This Month in Oregon History: Black History Month

February: Black History Month

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Blacks in Oregon

children at YMCA





Periodically, newspaper or magazine articles appear proclaiming amazement at how white the population of Oregon and the City of Portland is compared to other parts of the country. It is not possible to argue with the figures—in 2013, there were an estimated 78,600 blacks in Oregon, about 2 percent of the population—but it is a profound mistake to think that these stories and statistics tell the story of the state's racial past. In fact, issues of race and the status and circumstances of black life in Oregon are central to understanding the history of the state, and perhaps its future as well. Read Darrell Millner’s essay to learn more.


Black Exclusion Laws 

Oregon's racial makeup has been shaped by three black exclusion laws that were in place during much of the region's early history. These laws, all later rescinded, largely succeeded in their aim of discouraging free blacks from settling in Oregon early on, ensuring that Oregon would develop as primarily white. Read Greg Nokes’s entry to learn more.   constiution



Holmes v. Ford

On April 16, 1852, a former slave named Robin Holmes filed suit against his white former owner, Nathaniel Ford, in the only slavery case adjudicated in an Oregon court. Holmes was one of about fifty slaves who settlers had brought to Oregon from Missouri. Many of Oregon’s first white settlers were non slave-holding farmers from Missouri and other border states, who had struggled to compete against farmers using slaves. Most were opposed to slavery, but they were also opposed to having African Americans among them, a sentiment reflected in several exclusion laws enacted in Oregon that prohibited free African American settlers. Ford was among a smaller group who did bring slaves to the territory. Although the first provisional government had passed a law in 1843 banning slavery, it had not been enforced. The case, Holmes v. Ford, made it clear that slavery was unlawful in Oregon.


Louis Southworth

southworth   Louis Southworth came to Oregon in 1853, a time that was less than hospitable to African Americans. Most people who traveled the Oregon Trail by wagon were from the nation’s midwestern and border states, and many hoped to avoid the conflicts caused by slavery. Slavery was not legal in Oregon, but African Americans had been prohibited from settling in Oregon since the days of the provisional government. The Oregon State Constitution, passed in 1859, contained an exclusion clause that made it illegal for African Americans to live in Oregon (the clause was not repealed until 1926, and the population of African Americans in Oregon did not surpass one percent until 1960). Those prejudices and restrictions did not stop Southworth from making a good life in the state. The Homestead Act of 1862 did not restrict by race, and in 1879, Southworth and his family took up a homestead in the Alsea Valley. An active member of the community, he built a sawmill and ferried people up the Alsea River. Louis Southworth died on June 28, 1917, at almost eighty-eight years old.


Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared that the federal government would guarantee the rights of citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." No state could "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law." Passed by Congress in 1866, the law was intended to safeguard the rights of recently freed slaves in the South, where whites were working hard to subjugate them. Most white Oregonians had opposed both slavery and the presence of blacks in Oregon since the early 1840s, and the Oregon legislature ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 by a narrow margin. Two legislators protested that the amendment would "change, if not entirely destroy, the republican form of government under which we live, and crush American liberty." The same legislature passed a law prohibiting racial intermarriage.


Salem’s Colored School and Little Central

The first school open to African American students in Oregon—referred to as the Colored School—was founded in March 1867 by African American residents in Salem. In 1868, the original school closed when the city opened a segregated public school called Little Central, which was also called the “Colored School.” Oregon did not have a state superintendent of schools to institute and manage free and uniform schools in every district until 1872, so people often organized their own schools and determined enrollment requirements and school fees. In a state where African Americans were legally, economically, and socially marginalized by the white population, the children of black families were routinely barred from school attendance.


Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Vancouver

buffalo soldiers    For thirteen months beginning in 1899, a company of 103 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry—one of four African American regiments known as Buffalo Soldiers—garrisoned at Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Washington. The company arrived at the barracks during the brief period of time when respect for African American soldiers was buoyed by their recent success in the Spanish-American War in Cuba. While in the Northwest, the soldiers participated in military, political, and social activities, introducing many residents of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho to blacks and raising local awareness of the national policies and practices that beleaguered African Americans.


