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A Guide to African American Heritage & Culture


African Americans in Portland have made a sizeable contribution to the city’s development since the time of the pioneers. They literally kept the city — and the nation — running with their invaluable work in the railway industry and the World War II shipyards.

The heart of the community is the Albina district. Banners in vibrant green, yellow and red that celebrate the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. festoon lampposts along the Boulevard named in his honor. New construction of businesses and restaurants stand aside historic homes, landmark buildings and venerable institutions.

Visit art galleries and boutiques along Alberta Street and check out the busy bookstore and bakery at the intersection of Killingsworth Street and MLK Jr. Boulevard. Enjoy a dinner of tasty ribs at Doris’ Café on Russell Street, then step next door to the Albina Coffeehouse to enjoy the Albina Jazz Quintet.

Get swept up in the passion of a gospel choir at one of the numerous African-American churches in a neighborhood where churches and civic organizations have always been the glue holding this strong community together.

Festivals

For the African-American community the calendar year begins with the end of Kwanzaa, the African harvest festival held from December 26 to January 1. This festival, which originated in 1966 in California, is now celebrated nationwide. Our celebration includes the Gentlemen’s Ball (503.306.2960) and events at the North Portland Branch Library.

Two weeks later, the life of Martin Luther King Jr. is commemorated. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the third Monday of January, a six-hour celebration with at least 500 participants is held at Jefferson High School. Musicians, dancers, gospel choirs, actors and speakers join their voices in joyous confirmation of
Dr. King’s dream.

February is Black History Month with events that include performances and exhibits at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center and a performance by the Northwest Afrikan American Ballet.

“Juneteenth” is celebrated with a grand parade and a picnic in Alberta Park on the Saturday closest to June 19th. This uniquely African-American holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas received word that Lincoln had abolished slavery. In Portland, observation of the holiday was begun in the shipyards in 1944 by Clara Peoples. On the last weekend in June, the grounds of the Holy Redeemer School (127 N. Portland Blvd., 503.283.5197) come alive with the Good in the Hood celebration. This three-day festival of multicultural music, foods, games and arts showcases the rich culture of North and Northeast Portland.

Did You Know...

Portland has the oldest continuously chartered NAACP chapter west of the Mississippi.

In 1952 Marian Anderson, the famous singer who performed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, appeared in Portland as a soloist with the symphony. Little did she know that 28 years later her own nephew, James DePreist, would become music director of the Oregon Symphony.

Three of Portland’s oldest churches are part of the African-American community. AME Zion Church (109 N. Skidmore St., 503.287.4969) was founded as The People’s Church in 1862; Bethel AME Church (5828 N.E. Eighth Ave., 503.288.5429) was established in 1895; and Mt. Olivet Baptist Church (8725 N. Chautauqua Blvd., 503.240.7729) is in its third location after being founded in 1906.

Portland has two African-American newspapers: The Skanner and The Portland Observer.

Kwanzaa, the word denoting the African-American harvest festival, is spelled with two final As because at the first celebration in 1966 seven children volunteered to hold up the letters of the Swahili word “Kwanza.” An extra “a” was added for the seventh child.

Vanport
During World War II, about 20,000 blacks were recruited nationwide to work at shipyards in the Portland- Vancouver area. They lived in wartime housing projects, such as Vanport, built next to the Columbia River. Vanport became the second largest city in Oregon and was an early model of integration. But on Memorial Day 1948 the river flooded and Vanport disappeared. The flood killed 15 people and left 18,500 homeless, 5,000 of them African Americans, most of whom were then relocated to the Albina district.

History: African Americans in Oregon

The history of the first known African American to set foot in Oregon is a brief one. Marcus Lopez, a cabin boy on Capt. Robert Gray’s ship Lady Washington, was killed by Indians with other shipmates near Tillamook in 1788. But tales of York, Capt. William Clark’s slave, who accompanied the 1804-6 Lewis & Clark Expedition, were told for years by Indian tribes who encountered and admired him.

Today’s African-American community in Portland dates back to the beginnings of the transcontinental railroad. Many black workers made Portland their home in order to have access to Union Station and jobs on the railroad.

When the Portland Hotel opened in 1890, the workers brought here from the South earned wages high enough to buy homes and start their own businesses. This was the beginning of the black middle class in Portland. In 1927, a bellboy at the Portland Hotel, Wyatt Williams, became one of the first black lawyers admitted to the Oregon State Bar. Eventually promoted to bell captain, he continued to work at the hotel while practicing law on the side.

World War II brought a great influx of African Americans to Portland. Thousands worked in the shipyards and lived at Vanport, a wartime housing project that was destroyed by flood in 1948.

Local members of the NAACP, the Urban League and other organizations fought tirelessly for civil rights. Their efforts brought about the removal of discriminatory laws that had been on the books in Oregon since pioneer days.