Post appeared on George Rede’s blog RoughandRede, August 31 as a part of his Voices of August guest post series. It appeared under the headline “Oregon’s Unique Racial History.”
They say that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. So, it’s always been a little alarming to me how few people know about Oregon’s unique racial history.
I think many who live here view Portland as a progressive place governed by thoughtful public policy. Portland likes to think of itself as home to innovative and inclusive creative residents. Given that most people know that Portland is very white. At 78 %, it’s one of the whitest major cities in America. Its core neighborhoods are actually getting whiter (topping the nation at 74 %). Yet few I’ve met seem to see an inconsistency in the city’s lack of diversity and the rhetoric of “celebrating diversity” we often proclaim.
“Why would black people even want to come here?“ a young creative type (and a fellow reporter) once asked during a conversation about Oregon’s pioneer history and the lack of early black migration to the area.
“They came looking for opportunity just like everyone else,” I said. “But they were told that they weren’t allowed to live here.”
Oregon was the only state to enter the Union with a constitutional exclusion on African American residents. Less than 65 years ago The National Journal of Social Work declared Portland the most discriminatory city outside the Deep South. The state did not ratify the Fifteen Amendment (giving blacks the right to vote) until 1959.
These facts may be easy to dismiss as a remnant of a bygone era. But understanding some of the state’s and city’s past can help clear the lens through which we view current events.
Recently news reports have featured a controversy happening in my neighborhood concerning gentrification and bike lanes on North Williams Avenue. Some African Americans have said that plans to remove a lane of traffic on Williams is just the latest slight on a black community in Oregon that too often has been a victim of disinvestment and dislocation.
Bike lanes? Really? It seems to be such a small trivial issue. However, if you know more about local history the picture may be a little clearer.
Many people know about the 1948 Vanport floods that displaced thousands of African American residents into the Albina neighborhood of North/Northeast Portland. It’s also well known that in the preceding years a series of mid-century urban renewal projects, like Memorial Coliseum, I-5, the Fremont Bridge and the Emanuel Hospital expansion demolished some 1,376 homes in the area and pushed African Americans up into the Northeast Alberta Street neighborhood.
But there’s more to it than that. And for the sake of length and focus, I’ll just go into the history that pertains to African Americans.
The state’s history begins in 1844 with the Oregon “Lash Law” which stated that all blacks in Oregon, free or slave, would be whipped twice a year “until he or she shall quit the territory.” The law was later replaced with an outright ban on blacks and the state entered the Union in 1859 with the only such constitutional provision.
It should be understood that black exclusion laws were not unheard of at the time. California had gone through a failed black exclusion movement of its own. Many Oregon settlers came from midwestern states like Missouri, Indiana and Michigan that had forms of black exclusion laws themselves. Those few Oregonians I’ve met who know about the black exclusion laws say they understood it was done to avoid confronting slavery, during a time when the issue was driving the country to civil war.
However, Oregon was no border state, and if the point was simply to avoid taking a stance on slavery, it’s odd that the state didn’t remove its black exclusion clause until 1926.
In the 1920s, Oregon briefly had more chapters of the Ku Klux Klan than any other state west of the Rockies. Portland State University’s Darrell Millner, a professor of black studies, once stated that blacks had gotten the point that Oregon “was not a place where blacks were going to be welcomed.”
Still, the railroads hired African Americans and throughout the first half of the century a small community cropped up in Portland around Union Station and nearby properties such as the Golden West Hotel.
That is, until World War II, when the Kaiser shipyards literally brought thousands of African American workers from the South into the Vanport public housing community in present-day Delta Park in North Portland. Vanport, then the second largest city in Oregon, was literally wiped off the map when a dike failed and the Columbia River overflowed its banks. In the aftermath, thousands of African American residents moved into Albina.
North/Northeast Portland languished under the discriminatory bank lending practice known as Redlining. Some may know that the Carter Administration first addressed this issue nationally in the 1970s. But Redlining was still in wide-scale practice in Portland until the 1990s when it was finally exposed by an investigative series in The Oregonian. Shortly after that, gentrification in the area began to build up steam, resulting in what is now almost total displacement of the African American community.
Most recently, in the ’80s and ’90s, Portland was home to white separatist, neo-Nazi and skinhead groups such as the Ayran Nation, East Side Pride and the American Front. A highly publicized 1988 murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw by skinheads was a wake-up call to many. As far as I know there hasn’t been a cross-burning in Portland in almost ten years.
Since the turn of this century Portland has secured itself a far different narrative, one that presents Oregon and Portland as home to environmental defenders, avant-garde DIYers and outdoor recreationalists.
I do not wish to detract from the state’s admirable qualities. But, to go forward as the pioneering state that Oregon has every potential to be, I believe one must have a clear, honest and ultimately compassionate understanding of the past. For they say that those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. [update- The Fair Housing Council of Oregon reported this year that there was a 65% discrimination rate against blacks and latinos in Portland’s rental housing market. Earlier reports showed a 70% discrimination rate in Beaverton and 78% in Ashland. Portland Housing Commissioner Nick Fish responded to the report, in part, by firing the Fair Housing Council.]
But, today is today. This morning I walked out my door and had the good fortune to interview some of my African American neighbors in Dawson Park about all the good things they remembered about growing up in this area in the 1950s. To my surprise, I’ve spoken to many who’ve said Portland was a wonderful place to grow up. At the same time, I won’t be surprised that after years of racial pressure someone in the area is upset about something like a bike lane.
As I go forward, I’ll keep looking for the positive things. I’ll keep loving Oregon, warts and all, for what it is. And I’ll remain steadfast in my belief that with a clear-headed view, things can still get better, the next time around.
[George Rede’s Notes]
Cornelius Swart is a freelance reporter and media consultant. He is currently J-Lab grant coordinator for The Oregonian News Network. His documentary “NorthEast Passage: The Inner City and the American Dream” premiered on Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2002. He is currently researching for a new project on Oregon’s racial history.
In the eight months I’ve had the pleasure of sitting next to and working with Cornelius, I’ve been impressed by how easily he moves between the worlds of traditional mainstream media and indie website operators, a reflection no doubt of his experience as publisher of The Sentinel, a multimedia news service that covered North/Northeast Portland, and his own deep dives into cyberspace. He is a coordinator, collaborator and creative thinker of the first degree. And then there’s that rakish hat.