Portland’s Expansive and Influential Black History

Alexander Matthews

This Black History Month, take the time to learn and reflect on the history of African Americans in Portland.

As Upper Schoolers reflected on what they learned during BLM Week of Action—in which they spoke to Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and learned about how consumerism affects Black-owned business owners—there was one thing missing: a lesson on Portland’s very own Black history.

Important context to Portland’s Black History dates all the way back to before the civil war in 1859 when Oregon law stated Black people and other racial and ethnic minorities could not legally live within its borders. At the time, Oregon was the only state to have such laws, and there were approximately 130 black/mixed-race people in Oregon (out of a total population of 52,465).

Because such racial sentiment existed in Oregon, very few Black people migrated to the state in the coming years. As railroad travel expanded across America in the 1880s, many Black laborers came to Portland as railroad attendants. In the 1890s, Portland began to experience heavy growth, and jobs in the service greatly expanded. Oregon’s Black population, almost entirely situated in the modern-day Pearl District and Chinatown, increased eightfold to 1,105. Black residents built African Methodist and Episcopal churches and opened small businesses that catered to fellow Blacks, Japanese, and Europeans.

More Black people came to Portland as railroad workers throughout the 1920s. Although laws banning Black people from moving to Oregon weren’t repealed until 1926 and 1927, Oregon’s black population surged to nearly 2,000. Most black residents during this time lived in either Albina or Northwest Portland.

By 1940, Black migration to Oregon increased exponentially due to the Great Migration and manufacturing jobs created by World War II. In 1942, Vanport (pictured above), a settlement that housed shipyard workers and their families, was built. It was located at modern-day Delta Park and had a population of 40,000—approximately 40% of which was Black. At its peak, Vanport was the second-largest city in Oregon. However, tragedy struck on Memorial Day of 1948 when water from the Columbia river overflowed and flooded Vanport. Thousands of residents were suddenly homeless, and over a hundred of them died as strong currents tore apart homes, businesses, and schools within the settlement. The flood caused 1.2 billion dollars of damage (adjusted for inflation), and one-third of those displaced were Black.

The future of Portland’s Black residents seemed bleak after the destruction of Vanport. Many of those who had been displaced moved into three Northeast Portland neighborhoods—Albina, Boise, and Eliot. In 1960, over 80% of Southern Albina was Black, compared to 2% of Portland. This statistic was due to discriminatory housing practices, which determined where Black people could live at the time. When I-5 was completed in 1964, these neighborhoods were segregated from whiter neighborhoods, and it seemed that an imaginary red line was formed around them, depriving them of necessary infrastructure. This segregation continued into the 1970s when Boise’s population was 84% Black. The expansion of Emanuel Hospital in 1973 further displaced hundreds of homes in Eliot, many of which were Black. The 80s brought drugs and gang violence to Northeast Portland, and many residents moved to the outskirts of the city.

Albina, Boise, and Eliot were revitalized in the 1990s but so was gentrification. Luxury condominiums and shops were heavily subsidized by tax breaks to real estate developments, and property owners made the areas costly to live in. By 1999, the neighborhoods were mostly white. Mississippi Avenue was dubbed as “Black Portland’s Main Street” in the 1950s and 1960s due to its abundance of black-owned businesses. However, it faded away when many Black residents could not afford to live in the historical neighborhoods any longer. The Black population of Albina decreased by 7,700 from 2000 to 2010, and today, Boise is only 11% Black—a more than 70% decrease in 50 years.

Although Portland’s Black population has been steadily decreasing over the past decades, the Black Lives Matter movement and awareness of the City of Portland’s relationship with the Black community have pushed a once threatened community into the spotlight. Portland’s Black History demonstrates growth, tragedy, but most importantly, resilience and hope.

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Population Statistics: https://www.washington.edu/uwired/outreach/cspn/Website/Classroom%20Materials/Pacific%20Northwest%20History/Lessons/Lesson%209/Census%20Data.html