Things moved to a boil in Portland 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 Black residents. During the first wave of the Great Migration in the early 20th century, Portland’s Black population doubled from 775 to 1,556. Black 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.
In the late 1960s, Black Portlanders were organizing themselves and thinking radically about social change, including activist Kent Ford. In 1967, when he intervened as police arrested a young man, Ford was arrested, assaulted and held in jail on $80,000 bail on charges that he was inciting a riot. White allies, including Moris Mallin, a radiologist, and Penny Sabin, an heiress of Blue Bell potato chips, paid Ford’s bail. He was eventually acquitted and awarded a $6,000 settlement.
Ford’s activism also included political education classes. He shared readings on militarism, capitalism and racism, including Kwame Nkrumah’s “Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism,” Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” and Huey P. Newton’s “Executive Mandate Number One,” among others. Lawyers contributed their expertise by teaching activists to know their rights at demonstrations and minor traffic stops. After one of Ford’s students was assaulted by police and jailed in 1969, he decided to incorporate a Portland branch of the Black Panther Party. During a news conference on the steps of a Portland police station, Ford said, “If they keep coming in with these fascist tactics, we’re going to defend ourselves.”
Drawing inspiration from the Black Panther Party’s initiatives, Ford and his wife, Sandra Ford, established community programs such as free breakfast for children. Kent’s free breakfast program, held at Highland United Church of Christ, fed between 75 and 125 children each school day. In 1970, the Fords, along with Jon Moscow opened the Fred Hampton People’s Free Health Clinic. Ford also established the Malcolm X People’s Dental Clinic.
All of the physicians at the Fred Hampton clinic were white, except Bill Davis, a pathologist and the brother of actor Ossie Davis. Well-known neurosurgeon George Barton also volunteered at the clinic. The Black Panther Party’s health and dental services served Portlanders of all races, reflecting the group’s vision of a multiracial working class uniting to combat capitalism. While these “survival programs” did not uproot systemic racism, these spaces provided convenient and imperative health services at a time when overt racism beset health-care facilities. Despite their radical politics, Portland’s survival programs were so successful that they received referrals from the health department.
But Black Portlanders continued to face racism in the majority-white city. In 1985, Lloyd Stevenson, a Black man, was killed after being placed in a chokehold by the Portland police. No charges were brought against the officers. On the day of Stevenson’s funeral, two police officers sold T-shirts to their fellow officers emblazoned with “Don’t Choke’em, Smoke’em.” The officers were fired but later reinstated with back pay.
In 1988, Ethiopian exchange student Mulugeta Seraw was murdered by Kenneth Miesk, a member of a group called the East Side White Pride. Founders of the White Aryan Resistance, Tom and John Metzger were convicted of abetting Mieske to commit violence against Black people. Despite the city’s liberal reputation, white-power activists also thrived.
Yet Black Portlanders continued to fight for racial equality and civil rights for all the city’s residents. Activists have fought anti-LGBT legislation and have worked steadily to protect Black lives. Among them is Teressa Raiford, who founded Don’t Shoot Portland in 2014 to combat racism, which maintains an online archive about Black life in Portland and operates a youth art program. On June 5, the organization filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Portland for using excessive force against protesters, both Black and white.
Black activists in Portland have always fostered alliances with white Portlanders, and their history should serve as an example of how such solidarity can make social change. The city’s huge protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd should come as no surprise, given this history. Yet the fact that police and federal agents have worked to crush the uprisings, that the protests have drawn right-wing counterprotests and that Portland remains a potent culture-war talking point on the right are signs of how much work remains to be done.
Darryl Robertson is a writer and Columbia University graduate student studying African American History.