A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Seven - Sober, Industrious and Honest
The Black Community of Portland
Despite these internal disputes, the Portland branch is the oldest branch west of the Mississippi to be continuously chartered.
Much of the work of the local branch was given over to protest incidents of discrimination and to lobby for the passage of a public accommodations bill in the state legislature? National black issues were also discussed, and charity events were held to raise money for the defense of black people involved in the criminal justice system. In 1925, a mass meeting was held to discuss the case of Dr. Sweet who, with ten other men, was in jail awaiting trial, charged with first degree murder in Detroit, Michigan. They were accused of killing two men who were part of a mob that was trying to drive Dr. Sweet and his family from their home. The Advocate commented:
Shall these brave men who dared defend their home and the Doctor's wife hang for protecting their home and lives? Hear the answer at Mt. Olivet [Baptist Church] Monday night, Nov. 9th. This case specially concerns every colored man, woman and child in the United States, and every white man, woman and child who believe in the sanctity of the home.
Between the Portland and Verononia chapters, nearly $200 was collected for the Sweet Defense Fund. Clarence Darrow was hired to defend the black men, and they were acquitted.
Many nationally known individuals visited the Portland branch; the relatively isolated black community had first-hand access to national minority affairs. One such person was Leonidas Dyer, who visited Portland in 1923. The Advocate reported:
Speaking before a representative audience at Lincoln High School auditorium Sunday afternoon, May 13, Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer, author of the famous Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, made a lasting impression upon the minds and hearts of his hearers, when in plain unaffected language he told of the injustice to the race in this country . . . He took a fling at our Senators from Oregon and said that we should not forget their stand on this bill when they are up for re-election. He urged the people to join the NAACP, which he declared was the organization doing the most good and making the greatest and most effective fight for justice to the race?
Educational and social events were frequently sponsored, such as one given in 1925 to acquaint the community with the black man Crispus Attucks, traditionally the first man to die in the American Revolutionary War. The Advocate announced:
Under the auspices of the Portland branch of the [NAACP], a Crispus Attucks program will be rendered. This entertainment promises to eclipse all former ones in an effort to immortalize the name of the first martyr in the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks. The program will include such talented young matrons as Mrs. Zephra Baker, who will tell of Attucks the soldier; Mrs. Lulu Gragg, who will read a biography of Attucks. Mrs. Garner Grayson has been invited to give a brief sketch of her trip including her journey to the Attucks statue. J.A. Ewing, president, will tell the objective of the organization, and special music will be rendered.
A women's auxilliary to the NAACP was organized in 1931 to coordinate fund raising activities. In 1931 and 1932, a Spring Carnival was organized, and in 1931 the group hosted a benefit card party to raise money for the Scottsboro NAACP Defense Fund.
In 1933, conditions in Portland for black people were poor, as a news article reported:
Unless something is done or some means found for employment, the outlook for many Negroes in Portland this winter is anything but encouraging. With many let out of the R.R. and hotel service, few are left with paying jobs. If it were not for the domestic service rendered by our women, it would be a tragic situation. The local branch of the NAACP held a timely meeting
last Sunday upon the subject and it is hoped some definite program of procedure, beneficial to all will be worked out?
During the Depression, the NAACP worked to secure employment for black people. Meetings were held in which speakers addressed the economic needs of black people, the need to acquaint employers with the situation of black unemployment, and to consider pooling black purchasing power. An organization called the Bureau of Economics was formed, to work toward opening an employment bureau, and to draft an employment campaign along the lines of the Urban League, which was not organized in Portland at the time. Two years later, although the Portland branch was having difficulty meeting its annual contribution to the national office, they were actively involved in arranging for black men to work on the Bonneville Dam Project.
In the late 1930's, the local branch affiliated with the Oregon Commonwealth Federation, an organization of progressive liberals interested in minority rights. Although some people criticized the organization because they believed that it was too radical, the alliance resulted in positive change. Edgar Williams, local NAACP officer, commented:
The only group of any political importance which has interested itself in our problems is the Oregon Commonwealth Federation. Within the year it has used its influence to place the first colored secretarial employees in the Federal and state offices in Portland, and is urging upon the school board the employment of at least one colored teacher.., for the first tim~, due to O.C.F. endorsement, Negroes were elected to the Democratic county committee. At least 11 of the 15 Democratic legislative candidates, and about 7 out of 15 Republicans are pledged to support the Civil Rights Bill?
In the first forty years of the twentieth century, blacks in Portland had solidified and expanded their community institutions, and were beginning to recover from the Depression, which had taken a harsh economic toll on the black community.
They were like other people deprived of jobs. They hadn't any way to make a living, and we suffered too, becuase we were in that category. We were without work for well over a year. I did a number of things to help bring in money, and my husband worked for fifty cents a day shoveling snow down at the Hotel, and he would wear boots and walk from here to the Portland Hotel . . . in the snow up to his knees. People were just doing that. There were men with families who were going around with baskets of nuts and apples from office to office trying to make it.
The accomplishments of the black community were achieved in the context of persistent discrimination, and the fight to achieve civil rights was passed from one generation to the next.
I was told, "You've got to do better than the other fellow." I was told that you'd better stay in there and keep punching?
The End of Chapter Seven
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