A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Seven - Sober, Industrious and Honest
The Black Community of Portland
By 1941, the results of an industrial survey revealed that 98.6% of black people were employed in the railroad industry as waiters, cooks, porters, redcaps, and shop laborers .1% were employed in private industry, and .4% in business and the professions?
The railroad industry was always the most consistent employer of black workers. In 1931, when the Portland Hotel fired ten black waiters and replaced them with white waitresses, the men were hired by the railroad. Three months later, the Portland Hotel offered to re-hire the men and all but two went back. The two men who did not return to the Portland Hotel had found good jobs on the railroad and decided not to leave. Railroad jobs provided some degree of stability for the black community during the Depression, but the jobs came without any opportunity for advancement. Black men were confined to lower paying jobs and were not able to advance to positions traditionally held by white men. Wages were low and many men had to take a second job in order to support their families.
As early as 1900, black railroad men began to organize to improve working conditions; in 1912 Pullman porters from all over the United States presented petitions to the Pullman Company asking for an increase in wages. As a result, monthly wages were raised from $25.00 to $27.50. In 1917 another increase, to $45.00 a month, was secured. The Pullman car lines were placed under the U.S. Railroad Commission at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War I. The commission only dealt with organized representatives of workers; the Pullman porters had no national organization. In 1918 they were granted the right of collective bargaining, and several organizations were formed to compete for the right to represent them. The Pullman Company took advantage of disunion among the porters, and in 1921 organized the Pullman Porters Benefit Association, using black "stooges" who went along with company policy, to insure that all porters joined the union. Anyone refusing to join was fired.
In 1925 a rival union called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized in New York City. It was considered a radical organization, because it was formed by the porters themselves, and because it addressed specific practices and working conditions it considered unfair. A porter was required
to log 11,000 miles or work more than 400 hours a month before he would be eligible for overtime pay. Meals, uniforms, and supplies such as shoe polish had to be purchased out of the porter's salary. Porters had to "dead head," or report for work five or six hours ahead of the train's scheduled departure time, without pay, and remain at the station until the car to which they were assigned was full. They were also required to "double out," to come in off one train and take the next one out without rest, a chance to see their families, or shower and shave. If they appeared at the station tired or dirty, they could be suspended or fired. The porter in charge received only ten dollars a month more than the regular porters. The Pullman Company often replaced white car conductors who were paid $150 per month with black head porters who were paid much less. Black porters were also forced to put up with demeaning practices, to answer to the name "George," and to dance and clown for the passengers.
A. Phillip Randolph, a former newspaper man and one of the founders of the Brotherhood, made extensive trips around the country organizing railroad men. By the end of 1926 local chapters of the Brotherhood were established in a number of cities, including Portland. It was an underground organization, as known membership could cost a man his job. The Brotherhood became the legal representative of the porters in 1935. In 1937 a reduction in work hours was secured, and wages were raised to $72.50 per month. A former railroad man and one of the organizers of the Brotherhood in Portland recalled the changes that the first contract brought.
In all these years there had never been any such thing as a vacation, nor was there any such thing as having control over one's social life. After we got the contract all this was changed. In the years that followed, our salaries started moving up. And we began to have assignments which gave those with seniority the consideration due them?
Between 1900 and 1940 the black population of Oregon increased from 1,186 to 2,565. The increase in actual numbers was slight, and in 1940 black people comprised only .24% of the total population of the state. Most lived in Portland, scattered in various parts of the city. In the absence of a large black population, life in Portland was often lonely for black people:
I can remember when we first came to Portland there was such a few colored people here that you'd go downtown and you wouldn't see another one... I used to walk to the railroad station and just sit . . . a couple of hours just to watch the colored waiters . . . just to see some colored faces?
Local political, social, spiritual and fraternal organizations became the framework for the black community.
The social center of the black community before 1940 was in the black churches. Originally located on the west side, they began to move to the east side of the Willamette River following a general shift in population. One native black Oregonian recalled the importance of the black church as the center of social activity.
The only time I came in contact with black people, and all of us did, was when we went to church. Because black people were scattered out over the city, and that was.., the reason we went to church so much. That's the only time we got to see one another. As kids we'd go to Sunday School, and then your parents would come at 11:00 service, and then you'd go home, eat, then you'd come back, and after I got older I attended Christian Endeavor, and some of my friends who were Baptists they attended B.Y.P.U. And after Christian Endeavor was over, for those of us who could sneak away from church, we would go over to somebody's house and have what we used to call a "stomp." We'd have a crank up phonograph and we'd dance until 9:00.