DeNorval Unthank

Born in Pennsylvania in 1899, DeNorval Unthank attended the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and received his M.D. in 1926. Three years later, he moved to Portland to work for the Union Pacific Railroad to care for its black workers. as its local physician One of the city’s most visible civil rights activists, Unthank was the first African American member of the Portland City Club in 1943. He was a cofounder of the Portland Urban League in 1945 and served as president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP. He was also a member of the state Committee for Equal Rights and the Council of Social Agencies and was active in the passage of the state’s 1953 Civil Rights Bill. At Unthank’s death, Urban League Director Sheldon Hill said: “Contributions he has made to the community over 50 years have a lot to do with the direction race relations have taken in this town.”    unthank


Kathryn Hall Bogle

Kathryn Hall Bogle, a freelance journalist, social worker, and community activist, was born on December 24, 1906. She is remembered as “one of Portland’s earliest and most passionate advocates of racial diversity.” She wrote articles for many African American newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier, the Seattle-based Northwest Enterprise, the Portland Observer, and The Skanner, and was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Portland Association of Black Journalists in 1993. Bogle may be best known for “An American Negro Speaks of Color,” a 2,000-word article she sold to the Oregonian in 1937, which described the realities of being black in Portland. It was the first time the newspaper paid an African American for a story, and Bogle would contribute many more articles to the Oregonian over the years.    bogle


Golden West Hotel

golden west      The Golden West Hotel, located at Northwest Broadway and Everett Streets in Portland, was the first hotel in the city to accommodate African American patrons. For twenty-five years, from 1906 through 1931, it was a social center and a focal point of the black community, a place for African Americans of all ages to gather and socialize in a segregated and largely unfriendly city. On the lower floors of the hotel, there were several black-owned businesses, including a bar, a barbershop, an ice cream parlor, and an athletic club. In the twenty-first century, the Golden West still functions as low-income housing, now under its original name. The quarter-century of the original Golden West stands as a reminder of a time in Portland when a black middle class and a vibrant, tightly knit culture thrived in a city weighed down by racism.


Black Cowboys

  Oregon’s most celebrated rodeo, the Pendleton Round-Up, began in 1910 and included African American competitors from the beginning. The Round-Up’s most famous black rider, George Fletcher, was born in the Midwest, but he moved to Pendleton as a young man, learning from horsemen on the nearby Umatilla Indian Reservation. Throughout the 1910s, he enthralled audiences with his flamboyant style, which included wearing bright orange chaps, and his loose, relaxed way of riding that made every movement look as though it would fling him off. In 1911, Fletcher competed against John Spain, who was white, and Jackson Sundown, who was Nez Perce, in the bucking finals. Spain was awarded first prize, but the crowd disagreed with the judge’s decision and cheered loudest for Fletcher. Most spectators agreed that Fletcher had ridden better and that the decision derived from the judge’s reluctance to award the first prize to a nonwhite man. Fletcher would later serve in the military during World War I, where he sustained injuries that ended his rodeo career.    Jesse Stahl


Beatrice Morrow Cannady

cannady    In 1912 Beatrice Cannady became assistant editor of the Advocate, Oregon's largest and at times only African American newspaper. Her affiliation with the paper would continue for the next twenty-four years, becoming the editor and owner of the Advocate in 1930. In 1922, at the age of thirty-three, Cannady became the first African American woman to graduate from Northwestern College of Law in Portland. She was one of only two women in a class of twenty-two.


Thelma Johnson Streat

Streat    Thelma Johnson Streat was an African American artist who focused on ethnic themes in her work. Born on August 29, 1912, in Yakima, Washington, she moved with her family to Portland where she graduated from Washington High School. Streat began painting at the age of seven and received art training at the Museum Art School in the mid-1930s. Her work is powerful, both in line and color, as exemplified by the piece Black Virgin, now in the collection of Reed College. Her art is also included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Mills College in Oakland, California, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Honolulu Academy of the Arts.



