A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Six - A Few Colored Men in Oregon
Blacks in Oregon 1850-1900
After the gold mines were exhausted, most black people went elsewhere. Those who remained became farmers or worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, barbers, washerwomen, shinglemakers, etc. Three men about whom some information has been preserved were perhaps typical.
Samuel Cozzens was born in Virginia in 1822, and came to Jackson County in the 1870's. He was a woodcutter, bought and sold land, and died in 1891. Jackson Berry was born in Tennessee in 1818, and came to Oregon in 1852. He apparently came with a white man named H.A. Overbeck, who agreed to free him after ten years of service in Oregon. In 1866 he filed a land claim for 112 acres, and in 1872 received title to the land. He remained in Jackson County, working as a farmer, until his death in 1892. Samuel Vose was born in Massachusetts in 1812 and came to Jacksonville in the 1850's or 1860's. In 1861 he sold his house and land. For many years he was a barber and bootblack in the Elite Barbershop on Main Street in Jacksonville. In 1879 he traded his house and land to Jeanne Holt in exchange for room and board in the hotel she built on his land. He lived there rent free until his death in 1882. The barberpole from his shop is still on display in the Jacksonville museum. Cozzens, Berry and Vose were buried in a separate section of the Jacksonville cemetery reserved for black people.
Gold was discovered in 1862 on Canyon Creek by men searching for the fabled "Blue Bucket Mine," and a town soon grew up. Eight million dollars was taken from Canyon City mines in the 1870's and the town had a population of 10,000. Among those who came to the boom town called Canyon City was a black man, Columbus Sewell, and his wife. Born in 1820 in Virginia, he had served in the Black Hawk War under General Scott. He came to California during the gold rush, and moved to Canyon City in the 1860's. After operating a mining claim for a time, he turned to hauling freight for his livelihood.
His wife, Louisa, was born in Richmond, Virginia. They had three sons, two of whom survived into adulthood. Louisa was remembered for the delicious ice cream she made, and was fond of entertaining her neighbors. She built a park and croquet court opposite their home, and entertained visitors on the 4th of July with ice cream and cake. She died in 1893, visited during her last illness by many of the ladies of the town.
The couple's eldest son, Thomas, entered the freighting business, and lived in Canyon City until his death in the 1940's.
He married Cora Misette in 1899. They had no children, and Cora died in 1919. Later, he married a Portland woman, but continued to live in Canyon City. During the 1930's he was sentenced to a term in the State Penitentiary for selling whiskey to an Indian, but according to those who knew him he expressed no ill feelings, and regarded the experience as an adventure. He got to ride a train, was given a new set of dentures, and regular meals and clothing. He was well liked and respected, and frequently aided his neighbors in times of illness, in some cases acting as nurse. He died during a visit to Portland, and was brought back to be buried in the Canyon City cemetery.
Joseph Sewell, his younger brother, was an attractive rogue and an excellent horseman and athlete, addicted to the wild and wooly aspects of frontier life, where drinking, racing and fighting were daily events. As a child, he was for a time the best fighter in the area, and took on all challengers. His exploits made entertaining reading in the local paper:
A true specimen of the Sunny South gave Tiger town a call last Friday. After getting the usual amount of tangle-foot he started to take the town, and after the leading sporting man of John Day had tried to knock him out of time according to the latest revised rules of Tiger town, and failed, our colored friend was introduced to Justice Kelly, who taxed him $12.50 for the benefit of the public school. He was sent on his way rejoicing.
Spring fights have already begun. Joe Sewell last Monday slapped a fellow called 'Frenchy' for using insulting language towards his mother. Joe was arrested, but the case was compromised by each paying half the costs.
Joseph Sewell died in the 1890's, according to some as a result of a fight in Baker, according to others in a brawl in a Pendleton whorehouse.
One of the earliest black residents of Portland was Abner Hunt Francis, who with his wife, Lynda, settled in Portland in the early 1850's. Under the 1849 exclusion law, still in effect, he was living in Portland illegally, but over 200 people signed a petition urging that he be allowed to remain. Although the law was not repealed until 1854, the couple remained in Portland. In 1852 they ran a boarding house, and Ezra Meeker, an early resident, remarked on their hospitality.
