” requiring that all blacks in Oregon be whipped twice a year as encouragement to leave the territory. This punishment was soon considered too harsh and it was changed to thirty days hard labor.

In spite of severe laws, fifty-five African-Americans were able to settle in Portland and a few were able to start successful businesses and own land. In 1859 Oregon became the first state admitted to the Union with an exclusion law written into the state constitution. It took until 1870 for the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to be passed by referendum. These amendments superseded the exclusion laws and granted blacks the right to vote, but the offending laws in the Oregon Constitution was not removed until 1927.

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1880s, a new and substantial form of service employment became available to the African-American community. The Portland Hotel was built at this time and it was the largest and finest hotel in Portland. Black men were brought from the American south to work in the hotel as waiters and in other service positions.

These jobs established a core of well-paid employment that created an African-American middle class who owned modest homes within a refined and cohesive community. This community was located near Union Station in NW Portland and it became the nucleus for black-owned businesses.

One of the most successful businesses was the Golden West Hotel located at NW Everett St. and NW Broadway. It was established by W. D. Allen in 1906 and continued into the 1930s. The four black churches in NW were a strong force for good in the black community advocating in their interests and helping those in need.

In 1912, Beatrice Morrow Cannady became the assistant editor of the Advocate, a four page weekly newspaper serving the African-American community.

In 1914 she helped found the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and quickly became a successful voice for the civil rights of African-Americans. Mrs. Cannady regularly challenged racial discrimination in public talks and in the pages of the Advocate, and took over as editor in 1929.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, the African-American community slowly transferred to the neighborhoods growing on the east side of Portland. Many new immigrants from Europe settled in Portland in the early twentieth century. They formed communities of their own which created unrest among the larger community.

Segregation increased around 1920 and the sale of property was denied Negroes and other races through real estate deeds. The depression was an economic disaster for blacks in Portland as it was elsewhere. Businesses folded and black workers lost their jobs to unemployed whites.

In 1940, the African-American community in Albina was south of NE Broadway Blvd. and west of N. Williams Ave. which today is the location of the Memorial Coliseum.

As the twentieth century unfolded, more restrictions were present in the black community, but there were also more professional black citizens in Portland that became local leaders. Dr. J. A. Merriman was the first black physician. He was followed by Dr. Hugh Bell and Dr. DeNorval Unthank. Black attorneys included McCants Stewart and Eugene Minor. By 1927 the black population of Portland had reached 3,000 and was slowly growing.

After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Henry J. Kaiser, established his ship building activities in Portland on eighty-seven acres around Swan Island. In the first year they produced 450 ships. People in 1941, including African-Americans, began streaming to the city to join the wartime industrial workforce.

In the next two years Portland’s black population grew from 2,000 to over 20,000 residents. While wages were good, challenges for blacks increased. The fact that there were federal regulations against discrimination in federal defense projects did not make much difference.

Housing was a major challenge. Henry Kaiser purchased 650 acres on the Columbia River flood plain. In August of 1941 5,000 workers set 700 foundations for identical apartment buildings which became Kaiserville and later Vanport.

The first tenant moved in five months later and it was to become the largest wartime housing project in the United States and the second largest city in Oregon. In 1945 Vanport was home to 24,500 white residents and 6,300 African-Americans.

The population increase provided opportunities for African-Americans to become teachers, public servants and business people. In May of 1948, a flood destroyed Vanport forcing the people to find housing elsewhere. The job market remained staunchly opposed to admitting blacks and housing was equally problematic.

The Urban League was formed to address discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Segregation no longer dominates the civil rights agenda, discrimination in housing is illegal, and blacks hold careers at all levels of the economic spectrum, but they still do not have the equality they deserve.

A brief history of African-Americans in Portland

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