Things moved to a boil in Portland, Ore., this weekend after three months of nightly protests, even in the face of police tear gas, federal agents and arrests. On Friday, President Donald Trump tweeted about the city three times, deriding Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler as “very ungifted” and “incompetent” and threatening to “go in and take care of matters” if Wheeler did not get control of his city. The next day, a caravan of Trump supporters drove into the city, and in the resulting clashes, a man was fatally shot, sparking charges and countercharges from Trump and Wheeler.
What began as marches against police brutality have morphed into a mass mobilization against racial injustice, income equality and police militarization and expansion. Such radical demands may seem surprising in an overwhelmingly White city with a history of racial exclusion. But even though Portland has a population that is 77% White, it has long been a center for political organizing where Black and White activists together promoted Black life. This largely invisible history is vital to understanding how the city has recently become a key site for the uprisings and how threatening force is unlikely to curtail them.
Oregon was founded as a white-supremacist haven, gained statehood in 1859 and remains majority White today. Despite an 1844 law banning Black people and other minorities from living or purchasing property in Oregon, Portland gradually attracted African American residents. During the first wave of the Great Migration in the early 20th century, Portland’s Black population doubled from 775 to 1,556. African Americans flocked to the city to work as railroad porters, cooks, waitresses and domestic servants.
Portland’s small but growing Black community helped transform the city, sparking new civil rights activism. Black Portlanders made their mark by establishing Black newspapers such as the New Age (est. 1896), the Advocate (est. 1903) and the Portland Times (est. 1918), which were not only Black-owned businesses, but also a lifeline through the Black community. The newspapers promoted literacy and told the stories of the city’s Black residents.
Beatrice Hulon Morrow, who edited the Advocate, was the wife of its founder, E.D. Cannady. She became the first Black woman to practice law in Oregon in 1922. As an editor, Morrow highlighted news of racist violence committed by the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in the region. She also taught widely about Black history and the challenges faced by Black Americans, lecturing high school and college students, and holding interracial tea parties to educate White people. She filed lawsuits against Portland’s school board for its segregation practices and helped create the city’s chapter of the NAACP.
In 1925, the NAACP was instrumental in helping push a bill through the Oregon legislature that repealed language in the state constitution denying rights to Black and Asian American residents. From 1920 to 1945, Portland’s Black population grew from 2,000 to more than 20,000, partly due to the industrial boom after World War II. War veterans flocked to Portland for shipyard jobs. Portland’s NAACP pushed back against racial discrimination and helped end the practice of denying Black people work cards, which were needed to work at Portland’s shipyard. In 1953, the organization also helped pass laws prohibiting racial discrimination in public accommodations.
As the city’s population grew, Black and White activists joined forces. Facing a housing shortage after World War II, White allies such as Monsignor Thomas J. Tobin, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland; Bishop Benjamin Dunlap Dagwell; an Episcopal diocese and others collaborated with Black activists like physician DeNorval Unthank to establish a branch of the National Urban League in Portland. The city’s urban league worked tirelessly to create new jobs and housing for Black people.
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Source: The Telegraph