Lizzie Weeks

  Lizzie Koontz Weeks was an African American activist in Portland in the years after women in Oregon had achieved the right to vote in 1912. She organized black women to empower them to be successful voters and was an early candidate for local party office. Weeks was the first female African American social worker to be employed by Multnomah County. In the fall of 1914, in the first national election after the success of woman’s suffrage in Oregon, Weeks helped organize a meeting in Portland of African American women who supported the Republican Party, the party of most blacks from the time of the Civil War until the Great Depression. The group formed the Colored Women’s Republican Club and elected Weeks, who was already a registered voter, as president.    weeks


William McClendon

mcclendon    William McClendon was a writer, journalist, intellectual, activist, and jazz musician who was a prominent member of Portland’s civil rights community from 1938 until his death in 1996. Born in Atlanta in 1915, he attended Morehouse College before moving to Portland in 1938. He was the founder and editor of the Portland Observer, a short-lived but vitally important newspaper that focused on issues facing African Americans in Portland before and during World War II. In 1949, McClendon bought a jazz club on Williams Avenue. A jazz pianist himself, he ran McClendon's Rhythm Room until the mid-1950s. His contribution to Portland's jazz scene has been memorialized in the Bill McClendon Award for Excellence in Jazz, given out each year at the Portland Jazz Festival.


Willie Mae Young Hart

Willie Mae Young was born on April 4, 1916, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she trained informally as a nurse. She relocated to Oregon in 1939, first to Coos Bay and then to Portland, where she worked in the shipyards on Swan Island. In addition to the community organizing that characterized so many of her contemporaries, Willie Mae Young Hart has made a habit of breaking the color line. She helped operate Portland’s first black-owned cab company and was the first African American nurse to work at Portland's Physicians and Surgeons Hospital. As a founding member of the Portland Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women and Women In Community Service, Hart inspired others to serve as agents of change.


Arthur Lee “Artie” Wilson

Artie Wilson was a professional baseball player who was A longtime Portland resident, Artie Wilson played for the Pacific Coast League for most of his professional baseball career. Born in Springfield, Alabama, on October 28, 1920, he was the first African American player hired on an integrated team, the Oakland Oaks. Wilson played shortstop for the Birmingham Black Barons, a Negro League team, from 1942 to 1948. During his last year with the Barons, the team competed in the Negro League World Series, and Wilson became the last professional baseball player to bat over 400 (.402). That year, he mentored the young Willie Mays, who played for the team. In 1949, the New York Yankees signed Wilson and then sold his contract to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. In 1950, the Oaks won the PCL championship, and Wilson won the PCL batting title with a .348 average; he led the league with 47 stolen bases. For the next sixteen years, he played for PCL teams, including the Portland Beavers (1955-1956; 1961).



maxville workers          Maxville, located in northeast Oregon near the town of Wallowa, was home to African American loggers at a time when Oregon’s constitution included a provision excluding blacks from the state. The Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company recruited experienced loggers from throughout the South and Midwest for a logging operation in Wallowa County, housing them initially at Logging Camp #5. In 1923, the company built a new town for the loggers and their families, both white and black, at nearby Bishop’s Meadow. Originally named Mac’s Town, after Bowman-Hicks superintendent R.D. MacMillan, the name was changed to Maxville. The town had a population of about 400 residents, 40 to 60 of them African American. It was the largest town in Wallowa County between 1923 and 1933.


Billy Webb Elks Lodge

The Billy Webb Elks Lodge, a modest, shingle-sided building located at 6 North Tillamook Street in Portland, is a reminder of the city's history of segregation history and is a key historical landmark for the African American community. Designed by DeYoung and Roald, the structure was completed in 1926 as a project of the Portland YWCA. The building replaced a temporary structure that since 1921 had housed the YWCA’s first effort to reach out to Portland’s small African American community. During the 1920s, “membership reflected segregated housing in the city, with separate clubs for African-American, Japanese, Chinese, and native/foreign-born white girls.” People referred to it as the “Williams Avenue branch” or the “Colored YWCA.”


Obo Addy

obo addy    Obo Addy, a celebrated Ghanian drummer and dancer, was born in 1936 in Accra, the capital of Ghana. He was the son of a Wonche medicine man and by the age of six was designated as a drummer. Addy’s family was part of the Ga ethnic group, and he was raised playing in the musical traditions of the Ga people. Addy lived in Portland for over thirty years and taught at Lewis & Clark College. He helped popularize a genre known as worldbeat, a combination of European and African musical traditions.