In 1923 there'were five churches and two missions in the black community? Musical programs were frequently presented, giving black musicians an opportunity to perform. Henri Le Bel, a theater organist in the days of the silent movie, was also organist for many years at the Bethel A.M.E. Church. Professor Elmer Bartlett, another organist, started the Bethel Negro Chorus. Over 100 men and women were members of this group. In 1932 they presented a series of concerts at the Multnomah Civic Stadium, called "Spirituals Under the Stars". Daniel G. Hill, minister of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in the early 1930's, also worked as a volunteer probation officer in the Multnomah County Department of Domestic Relations, and in 1932 compiled the first survey of black history in Oregon?
The black church was outstanding in that it provided young people opportunities for participation and recognition not afforded in the public schools. Plays were presented; the Reverend J.J. Craw organized the performance of a number of the plays of William Shakespeare at the Bethel A.M.E. Church. Oratoriai contests were held and birthdays and holidays were celebrated in style. The annual Sunday School Picnic was a big affair, attended by members of all the black churches. During the Rose Festival, the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church had its own contest for queen, awarded to the woman who raised the most money selling tickets to a charitable event. A children's band was organized, and won prizes in the Junior Rose Festival parade.
Outside the black churches, the social life of the community was centered in the fraternal lodges and their women's auxilliaries, women's clubs, the Williams Avenue YWCA, and political organizations, the most important of which was the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. These organizations all provided needed social, educational, political and charitable functions within the black community.
Masonic and Odd Fellows lodges were organized in Portland in 1883, and a black Elks lodge, the Rose City Lodge, was organized with its women's auxilliary, the Dahlia Temple, in 1906.29 There was a local Knights of Pythias, the Syracuse Lodge, and in 1916 a second, Elks lodge was organized.
These fraternal organizations provided important functions within the community. The Enterprise Lodge was composed of the more stable citizens of the black community; among other qualifications members had to be "free born," to pay their dues in cash, be of high moral character, and able to read and write. A lodge did not grant membership to transients; a man had to have a "settled abode" to be accepted. Dues collected provided for charity to the members, should they become sick or disabled, and for help to needy orphans and to the widows of deceased members. Lodges provided graves in the lodge cemetery plot, and conducted funeral services. They sponsored social events such as charity dances and excursions up the Willamette River, and helped to shape the moral standards of the community. It was an honor to be invited to join a fraternal order, and a person could be evicted for bad behavior or public drunkenness. Lodge sisters had to do charity work, and on a rotating schedule provided nursing care to members who were sick. This was particularly important as many black people did not have access to hospitals, and private nursing care was expensive and often unavailable.
In 1896 a conference was held in Boston, Massachusetts, attended by a group of black women in order to refute charges made by a white southern woman concerning the morality of black women. That meeting marked the beginning of an organization of black women's clubs to promote their common goals of self-education, high moral character, and the education of women and young girls. In 1897 the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs was formed, with the motto: "Lifting Others As We Rise".
A national conference of white women's clubs was called in 1902 to discuss integrating black and white clubs, and to allow black club members to attend national conferences with white women. Prior to this conference, each state's association of women's clubs voted on this proposal. Oregon's white club women voted to exclude black women's clubs, and the national conference, after much debate, also voted to continue the exclusion of black women from their organization and affiliated clubs.
In 1912 the Colored Women's Council was organized from a chapter of the Lucy Thurman Temperance Union. This group resolved to work for high ideals and morality, civic concerns and a Christian homelife? In 1913 this organization held its first charity ball. A clubhouse was established in 1914, and the group joined the National Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. In 1917 nine Portland clubs organized the Oregon Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, to strengthen their organization and to unite to work for their common interests, including betterment of the race and the education of black women and girls.
Club leaders were well-educated women and passed on what they knew to other women and girls. Like Girl Scouts and 4-H Clubs, they stressed arts and crafts, education, and community service. Funds were raised to provide scholarships tor young girls, and the clubs participated in various political and social activities. During World War I many black women's clubs did volunteer war work. The Literary Research Club collected books and read and researched various topics of common interest, including a study of the laws of Oregon relating to minorities.
In 1921 a branch of the Portland YWCA was established in a portable structure on the corner of Williams and Tillamook Streets, and five years later work was begun on a new building on this site, funded primarily by a gift of $12,000 from a white woman active in the YWCA, Mrs. E.S. Collins. There was some opposition to the idea of a segregated facility, fueled by rumors that the gift, originally anonymous, came from the Ku Klux Klan. An effort was also made to deny the YWCA a building permit, prompted by white citizens who didn't want black people to build on the site. The protest was taken to the city council and the city attorney denied the request, saying that the city had no right to refuse to issue a building permit simply because it was for a black organization.
