Renée Watson Collection - I See My Light Shining

Renée
Watson

Collection

Black Elders in Portland: Ties Beyond the Flood

Black Elders in Portland: Ties Beyond the Flood

Though often dubbed "America's whitest big city," Portland has a remarkable history of Black life. This collection chronicles said history, tracing key moments of disaster and displacement, but more importantly, the enduring bonds that have come to define Black life in the Pacific Northwest.

Though often dubbed "America's whitest big city," Portland has a remarkable history of Black life. This collection chronicles said history, tracing key moments of disaster and displacement, but more importantly, the enduring bonds that have come to define Black life in the Pacific Northwest.

Meet the fellows

Renée Watson is a #1 New York Times Bestselling author of books for young readers. She has received several awards including the Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Award, and an NAACP Image Award nomination. Many of Renée's books are inspired by her childhood growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing explores themes of home, identity, body image, and the intersections of race, class, and gender. Renée splits her time between Portland, Oregon and New York City.

Black Oregon?

Oregon is not usually the first place people imagine when they think of Black history. Portland, the state’s largest city, is often called the “whitest big city in America”, shaped in part by its history as a sundown town. As the only free state in the Union with discriminatory clauses in its constitution, Oregon prohibited Black people from entering, owning property, and making contracts. Laws forbidding entry lasted until 1926 and fueled Ku Klux Klan activity, perpetuating systemic racism and leaving impacts on Black Oregonian life that last to this day.

In this collection, Renée Watson journeys through the lives and experiences of Black elders from in and around Portland, Oregon. Shaped by success, sorrow, discrimination, and kinship, their lives are set in a rocky, hardened landscape whose edges are softened by the communities they inhabit.

Refuge and racism

After Oregon’s last Black exclusion law was repealed in 1926, the state was seen as a refuge for many Black Southerners fleeing the racial terror and economic discrimination of the American South during the Great Migration. Mariah Taylor recalls:

Many of the transplants from many Southern states came for a better life; for a happier life, a more prosperous life. We came to keep my father from being lynched, again. And we came as a family. Everyone around us became the extended family. 

Journeying from the south and elsewhere, Black people in Portland began to find and form communities. Narrators Patricia Welch and Michelle Lewis describe the newfound banality of childhoods spent riding bikes, jumping rope, and playing dodgeball. Lewis recounts:

We played outside, and we stayed outside all day until those streetlights came on, or you heard somebody’s mother calling your name from a distance. 

Mariah Taylor as a young woman

Portland’s façade of equality began to fade as newcomers recognized racism in new forms. “Portland was more passive aggressive. It wasn’t so blatant, in your face,” recounts David Jackson, “It was, ‘I will use my power to impact you, and I can smile in your face, and shake your hand, and totally cut your lifeline off, and you wouldn’t realize until after you bleed, you’re bleeding out.’” In white-dominated Portland, Black people still didn’t have the economic or political means to protect themselves from this power imbalance.

In response to these subtle, impactful forms of racism, some responded with a commitment to respectability politics—the belief that Black people must work harder to prove themselves to those in power. Former Principal and priest, Alcena Boozer recounts a conversation with her father:

My father told me this, oh, probably first time when I was about eleven or twelve years old, to be Black in this part of the country, you have to be twice as good as any white person applies to be taken seriously. 

While some felt pressure to work harder to conform to white society, others began to gate-keep Blackness. Renee Mitchell recalls, "I didn’t fit in because I was too Black to be white and too “acting white” to be Black"

Alcena Boozer with family

Caught between different worlds, these elders began to develop their own relationships with Blackness, an experience as varied and diverse as the many shades of skin they embody.

Despite their differences, our elders each recall finding comfort and ease in the “extended family” of the Black community. Music educator, Ken Berry reflects: "But my experience, from what I can remember, just growing up, it was—we were very poor and had very little. But we didn’t know that. I didn’t know that because all the experiences that my family provided and all those folks that we interacted with, a lot of church people in the community, they all made us feel that we were valued, that we had worth. And they also made sure that we had experiences that would help build us not only spiritually but emotionally, and also psychologically, too."

