A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Ten - A Tough Spot with a Nice Climate
Epilogue Page Two
. . . widespread discrimination is still being practiced and will so long as the injured party must file suit?
This report concluded that the greatest improvement for black people had been economic. Blacks had been able to get union jobs in the building trades, the dry cleaning industry, the foundries, and the construction and building service industries. A few unions still practiced discrimination, particularly evident in the reluctance of apprenticeship programs to admit black people.
Many blacks were finding jobs in the professions, in education, the federal civil service, state and county social work, medicine and nursing, the ministry and the law. The professions of education and social work attracted the largest percent of black college graduates in Portland.
Public agencies also employed a number of black people. The city of Portland had 115 black employees, primarily in manual labor. The Police department had eight black employees, and the Fire department one. Multnomah County employed fifty blacks, and the State of Oregon forty, including an assistant state attorney general. The federal government had 275 black employees in Portland, and forty-six black teachers were employed by the Portland School district.
The principal area of weakness was in the business community, as employers were still reluctant to hire black peopleˇ The City Club report noted:
. . . too often the lack of any policy is simply the reflection of a company's lack of any real interest in equal opportunities for Negroes, regardless of ability or training?
The study concluded:
We have discovered that some definite progress has been made, as it has throughout the country. But we have also found that prejudice and discrimination still exist in Portland, to the degree at least that most Negroes have not in any realistic sense been "harmoniously integrated" into Portland's community life?
In 1972 the median family income of non-whites was $7,106, compared to white median family income of $11,549. The unemployment rate in the city of Portland in 1975 was 10.1% for whites, and 15.6% for blacksˇ Some believe that the gap has widened. A recent study concluded, Until the society decides to do something, the poor will continue to be poorer while the rich get richer.
Portland's black community was profoundly and permanently altered. The war brought new problems and the beginning of solutions to old problems. For the first time, black people became the largest and most visible minority in Oregon. Black civil rights organizations were strengthened and new ones formed. New visibility resulted in the passage of basic civil rights legislation. Although these laws have had varying degrees of success in eliminating discrimination, they were preferable to no laws at all.
The war brought negative changes as well. There was an increase in racial tension, and hostility between "new" and "old" blacks. The power structure in the black community changed, and some former leaders, accustomed to dealing with the white power stl:ucture as members of a tiny minority were labeled "Uncle Toms". War economics and union policies combined to foster the creation of a class of black people who subsisted by marginal and sometimes illegal methods. An equitable solution to integrated schools has yet to be found.
Despite a history of inequality, life for black people in Oregon was not devoid of joy or hope. One black Portlander recalled,
I've had a grand life here in Portland. It's a good place to live. What I've always liked about it is that you could live like you wanted to. You could keep up with the crowd if you wanted or you could just live to yourself... I love my church and I loved the Federated Clubs when I was in them... I'm glad to see there are some good people here. Some good people have come in here and have helped to make [Portland] continue [to be a] good place to live... I just felt Portland was growing up when a lot of things happened.
In many ways the black people of Oregon are our community's twentieth century poineers. Like pioneers of any age, they are accustomed to survival. Many of the values that our society has forgotten are retained in the black community: the value of education, strong family and religious ties, a sense of tradition and respect for our elder citizens, a sensitivity to the needs of the less fortunate. We ignore these deep and pervasive values at the peril of our collective human spirit.
Return To Table of Contents