Triple Nickles

The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, nicknamed the "Triple Nickles" (using the English spelling of 'nickel'), was a World War II African American unit of the U.S. Army stationed in Pendleton in 1945. The battalion, first organized in November 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia, was made up of voluntary transfers from other organizations. Created when the U.S. military was segregated by race, the 555th was the only African American parachute unit. The distinctive insignia for the 555th was a white parachute with a black panther crouching on top. According to Lt. Col. (ret.) John Cannon, "We were the first Black Panthers because that was our emblem."    triple nickles


The Dude Ranch

On December 5, 1945, impresario Norman Granz brought his touring jam session, Jazz at the Philharmonic, to the Dude Ranch, Portland’s premier jazz venue on North Williams Avenue, the center of the city’s African American community. That night, legendary saxophonist Coleman Hawkins led a group that included trumpeter Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge, bassist Al McKibbon, and a twenty-five-year-old pianist with a “lightning-like right hand” who was soon to usher in the bebop age, Thelonious Monk. “Never before in the history of the northwest has there been as much jazz music played per square minute by any group,” Bill McClendon proclaimed in The Observer, Portland’s African American newspaper.



vanport    On Memorial Day, May 30, 1948, the Columbia River at Portland crested fifteen feet higher than its flood plain, held back only by dikes. At 4:17 p.m., the water breached the Northern Pacific Railway embankment and backfilled the low-lying with of Vanport. While water filled sloughs and low spots, the community’s 18,500 residents had thirty-five minutes to escape. The rising water tumbled automobiles and swirled Vanport’s wooden apartment buildings off their foundations like toy boats. Fifteen residents died. Refugees crowded into Portland, a city still recovering from the war. Part of the problem was race, for more than a thousand of the flooded families were African Americans who could find housing only in the growing ghetto in North Portland. The flood also sparked unfounded but persistent rumors in the African American community that the Housing Authority had deliberately withheld warnings about the flood and the city had concealed a much higher death toll.



Clarence Pruitt

In 1954, Clarence Pruitt was the first African American to graduate from and later teach at the University of Oregon Dental School (now the Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry). In 1950, Pruitt was accepted to the University of Oregon Dental School. As a first-year student in 1951, he received a scholarship for his second year in the program from the state system of higher education. He won the scholarship the following year, as well. While in dental school, he faced discrimination as the only African American in his class, and he was denied admission to several campus fraternities because of his race. After being discharged from the air force in the summer of 1956, Pruitt joined the University of Oregon Dental School faculty as its first black instructor.    pruitt


15th Amendment

Oregon joined California as two of the five western states that considered and rejected the Fifteenth Amendment, which stated that voting rights "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Oregon did not formally ratify the amendment until 1959. This refusal was largely symbolic, since Oregon could not overturn the rule of the land. Hence, Oregon's Supreme Court in 1870 upheld the rights of two African American men in Wasco County to vote for county commissioner, explaining: "To hold otherwise would be to unwarrantably overthrow certain well established principles of law. . . ." 


Black Panthers in Portland

hampton clinic    In April 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, blacks across the nation took to the streets in grief and anger. In Portland, a group of about twenty young blacks began meeting to study the writings of Malcolm X and the Little Red Book of quotations from China’s chairman Mao Tse-Tung. In June 1969, a member of the study group was beaten and jailed. Upon his release on bail, Kent Ford held a press conference on the steps of the Portland police station at Southwest Third and Oak. “If they keep coming in with these fascist tactics,” he announced, “we´re going to defend ourselves.” With this public pronouncement, members of the original group retooled themselves as a chapter of the Black Panthers in Portland. The chapter opened an office on the southeast corner of Northeast Cook Street and Union Avenue (present-day Martin Luther King Boulevard), the first of four locations.


Fred Milton

Milton    In a time of social and racial turmoil in the late 1960s, the Black Student Union at Oregon State University staged a protest, walking off campus on March 5, 1969, because football coach Dee Andros had kicked African American linebacker Fred Milton off the team for sporting a mustache and goatee. Andros would not tolerate players who breached disciplinary rules, including those related to hair. After a forty-minute meeting between coach and player, neither side would budge, with Milton arguing that Andros’s prohibition of facial hair violated his human rights. Andros’s decision made national news and connected OSU to other racially charged incidents on college campuses and riots taking place in the black neighborhoods of many major American cities. The incident highlighted the issue of racial and cultural differences at the university and in Corvallis. Although the football team had been integrated for several years, no black players on the men’s basketball team had scholarships until 1966.