The idea of a segregated facility was not without its critics, but the Williams Avenue YWCA was managed by black women and became a community center. Many social and political clubs utilized the facilities of the YWCA for their meetings. The building had a gymnasium and auditorium with a stage, a kitchen, office, lounge, and locker,rooms and showers for both boys and girls. $1,300 was raised by local black organizations to furnish the building. The YWCA had clubs for grade and high school girls. There were classes in Spanish, sewing, hat making, Bible studies, musical programs, dancing, games, exhibits featuring black artists, and activities celebrating Negro History Week.
Black beople began to organize into political groups as early as 1870, when the Sumner Union Club was organized and endorsed the platform of the Union Republic party. It dissolved soon after, during a dispute over a local school board decision to prohibit black children from attending public schools. An organization called the Bed Rock Political Club was formed in
the late 1870's, and was active until the waiters at the Portland Hotel organized the New Port Republican Club. This club had a membership of eighty, and was able to secure the employment of George Hardin, a black man, on the police force in 1894. A chapter of the Afro-American League was organized in Portland in 1900, and in 1919 sponsored a civil rights bill which was presented to the state legislature?~ The Colored Republican Club of Multnomah County was organized in the early years of the twentieth century, and in 1904 had a membership of 200.32 In the 1930's two groups calling themselves the Colored Democratic League were organized.
A.D. Griffin was active in the Republican party, and was twice elected as a delegate to the state convention?3 He was not always supportive of local Republican politics, and in 1902 complained that black voters were being ignored. He advised them to unite and cross party lines if necessary to elect candidates sympathetic to black interests.
The New Age aims to be a progressive Republican paper... It is sincerely Republican in politics, on national issues, but locally the situation is so mixed just now that it is worthy of careful consideration and considerable study. So far as the Negro voters of Portland are concerned--some 800 of them altogether--The New Age thinks they should, on some proper occasion.., show their power as a voting element in this community, and so call the attention of the Republican party leaders to the fact that they are alive, and have votes.., the late Republican county and city convention forgot that there was such a thing as a colored voter. Out of 173 delegates not one colored face was there. It is noRt said that this was an oversight. Well, if the Negro should fail to vote for this or that or the other Republican candidate . . . it would not be an oversight . . . next time perhaps you won't forget that there are 800 Negro voters in this town--only remembering it on election day, when you need our votes... As long as there is so much independence in politics, the colored voter might as well begin . . . to be a little independent themselves.
Despite Griffin's advice, it was difficult to maintain a unified political point of view. Political clubs were often divided as various candidates courted the black vote. It was not until the formation of the NAACP, with the support of a national organization and a national philosophy, that black people in Portland were able to organize successfully across political lines for the common good of the race. Even within this group, whose official position dictated that no political platform or candidate could be officially endorsed, efforts to secure the black vote created internal divisions from time to time.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was created in 1909 from an interracial group, including W.E.B. DuBois, leader of the Niagra'Movement. It was founded to work for an end to segregation and discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting rights and transportation, to fight racism and to secure full constitutional rights for black people. The Portland branch was organized in December, 1914, with 165 members? It was not the first western branch; chapters in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington, and northern California and Los Angeles had been established between 1912 and 1914. Dues were originally fifty cents per year, making membership within the reach of almost every person. Total membership fluctuated from year to year, and a good deal of local activity was given over to recruiting new members?6 The most successful campaign before 1940 was conducted in 1928, organized by J.L. Caston, a young minister of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. At the end of the year the total membership was 694.
Internal disputes threatened the organization's continuity several times during the 1920's. Mrs. E.D. Cannady, one of the original members of the branch and the most visible advocate for interracial understanding in Portland, criticized local blacks for a "do nothing" attitude? She in turn was criticized for using The Advocate for her personal advancement, and only reporting NAACP activities in which she had a major role. Her criticism of the segregated Williams Avenue YWCA lost her the respect of many black people in Portland, although she remained a prominent advocate for black people in the white community. She organized branch chapters of the NAACP in Vernonia, Oregon, and Longview, Washington, and was appointed Branch Organizer for the national office. She was inactive in the local branch after 1929, although The Advocate continued to cover NAACP events and activities.
Attempts to buy the black vote also threatened to split the organization. In 1930, The Advocate reported the activities of the Political Committee, disrupted by the resignations of various members after Joe Keller, a white member of the committee, was rumored to have promised the entire black vote to one candidate for governor of the state. The Advocate reported:
Mr. Keller cannot be blamed for his political aspirations, but it is the opinion of many that colored voters ought to be able to reach their own decision as to whom they care to support, without the aid of outsiders . . . when a candidate runs for office, whose record is known of the Association to play politics, to be against Negro rights, the Association urges such a candidate's defeat . . . But the Asssociation does not work for the election of candidates. This course seems to be the only wise one for such an organization to pursue, as it is a well-known fact that the Association is composed of both colored and white members representing every kind of political and religious affiliation. To play politics with the organization would soon wreck it upon the rocks of misunderstanding?
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