In the mid-1850's Francis owned a mercantile store on the corner of Front and Stark, advertising the lowest rates offered in Portland on such goods as wool plaid, french merino, silk dress goods, fashionable bonnets and mantillas and an assortment of furs, as well as groceries, cement and glass. His store also advertised sheet music furnished on two weeks' notice, at San Francisco prices. The Weekly Oregonian carried a large notice for weeks advertising the business, which made Francis a wealthy man. By 1860 his real and personal property was valued at $36,000.
In late 1860 the couple left Portland on the Brother Jonathan and arrived in Victoria B.C. on October 9. The sale of his Portland business resulted in a loss, and Francis was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1862. His reasons for leaving Portland are unknown, but Victoria contained a thriving black population, supplemented by ex-California blacks who left the United States because of racism. A.H. Francis was introduced to the U.S. Speaker of the House, Schuyler Coifax, who visited Victoria in 1865. He remained in Victoria until his death in 1872.
By 1870, 47% of the black population of Oregon lived in Multnomah County. Twenty years later, the population of Portland, including the unincorporated cities of East Portland and Albina, included 519 black people, 44 % of the total black population of the state. They composed less than one percent of the total population of Portland, which at that time was 62,046. Most lived on the west side of the river, scattered within an area from S.W. Montgomery to N.W. Kearney, and from the river west to 12th Street. A few lived in Albina and East Portland?
Most of the racist sentiment in Portland during this period was directed against the Chinese, the largest minority in the city. In 1880 Portland had the second largest Chinese population in the nation, and in 1890 there were a total of 4,740 Chinese and 20 Japanese living in the Portland area? Most lived on the west side of the river. By contrast, the black population of Portland in 1890 was only 519, with 92% living on the west side. Racial antagonism toward the Chinese population was common, as a modern Portland historian observed:
The year of 1886 was rough for Portland's Chinese, especially in March, 1886. Raids, beatings, arson fires were common.
Labor was the main culprit. Public animosity was inflamed by politicians such as Sylvester Pennoyer who ran for Governor, and won, on an anti-Chinese plank. Oregon's U.S. Senator John H. Mitchell gave demagogic speeches on the Senate floor?
Out of a total of 285 black people listed in Portland's city directories for years between 1864 and 1887, the highest number of people were employed in jobs relating to the restaurant, saloon and hotel industry. A few owned businesses, but the majority were stewards, waiters, cooks and porters. The next largest number of people were employed in the shoe and bootmaker trades and clothing manufacturing, with many also employed as bootblacks and dressmakers. 16.3% were employed as laborers or jobbers. 13% were barbers or hairdressers. The rest held jobs as domestics, janitors, house cleaners, laundresses, whitewashers, messengers, expressmen, packers, steamboatmen, apprentices, and gardeners. A handful listed their occupations as student, physician, nurse, pastor and music teacher. The two most common jobs were cooks and bootblacks.
In 1883 a group of black people marched in a parade in Portland to celebrate the completion of a rail line from the East Coast to Portland. It was a significant event for black people, as the railroad offered new employment opportunities. Soon black porters, dining car waiters and other railroad employees came to settle in Portland.
The Portland Hotel had been started and then abandoned in the 1880's. When it was completed in 1890, over one million dollars, most of it put up by Portland's wealthy class, had been spent to complete the eight floor, 326 room hotel. For three decades it was the center of the business and social life of the city. Approximately seventy-five black men were brought from North and South Carolina and Georgia to work in the hotel as barbers, waiters, and in other positions. The wages and tips paid these men allowed them to send for their families. They formed the elite of Portland's black community, and some were able to leave the hotel to go into business for themselves. Many families were also able to purchase homes.
Those black people that went into business for themselves often succeeded by serving the needs of the black community.
Some operated boarding houses, restaurants, saloons, barbershops and hotels.
One of the most lucrative opportunities for blacks as well as whites was in the underworld that flourished in Portland in the late nineteenth century, tolerated by a corrupt city government. Gambling and prostitution were practiced openly; the police force took bribes and ignored illegal activities. The "redlight" district was originally located on the west side, between Burnside, Broadway, Glisan and the Willamette River. In this section there was more racial intermingling; Japanese, French, white and black women were employed as prostitutes in houses, or worked as waitresses and dancers. Black men owned saloons and gambling houses. Many prominent white citizens had a financial interest in the area, and blacks made money and were able to wield political influence. Bribery was an accepted practice, and black businessmen were often paid to deliver the black vote. Occasionally, when the parties were divided, it became possible for the black politicians to collect from both sides. During this time a black barber named Charlie Green was put up for city councilman and elected by the Democrats. He never took his seat, as he was bought off?