Melissa Smith-Hohnstein’s first holy communion at 6 years old

For many, churches served as epicenters of community life and spiritual meaning. Even Judge Adrienne Nelson, who remembers being taunted and called an “oreo,” recalls a clarity of purpose as she stood up against bullies, fortified by the love of her community:

I was like, ‘I am not white on the inside. We are all made up of blood…—I mean, then I’m going to be technical with them [laughs], which probably didn’t help. But the other part of me was so confident because of the love and support that I had. It really didn’t matter what they said. 

Charnetta Hutson summarizes the experience of growing up in community: “There was never a need to go anywhere else. You had your family; you had your community.”

A history of displacement

In the 20th century, three major events decentralized Portland’s Black community: the Vanport flood, school desegregation and bussing, and gentrification. 

At the onset of World War II, Portland city officials developed Vanport, the largest public housing project in the United States, to house a growing population of shipyard workers. Built on low-lying land on the edge of the Columbia River and protected by dikes, Vanport housed over 40,000 residents at its peak, one-fourth of whom were Black. Despite underinvestment, Vanport’s Black community flourished.

Alcena Boozer Newspaper Cover (revitalizing Jefferson Highschool)

Velynn Brown, the granddaughter of a Vanport flood survivor remembers generational effects. “I grew up with over two hundred family members, again, so I had this very unique experience, because it was like, this Black, little Black utopia in the whitest city, later I found out, in the country. And I felt that later growing up and going out, when, in dominant culture settings, honors classes, you know, as I later went into high school, college, and different things, and so my orientation to who I was, was very much steeped in Black history, poetry, church, so I kind of always stood out, [laughs] in those settings, because I had a lot of confidence because I was affirmed where I was. And later, that began to erode as I had to meet up against, you know, being the only all the time, that was exhausting at times, but I could always come back to this nucleus.”

Vanport was meant to serve as a temporary solution for wartime overcrowding, but at the close of the war, Black residents couldn’t legally move to other parts of the region. Neglect led to Vanport’s deterioration, including the dikes that protected the project from the Columbia River. Heavy rains raised concerns among residents. Mariah Taylor recalls an episode on Memorial Day, 1948:

Everyone was given a slip of paper, was put under our door, saying, ‘There’s no imminent danger of the dike breaking. I know some of you have heard rumors, but it’s all right. We will let you know in time.’ 

At 4 PM that same day, the dikes broke and water rushed into the city, destroying homes and displacing residents. In the span of two hours, flooding destroyed Vanport, and displayed 18,500 residents. Taylor, a Vanport flood survivor, recalls the harrowing images she saw that day: “The memories I have of those people on the rooftops, floating on the water, women holding babies in their arms that had drowned. That is a memory that I hold today, and I thank God that our family made it out alive.”

Even as legally mandated integration advanced throughout the mid century, resettlement was not simple or easy. Implemented in 1970, the “Schools for the Seventies” Plan called for Black students to be bussed to white schools and many schools in Black neighborhoods to be closed. One of these schools was Jefferson High School, a former stalwart of the city’s Black community. Narrator Charnetta Hutson recalls her time at Jefferson High School: “I remember walking in that [Jefferson High School] building and seeing me, seeing Harriet Tubman, seeing Sojourner Truth, I was seeing these Black faces. Oh my God, and the art. And I remember walking into the counselor office and seeing all these Black counselors. I remembered Black teachers, … So, it felt like home, you know what I’m saying? That’s the best way to describe it. I felt like it was an extended family from home. … I felt my experience there was where I really, really learned more about my history, my Black history, where I really found my own identity and confidence of who I was.”

In practice, bussing uprooted students from their communities and took them to unfamiliar districts, where the racist legacies of Portland shaped their school life. Kim Black recalls visiting other parts of Oregon on a school trip. “In those areas, the rural areas, the white people were known to continue their prejudice. They were very vocal, very violent. In some of those places, they might have been doing hangings [and] they were running Black people out of their city, … with their guns and their trucks and following behind you, making sure you leave…. And here it was, our school was gearing to take this tour. We had one Black chaperone. Our bus driver was Black. And it was funny, all of our parents ganged up on them as, like, ‘Listen, we’re going to trust you with our children. And don’t let nothing happen to our kids. Keep watch over our kids’”

Bookstore owner and wellness practitioner, Michelle Lewis also recounts how bussing alienated Portland’s Black children. “At the time, Madison [High School] wasn’t prepared for the influx of Black students that got bussed from North Portland, so when we got there … It was just—it was horrible. … You’ve got bunches of Black students being pulled from different areas of Northeast Portland, from different zip codes, being bussed in, and white folks just couldn’t deal with that. And so, what that caused was more racial tension, so now you’ve got Black folks fighting, fighting pretty much—first, we’re fighting with each other, and then we’re fighting white folks. So, I got kicked out of Madison, because I was a fighter. I still carried that from my experience, that nobody is putting their hands on me, and I just was doing a lot of fighting.”

