A foundation of my childhood
By Charlotte B. Rutherford
On June 13, Oregon state Senator Avel Gordly offered the following remarks at the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Oregon Public Accommodations Act:
– In 1844, the first of what would be known as the 'Exclusion Laws' was passed in this state, prohibiting slavery but requiring all blacks to leave the territory within three years.1
– In 1849, a bill allowing black settlers and their children to stay, but preventing others from moving into the state, became law.2
– In 1851, Jacob Vanderpool, a Salem businessman, was arrested and expelled from the state for the crime of being a black Oregon resident.
– In 1857, . . . the voters approved a black exclusion clause as part of the Oregon Constitution, a law that remained until 1926.
– In 1862, the Legislative Assembly added two additional exclusion laws, one charging blacks a poll tax, and the other prohibiting marriage between black and white Oregonians.
– In 1919, an effort began to pass a law making discrimination in public accommodations illegal in this state. That effort did not succeed until 1953.'3
Sen. Gordly organized this event to honor the group of citizens who struggled to make passage of that 1953 legislation possible. Prominent among the attendees at the commemorative event was the last remaining member of that group, former governor and U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield, who as a young state representative shepherded the passage of Oregon’s Public Accommodations Act. The citizen group that lobbied for the act was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A bill had been sponsored and failed in 18 legislative sessions starting in 1919.
When the act passed in 1953 my father, Otto G. Rutherford, was the president, and my mother, Verdell Burdine Rutherford, was the secretary of the NAACP. They helped to write the act and had worked for its passage as NAACP members since the late 1930s. In 1953, our home was the NAACP’s office, and in 1955, it became the office for the NAACP Federal Credit Union, which my parents helped to found. This article describes what Oregon was like for African Americans and the effect that my parents’ civic activism had on my life.
My father’s father and his brother, young black men from South Carolina, were recruited to come to Oregon in 1897 to work as room barbers in a newly built downtown hotel.4 At the time they arrived, housing discrimination was widely practiced against blacks, and black families found housing wherever they could.5 My grandfather, like many other African Americans, purchased a home through an African American intermediary who could 'pass' for white.6
The black community of the early 1900s was more a product of association than physical location. The black family and church were the two most important institutions of African American life during this period. By the 1940s, blacks had become concentrated in the Albina area, the only available area because of, among other things, restrictive covenants in deeds that specifically forbade sale or occupancy of property by blacks or other people of color, and real estate codes that punished real estate agents who did not steer blacks to that area.7
My dad was born in Portland in 1911. In 1923, his family moved to Northeast Portland at Ninth and Shaver streets. The neighborhood consisted largely of German immigrants. No other African Americans lived in the neighborhood, and none would until the 1950s, when Interstate 5 and later the Memorial Coliseum were built, and African Americans, who had been concentrated in that area, moved into the neighborhood.8
My dad often talked about fighting as a child because he was called the 'N' word daily. He was the only black child in his 1925 grade school graduating class and one of three who graduated from Jefferson High School in 1928. Race relations were not good during this period and were aggravated in 1921 by the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1922, Klan-backed candidates won in county and state elections. My dad used to say that Seattle was more progressive than Portland because when the Klan marched in Seattle, they had to show their faces. But when the Klan marched in downtown Portland, they could wear their hoods.9
Employment opportunities for blacks were severely limited at that time. The only jobs available to blacks were service occupations (such as domestic servants and menial labor) and working on the railroad, particularly as Pullman porters and red caps (baggage handlers). With two years of college education, my father worked first as a chauffeur, and then as a waiter for the railroad. Employment opportunities did not open for my father until fair employment laws were passed.10
Social discrimination and segregation were the norm in Oregon before the Public Accommodations Act was passed. In 1906, the Oregon Supreme Court sanctioned the right of whites to racially discriminate against blacks in theaters in Taylor v. Cohn. Oregon had embraced Jim Crow. Black people were regularly refused admission to restaurants, theaters and hotels. Medical care was difficult to obtain, unions barred blacks from membership, employment was confined to certain jobs and integrated housing was resisted. 'We Cater to White Trade Only' signs were posted in restaurant windows.