After the Emancipation Proclamation, Oregon's black citizens organized annual celebrations to mark their freedom, as did black people around the country. In January of 1868, one celebration was held in Salem, attended by local black people, as well as residents of Albany and the surrounding area, and white people from both political parties. The local paper reported that among the numbers attending were six blacks who had been freed by the Proclamation; A. Boles, a blacksmith, presided and the event was celebrated with prayers, singing, reciting poems, and concluded with a social dance and supper?
A similar celebration was held the following year in Portland. Although neither the Oregonian or the Oregon Herald sent reporters to cover the event, they both published accounts of it. The Oregon Herald reported,
We were not present, but we are told that the exercises were highly creditable to the darkies . . .
In 1870, black people had something additional to celebrate: the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. During this celebration a "declaration of sentiments" was prepared and read, in which Abraham Lincoln was eulogized, black people pledged their loyalty and resolved:
That it shall be our chief aim to render such an account of ourselves, should our country need us, that America the greatest nation of the earth, may be proud of her newly enfranchised citizens?
In 1870 there were other brief news items about the black community. Black citizens that year voiced a protest that their children were excluded from the annual Sunday School picnic. Ben Holiday, a flashy and unscrupulous railroad man who financed Republican elections, attempted to buy the black vote and his maneuvers were reported in detail. But interest in the black vote and the new status of the black citizen soon died, and the press turned its attention elsewhere.
The first black church in Portland was organized in 1862, and met for a time at the home of Mrs. Mary Carr, who owned a boarding house on First Street. It was then called the People's Church, and services were held in the homes of various members. In January, 1869, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was incorporated in Portland, and property was purchased on northwest Third Street, between Burnside and Couch. The first pastor of the church was the Reverend J.O. Lodge. In 1883 the congregation erected a building on Thirteenth and Main, and remained there until 1916, when the congregation moved to the east side of the river and built a church on Williams Avenue.
In 1895 the California African Methodist Episcopal Conference sent the Reverend S.S. Freeman to Portland to establish an A.M.E. Church. Meetings were first held in a building donated by a Mr. Jenkin, a black man who owned a building on Thirteenth and Everett. This arrangement ended when the pastor offended Mr. Jenkin by marrying his daughter to a porter on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The newlyweds left town, and Mr. Freeman was forced to find another place to conduct church services.
He and his wife opened a boarding house for railroad people between Third and Fourth on Everett Street. This venture was successful, and soon the congregation, called the Bethel A.M.E. Church, was able to buy the Japanese mission building on Tenth Street between Everett and Davis. The church remained at this location until 1916, when it moved to the east side and built a church on Larrabee and McMillen.
A third black church, the Mount Oliver Baptist Church, was established in Portland in the 1890's. When it moved to the east side and built a church on First and Schuyler, the lumber used to construct the building was donated by a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan?
Some of Portland's blacks believed that they were more fortunate than their southern counterparts, and in 1879 organized a society to encourage black people to move to Oregon. Called the Portland Colored Immigration Society, the organization printed a circular which was distributed to southern and southwestern states, giving information on the climate, products and resources of Oregon. The society proposed to raise funds to purchase tickets for black people wishing to come to Oregon, and to provide temporary housing and give advice and other information to black people newly arrived.
Political clubs and fraternal organizations were also established, growing out of an awareness of the need to unite and enhance what little political power black people had. Discouragement, the pressures of earning a living, and internal divisions often meant that these associations did not last long.
By the turn of the century, black people in Oregon were beginning to initiate efforts to improve their political and social condition. The New Port Republican Club wielded enough influence to secure the placement of a black man, George Hardin, on the police force in 1894. Black people were beginning to go to the state legislature to lobby for the repeal of the exclusion clause and the ban on voting, and to secure the repeal of the law prohibiting interracial marriages?
The End of Chapter Six
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