Discussed by Richard Pettiford in his interview, gentrification further signaled an end to a way of life for the Black community in Portland:

That gentrification bomb, it destroyed the Black community in Portland. It doesn’t exist anymore. You knew that was going on. We talked about even when we were younger that the neighborhood was going to get gentrified. We knew it. The value of the land was just too valuable.

We used to talk about it all the time. Man, why they going to let the Black community, right close to the freeway, right by the mall, right over by the coliseum. It seemed like this wouldn’t be the Black community. But we would talk about it and laugh about it. Because we only had to drive five minutes and you’re at the coliseum. Jump right on the freeway, go where you want to go. Never understood that. I didn’t understand that.

But two things. The one. When they put those divides down Union Avenue, and they put those islands, like oh, okay. We’re beautifying Northeast Portland. Like okay. But it made it difficult to maneuver. And I don’t know if they were just like trying to slow people down or what they were trying. But it made it difficult to maneuver in Portland.

Two is when they closed Fred Meyer’s and they put the police department there. It was like oh snap. As soon as they did it we like, “We gentrified, bro.” We were talking about it. This is before the white people even started showing up. It’s like man, you know what’s next. They got the dividers down the road. Then they changed it to MLK. And it’s like you know when they change something to MLK, you know it’s not going to be yours much longer. It’s like oh. So we’re supposed to be proud because you named it. Every city has a Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. But we’re like, “Yes, but how many Black businesses can you find on MLK?” Not many.

And so those three things we saw as them gentrifying. They kept trying to close Jefferson. Jefferson, I’ve always said this, and I still believe it to this day, Jefferson is the heartbeat of the Black community, or it was the heartbeat of the Black community. If that school is doing well, that community is doing well. If that school is doing poorly, that community is doing poorly. And so you can look at Lincoln da da da da da. This used to hurt me more than anything else. But when our Black—now this is where I struggle the hardest. It’s how gentrification happens. When Black people start dividing themselves, and a lot of people graduated from Jefferson, moved out of the community. And they would not send their own kids to Jeff. Because there’s two sides to the school. You know that as well as I do. There’s the side of the academia and kids. But there’s that side where the gangs are in there. And they would fight. There would be some. You used to have to deal with it. So there was those two sides. And you would watch kids come to Jeff and graduate and go away and take their talent somewhere else. And that was a slow drain on the community, because the kids who are coming up don’t get to see those students or those people who graduated. And they go away and they take the talent to somewhere else, and what’s left are those kids that don’t graduate, or barely graduate, who can’t find a job, who deal with the institutionalized racism that’s here, the covert racism that’s here. And they don’t have the skill set because they just didn’t do well in school. And they’re intelligent enough but they don’t have the tools.

So that slow drain on the community allowed a lot of these white people to come in and start buying up property. And it’s like there could be a house that had been in your family for a while. And somebody come and offers you, at this point offers you $50,000 for it, and if you’ve never seen $50,000 in your life you’re going to take it. And you take that $50,000 and you go out and buy a new car, new here, and it’s gone. But thing that you had that was valuable was gone too. Next thing you know you’re renting instead of owning. And a lot of Black families, my grandmother when she left, she sold her house for $21,000. The house that was on Sumner down the street from Jeff. She probably paid $5,000, $6,000 for it when she bought it back in the ’50s. But she sold it for like $21,000, $25,000. And I said, “Well, why didn’t you call me and sell it to me? At least let me buy it for that much. I think I could have got a loan for $25,000.” And my cousin who had a house on Fremont and Fifteenth right on the corner, he was going to sell me his house for $36,000. And he had another house on Saratoga over by Dekum. And he sold that one for $21,000.