Even after the signs came down, segregated seating continued in theaters. I can remember sitting in the balcony of the Egyptian Theater in the 1950s. I had no idea that my mother and I had to sit there. I also remember skating at the Imperial Skating Rink on Mondays only in the early 1960s. I had no idea that we couldn’t skate there the other days of the week. I didn’t know that we couldn’t skate at Oaks Park at all because I never went there.
I was six years old when my parents were leaders in the campaign to pass the Public Accommodations Act. I remember our house being full of their associates and spending weekends helping with the mailings — our living room floor was cluttered with the assembly line for thousands of flyers. I grew up knowing that I had ancestors who had been enslaved and thinking that it was my obligation to be involved with making things better for black people. I still think that.
I have worked as an Oregon civil rights investigator and as a civil rights attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. I currently work as an administrative law judge. I am certain that my interests are directly related to seeing my parents involved in the struggle. Following their example, I have always participated in community organizations and civic activities that sought improvements in conditions for black and poor people.
I am very proud of my parents’ accomplishments, and I hope that all Oregonians recognize that without their efforts, and the efforts of all those who worked so hard for years, laws would not protect the rights of all who have been included in anti-discrimination laws over the years — women, the disabled, older people, injured workers and, if lobbying efforts prevail, gays and lesbians. The efforts of a group of people unwanted by this state continue to make life better for all Oregonians.
1. At three separate times, Oregonians adopted Black Exclusion Laws that made it illegal for an African American person to live in Oregon. The original Exclusion Law adopted by the provisional government in 1844 provided for public whipping of African Americans who violated it. Bosco-Milligan Foundation, Cornerstones of Community: Buildings of Portland’s African American History 6 (1995).
2. The Oregon territorial government adopted this new Black Exclusion Law in 1849. In addition, the 1850 Homestead Act excluded blacks from acquiring free land from the government. Cornerstones at 6.
3. When passed in 1953, the original law prohibited discrimination 'on account of race, religion, color or national origin.' The current law, ORS 659A.400-659A.409, prohibits discrimination the basis of race, religion, sex, marital status, color, national origin, or age (if the person is at least 18 years old). See Sidebar 2.
4. See Cornerstones at 17-18 for discussion of the opening of the Portland Hotel in 1890 and the recruitment of black service workers from North and South Carolina.
5. Portland’s black population was 775 in 1900 and 1,045 in 1910, maintaining at less than 1 percent of the population. Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 193 (1998).
6. Although the OSB Bulletin follows the Associated Press Stylebook and therefore does not capitalize the 'b' in 'blacks' or 'black people,' for personal and political reasons, I prefer to do so. I use the term 'African American' interchangeably. In this article, these terms refer to people of African ancestry in the United States.
7. In 1919, the Portland Realty Board adopted a policy of restricting the sale of properties to 'Negroes and Orientals' to the Albina district — inner North and Northeast Portland, near the Steel and Broadway bridges. The Realtors Code of Ethics called for punitive measures against agents who violated the policy. Elizabeth McLagan, A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940 142 (1980).
8. See Cornerstones at 85-92 for discussion of urban renewal efforts and their impact on displacing the heart of the traditional African American community, whose population in Portland had grown from 1,931 in 1940 (0.6 percent) to 9,529 in 1950 (2.5 percent). Due to recruitment to support the steel industry for the war effort, the African American population in Portland’s metropolitan area had numbered more than 20,000 in the 1940s. In Search of the Racial Frontier at 223 and 254; Cornerstones at 53.
9. For discussions of the Klan in Oregon, see Cornerstones at 26-29 and A Peculiar Paradise at 129-156.
10. A Fair Employment Practices Act was defeated in the state legislature in 1947 and then passed in 1949. This was the first piece of purely positive race-related legislation ever passed in the state. Cornerstones at 68. Today, Oregon’s statutes prohibiting discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and real property transactions are codified in ORS 659A.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlotte Rutherford is an administrative law judge for Oregon’s Office of Administrative Hearings. A member of the District of Columbia Bar since 1984, she has served as president of the National Health Law Program since 1989. She is a past president of the Oregon Association of Administrative Law Judges, a past member of the Board of Governors of the National Association of Administrative Law Judges, and a board member of Black United Fund of Oregon. This column originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of the OSB Civil Rights Section’s newsletter, Oregon Civil Rights. It is reprinted with permission.
© 2004 Charlotte B. Rutherford