William A. Hilliard

William A. Hilliard was named the first African American editor of the Oregonian in 1982, and one of the few blacks to serve as the editor of a major newspaper. Growing up in Portland, he was refused a paper route for the Oregonian when he was a boy for fear that white subscribers would resent it, and he transferred from the University of Oregon after a professor told him there was no place for blacks on newspapers. In 1993, Hilliard was named president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the first African American to hold that position. At the end of his one-year term, he retired as editor of the Oregonian. "I want to believe," Hilliard said at his retirement, "that over the years, scores of young people of color have looked at me and said, ‘It can happen.'"    Hilliard


Jazz Musicians in Oregon

williams   memory   Grant
Cleve Williams   Thara John Memory   Darrell Grant
Trombonist and singer Cleveland "Cleve" Williams Jr. was an important musician in a jazz scene that thrived in the African American neighborhood along Portland's Williams Avenue during the 1940s and 1950s. He was at the forefront of players who developed the bebop style in the city.   Thara John Memory is a trumpeter player, composer, educator, and activist in the Portland jazz community. In 2011, the Portland Jazz Festival named him an Oregon Jazz Master, and he was selected as a Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2014   A pianist, vocalist, composer, and educator, Darrell Grant arrived in Portland in 1997 with a national reputation. His contributions to the area jazz scene quickly elevated him to prominence based not only on his high level of musicianship but also on the attention and legitimacy he brought to jazz education and performance. 



Nancy King   Mel Brown   Leroy Vinnegar
For most of her career, Nancy King has been considered the Pacific Northwest's pre-eminent jazz singer. National recognition was slower to come, though she always received the praise of her peers. For twenty years, King was known as an underground classic—a supremely talented vocalist whose strict adherence to straightahead jazz and independent attitude at times got in the way of national tours and higher visibility. By the end of the 1990s, however, King had become one of the leading jazz singers in the world.    If one had to choose a single musician to represent the history of jazz in Portland, it would be drummer and bandleader Mel Brown. One of the most active, influential, and respected artists in the area jazz scene since the 1970s, Brown’s roots are in Portland’s historic jazz district that flourished along Williams Avenue in the 1940s and 1950s. Just as he was brought into jazz as a teenager, he helps train and nurture later generations of musicians.    Though he spent only the last thirteen years of a long career in Portland, celebrated bassist Leroy Vinnegar became a central figure in the local jazz scene. In 1995, the Oregon legislature honored his contributions to the cultural life of the state by designating May 1 as Leroy Vinnegar Day. The Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute at Portland State University was named in his honor, and in 1998, Vinnegar became the first member of the Jazz Society of Oregon’s Hall of Fame.


Esperanza Spalding   Marianne Mayfield   Janice Scroggins
Esperanza Spalding’s fierce talent in double bass and vocal work earned her a Grammy in 2011 for Best New Artist, making her the first jazz musician and one of only four Oregonians to ever win that award. She won three more Grammys in 2013 and 2014, one of them shared with her mentor, Portland jazz trumpeter Thara Memory. Not only did Spalding master singing while playing bass, but she also distinguished herself as a woman in the male-dominated jazz genre within the even narrower pool of female double bass players.   During more than thirty years on the Portland jazz scene, singer and bassist Marianne Mayfield was a rare female instrumentalist in a male-dominated jazz world and was proud of her place in it. “I’m grateful for…the fact that I have enjoyed the respect of my contemporaries, the musicians, the guys. Not as a woman but as a musician and as a person,” she said in a 1985 interview.    It is unusual for musicians to achieve the respect of peers and professional success in more than one field. Pianist, music director, educator, and composer Janice Scroggins did. Between her arrival in Portland in 1979 and her death at age fifty-eight in 2014, she played a central role in the blues, gospel, and jazz communities. Such a wide scope was possible for the Oklahoma native due to her command of the common elements underlying those styles. 


"Sweet Baby" James Benton          
James Benton has been a singer of jazz, blues, and R&B during two distinct eras in Portland's musical history. He first came to prominence in the 1950s, during the heyday of the African American entertainment district along North Williams Avenue, and performed steadily until the late 1960s. During that time, he also operated a performance space on North Williams Avenue that was an important gathering place for African American musicians.