So they were buying this property up cheap. Then they would sell it back for $75,000, $90,000. Craig Irvey [phonetic] had a house on Alberta Street that was a four-bedroom that he bought for $75,000, he sold it for $90,000. That house is worth $1 million now. So that whole gentrification, it forced people out of the neighborhood, because now you couldn’t buy it. You can’t buy a house in that neighborhood for less than $500,000. You’re going to spend that much money. So it’s like well, we’re going to regentrify. Well, you can’t, because the property value is too high. Our house that we’re living in is like $700,000 now. We’d have to sell this, go buy something else, and then you buy something else. You probably end up taking a mortgage because the house would probably be $800,000, $900,000. So the whole gentrification thing culturally, it crippled us.

Between flooding, desegregation, and gentrification across the Portland area, the Black community was slowly pushed towards fracture. Raina Evans describes her family’s displacement throughout her oral history: “And you know the African American population is so small in Oregon, small in Portland, and for us to be also displaced, just does make it a lot harder to connect.”

A legacy of success

The continuous survival and success of Black Portlanders is widely celebrated in this collection. Against incredible odds, these elders have boldly carved new paths, changed the course of history for all Oregonians, and tirelessly preserved and promoted Black Portland’s past and future.

Shalanda Sims, a celebrated performer and artist, created a play titled “Vanport,” about the Vanport flood. Bernie Foster founded the Skanner newspaper, one of Oregon’s oldest African American newspapers, alongside his wife, Bobbie Doré Foster.

Some elders have dedicated their lives to their communities through activism, organizing, and community governance. Kent Ford is an activist and co-founder of the Portland chapter of Oregon’s Black Panther Party in 1969." Avel Gordly is a community organizer, activist, and former politician who became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Oregon State Senate. Margaret Carter is a former politician and the first Black woman elected to Oregon's state legislature.

Raised to understand the importance of culturally-affirming education, some of our elders turned to a life of teaching the next generation. Linda Harris is a trailblazing educator who led school desegregation efforts. Ken Berry is a celebrated teacher and educator and co-founder of the Martin Luther King program.

Religious leaders in this collection have also contributed tirelessly to their communities. Alcena Boozer is one of the first women ordained in the Diocese of Oregon and one of only three Black women ordained in the United States Episcopal Church. Lisa Manning-Saunders has ministered to women in Portland for decades and is now the director of FaithBridge LLC, an organization that helps women emerging from trauma or experiencing a life transition to reconnect with their faith.

The collection also features a wealth of community workers who have founded initiatives to provide critical services and opportunities. David Jackson founded Gang Peace, a gang prevention program at Camp Fire Boys and Girls. Mariah Taylor is the co-founder of the North Portland Nurse Practitioner Community Health Clinic in Portland, Oregon, the first Black-owned community-based nurse practitioner clinic in the country. She also received the Use Your Life Award. Velynn Brown works for Black Parent Initiative, an organization helping families achieve financial, spiritual, and educational success.

Asked about her hopes for the future of Black Portland, Raina Evans says:

I think my biggest hope is that future generations have places to go to learn and to know about the history. Because it’s pretty significant history. 

From the Collection

Interviews ( 29 )

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    Adrienne Nelson

    First Black female federal judge in Oregon

    Nelson shares her journey from Kansas City to Portland, reflecting on overcoming racial barriers, transformative encounters with Black leaders, her career as Oregon's first Black female judge, and her commitment to community.

    Portland, OR

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    Alcena Boozer

    Portland native, educator, pioneering Black priest, and activist

    Boozer reflects on her upbringing in Portland's mixed community during segregation, her family’s resilience, her journey as a teacher and principal at Jefferson High School, her activism, and her calling to the priesthood.

    Portland, OR

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    Avel Gordly

    First Black woman elected to Oregon Senate

    Gordly discusses growing up in Portland's, navigating racial and gender barriers in education, her path to becoming the first Black woman elected to the Oregon Senate, activism, and the power of women's networks.

    Portland, OR

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    Bernie Foster

    Veteran, journalist, and co-founder of The Skanner

    Foster discusses his journey from a young boy in East Saint Louis to an influential publisher in Portland, his passion for photography, advocacy against racism, and commitment to Black voices through his newspaper, The Skanner.

    Portland, OR

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    Billie Frazier

    Retired Portland educator and dedicated community mentor

    Frazier discusses growing up in Portland, overcoming challenges in a single-parent household, forging a career in education as a history teacher and dean, and his faith, marriage, and vision for future Black educators in Portland.

    Portland, OR

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    Charnetta Hutson

    Portland mentor and performing arts ministry founder

    Hutson reflects on finding her father, navigating life as a Black woman in Portland, her spiritual growth through Das PHAT Ministries, gentrification's impact on her community, her mother's legacy, and performing arts ministry.

    Portland, OR

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    Daphne Bethel

    Retired librarian, youth mentor, and community advocate

    Bethel recounts her journey from Kansas to Portland, focusing on her contributions as a pastor's wife, community advocate, and educator, reflecting on nurturing young minds, community work, and her hopes for Portland's future.

    Portland, OR

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    David Jackson

    Acclaimed DJ and music industry veteran

    Jackson shares his journey from his childhood in Los Angeles to becoming an influential DJ and youth mentor in Portland. He discusses early music exposure, overcoming homelessness, mentoring at-risk youth, and evolving into a DJ.

    Portland, OR

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    Donna Kelly

    Portland local, dedicated volunteer, and avid traveler

    Kelly shares her reflections on childhood, navigating the complexities of identity and race, her career transitions, and the evolving nature of social justice. Kelly also expresses her hopes for her grandchildren's future.

    Portland, OR

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    Emma Ford

    Retired teacher, librarian, and host of Black Book Talk

    Ford discusses her Arkansas roots, family, journey to Portland, career in education, and her passion for literacy and community building. She also discusses Portland's evolution and her roles as a librarian and radio co-host.

    Portland, OR

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    Ken Berry

    Educator, arts advocate, and founder of MLK tribute in Portland

    Berry shares his journey, beginning with moving to Portland as a child, evolving through education, music, and activism, and eventually forging a legacy in the city's Black community through education and the MLK celebration.

    Portland, OR

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    Kent Ford

    Black Panther leader, walking tour guide, and children's advocate

    Ford recounts his evolution from a Louisiana native to a critical figure in Portland's Black Panther Party. He details Party initiatives, reflects on personal experiences with police brutality, and shares his hopes for the future.

    Portland, OR

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    Kim Black

    Pastor, community service provider, and bereavement minister

    With roots in Mississippi and Texas, Black details her journey to Portland. Reflecting on experiences of racism, gentrification, and displacement, she finds strength in her upbringing, education, and passion for music and poetry.

    Portland, OR

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    Linda Harris

    Former superintendent, accomplished educator, and volunteer

    From Texas to Oregon, and from classrooms to executive offices, Harris reflects on her life's journey—her family's move, navigating segregated schools, embracing education, and rising through academia.

    Portland, OR

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    Lisa Manning-Saunders

    FaithBridge director aiding women in recovery and healing

    Manning-Saunders reflects on healing from trauma, finding faith, and founding FaithBridge Portland, offering trauma healing designed for Black and brown women and girls, to bolster hope and the capacity to dream in her community.

    Portland, OR

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    Margaret Carter

    First Black woman elected to the Oregon State Legislature

    From a disciplined, hope-driven upbringing in Shreveport, Louisiana, to breaking barriers as the first Black woman in Oregon's Legislature, Carter reflects on overcoming systemic racism, her faith, advocacy, and community service.

    Portland, OR

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    Mariah Taylor

    Portland community servant, clinic founder, and Oprah awardee

    Taylor shares her life story, from immigrating to Vanport as a child and surviving the 1948 flood, to becoming a nurse and activist, reflecting on family history, faith, musical passions, and serving Portland's underprivileged.

    Portland, OR

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    Mary Hamilton

    Retired educator and longtime North East Portland resident

    From a childhood in a large West Virginian family with modest means to moving to Portland, Hamilton reflects on her life experiences, including motherhood, work in education and fitness, and her role in church communities.

    Portland, OR

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    Melissa Smith-Hohnstein

    Clinical director, adoptee, and child advocate

    Smith Hohnstein reflects on foster care, adoption complexities, her search for and reunion with her biological family, motherhood, navigating identity, and the implications of her heritage in personal and professional life.

    Portland, OR

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    Michael Grice

    Educator, documentary producer, and NEA Civil Rights Award recipient

    Grice offers a glimpse into his life, tracing his roots in Portland, reflections on racial experiences, connection to the railway community through his father, career in education, activism, mentorship, and friendships.

    Portland, OR

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    Michelle Lewis

    Wellness practitioner and co-founder of Portland's only Black-owned bookstore

    Lewis recounts her journey from a childhood in Portland to awakenings through military service and motherhood. She also details becoming a light worker and bookstore founder, inspired by ancestral wisdom and recovered histories.

    Portland, OR

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    Milton Adams

    Theater teacher, basketball coach, and youth mentor

    Adams shares his journey from a challenging childhood in Albuquerque to becoming a beloved teacher in Portland, reflecting on pivotal moments of growth, the power of faith and community, and his impact in education and sports.

    Portland, OR

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    Patricia Welch

    Retired library head, African American Read-In founder, and radio co-host

    Welch fondly reflects on her Baltimore childhood, surrounded by a tight-knit Black community, as well as her career as a librarian, and North Portland Library's growth into a hub of Black culture amidst gentrification.

    Baltimore, MD

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    Raina Evans

    Rose Festival Queen, housing advocate, and community TV host

    Evans reminisces about her life set against an evolving Portland, detailing her vibrant childhood, struggles within the Black community regarding housing and displacement, and her impactful work in rental education.

    Portland, OR

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    Renee Mitchell

    Educator, poet, youth advocate, and former journalist

    Becoming a beacon of hope through her work with I AM M.O.R.E. and the Soul Restoration Center, Mitchell reflects on racial trauma and bullying, hardships and triumps, her career, and reclaiming spaces for Black joy and healing.

    Portland, OR

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    Richard Pettiford

    Educator, mentor to Black youth, and DJ

    As a beloved figure at Jefferson High School, Pettiford reflects on his childhood, career, the role Black women played in his journey, navigating fatherhood, and witnessing the impacts of gentrification in Portland.

    Portland, OR

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    Shalanda Sims

    Portland native, World Stage Theatre founder, and performer

    Reflecting on her upbringing, family, and work, Sims details unearthing hidden Black heritage in Portland, transforming her findings into enriching historical theater, and fostering community through her production company.

    Portland, OR

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    Shawnte Sims

    Maintenance supervisor, gospel choir leader, and community photographer

    Sims shares his journey from a youth passionate about electronics and sports, through leadership roles and early career explorations, to becoming a cherished community leader, devoted family man, and acclaimed photographer.

    Portland, OR

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    Velynn Brown

    Faith & Equity founder, anti-racist facilitator, and community healer

    Brown recounts her life in Portland, Oregon, highlighting her family's deep roots in the community, struggles with maintaining identity amidst gentrification, efforts to preserve Black culture, and finding joy despite grief.

    Portland, OR

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Map

  • Black Panther Party

    The Portland chapter of the The Black Panter Party (BPP) for Self Defence was founded in 1969 by Kent Ford. BPP organized and led social programs for Black Americans, such as Children's breakfast programs and Health Clincs in Black neighborhoods. The chapter opened an office on the southeast corner of Northeast Cook Street and Union Avenue (present-day Martin Luther King Boulevard),

    • Burger Barn

      In 1981, Burger Barn, a popular Black hangout, was the site of a racist attack by police officers. Portland police threw dead possums onto the sidewalk in front of the family business as part of an escalating harassment campaign.

      • Jefferson High School

        Sometimes referred to as "Jeff", Jefferson High School has been a source of pride for Portland's Black community. Many this collection's elders are Jefferson graduates.

        • Northeast Portland

          Black elders from Northeast Portland recount being forced out of their neighborhood due to several forces, including gentrification, redlining, and natural disaster.

          • Reflections Coffee Shop

            Situated in Northeast Portland, Reflections Coffee Shop and Talking Drum Bookstore were owned by Floria McMurty and O.B. Hill until 2012. Reflections served community hub where people could gather for events and share in cultural expressions.

            • Vanport

              Vanport was a wartime public housing project located near the Columbia River. Vanport was destroyed by a flood in 1948.

                ‘You’re responsible for your own happiness.’
                Shereen Beverly
                curtain