The Oregon Black Pioneers, the state’s premier organization dedicated to illuminating African Americans’ contributions to Oregon’s history, is the 2017 recipient of the George McMath Historic Preservation Award.
Since 1993, the Oregon Black Pioneers, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization based in Salem, has produced publications, mounted exhibitions, presented lectures, sponsored conferences, organized musical and theater productions, delivered classroom presentations and curriculum to public schools, and recognized burial sites for Black pioneers in Salem. Their dedication to shedding light on Oregon’s African American pioneers has revealed a rich history that enriches the experience of all Oregonians.
All Aboard! Railroading and Portland’s Black Community, 2013 exhibition at Oregon Historical Society. Click image to enlarge.
“My goal for the Oregon Black Pioneers is to see the organization continue to move forward in its mission of researching the history of African Americans in Oregon; working to ensure that this history is captured and made available to the broader public in accessible forms such as exhibits, travel tours, virtual museum, etc.; and that the contribution of African Americans is included in the telling of the Oregon story,” says Board President Willie Richardson.
The 2013 exhibition “All Aboard: Railroading and Portland’s Black Community,” held at the Oregon Historical Society and created in partnership with Oregon Black Pioneers, focused on the work and lives of the African American community around Portland’s Union Station from the 1800s to 1940s. “Railroad and hotel workers were essential to forming Portland’s small, thriving, African American community, which began to blossom prior to World War II,” the Oregon Cultural Trust noted in advertising the exhibition.
Oregon Black Pioneers are again working with the Oregon Historical Society to mount a major exhibition. “Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years” which will open at The Oregon History Museum, January 15–June 2018. The groundbreaking exhibit and associated programs will highlight the courage, struggle, and progress of Oregon’s black residents during the civil rights movement in Oregon in the 1960s and 1970s.
Former Oregon First Lady Mary Oberst wrote in her nomination letter, “Oregon Black Pioneers is a group of trailblazers—illuminating corners of Oregon history that have never seen the light.”
Above left: Perseverance: A History of African Americans in Oregon’s Marion and Polk Counties, 2011 (book cover). Above right: African Americans of Portland, 2013 (book cover). Click image to enlarge.
OBP’s publication Perseverance: A History of African Americans in Oregon’s Marion and Polk Counties, published in 2011, documents the role African Americans have played in building Oregon since before the wagon trains rolled here. Their second publication, African Americans of Portland, published in 2013, chronicles a small population of African Americans who settled in Portland against the backdrop of exclusion laws that banned free blacks from settling in Oregon. In his endorsement for the book Perseverance, former Governor Victor Atiyeh said, “this carefully researched document brings the story of Oregon’s African American’s to life.”
Oregon Black Pioneers collaborated in a long overdue project with the Friends of the Pioneer Cemetery in Salem to place headstones on unmarked graves of black pioneers buried in the cemetery. However, in 2007, instead of gravestones for all of the unmarked graves, Oregon Black Pioneers presented the City of Salem with a stone marker for the cemetery to honor the memory of all those early settlers. They followed up with a well-researched exhibit, “Salem’s Black Voices,” that told the stories of many of those pioneers.
To broaden the understanding of African-American history in the state, the Oregon Black Pioneers, in partnership with the State Historic Preservation Office, collects information about existing structures with any African American association and cemeteries where African Americans are buried. These places can be buildings where African Americans worked; sites where important events happened; or objects created, installed, or inspired by African Americans. Currently, 23 projects are in the database with more pending.
Oregon Black Pioneers’ researchers have been documenting areas around the state that have been centers of African American population. From eastern Oregon to Klamath Falls and from the Willamette Valley to the Coast, the team is documenting historic sites, burials, buildings, and monuments. The long-term goal of this research is to assist the State Historic Preservation Office in preparing a multiple property document for the whole state.
Their work has been recognized by historic and public affairs organizations in Oregon. In 2009, they received the David Duniway Award for Historic Preservation presented by the Marion County Historical society and the Education Award from the Oregon Assembly for Black Affairs. In 2010, American Legacy magazine recognized the organization with the Heritage Award.
Above: Board of Directors, Oregon Black Pioneers, February 2017: Front row, right to left, Gwen Carr, secretary (seated), Willie Richardson, president, Zoe Morrison, chair of marketing, Janet Jacquier, internship recruitment development, Natalia Fernandez, collections, Suesann Abdelrasul, treasurer. Back row, left to right, Tatianna Bryant, cochair, virtual museum development, Jonathan Cain, cochair, virtual museum development, Martha Rutherford, chair of board development, and Kim Moreland, vice president.
Buildings in Oregon with historic preservation significance to Oregon’s African American history
Learn more on the State of Oregon historic sites database.
Rinehart Building: The Rinehart Building is one of the surviving commercial buildings for the immigrant and African American communities in Portland dating from 1910. It had multiple functions including the Cleo Lilliann Social Club, as well as grocery, tavern and candy shop and other mixed-use retail activity associated with the streetcar development in Portland’s Albina neighborhood. Jessica Engeman, MS ’04, historic preservation, MCRP, ’04, prepared the nomination. Photos of the Rinehart Building taken before and after restoration. Images courtesy: State Historic Preservation Office.
Hannah and Eliza Gorman house: The Hannah and Eliza Gorman house is an early settlement dwelling in Corvallis, Oregon circa 1857-1866. In the nomination written by Liz Carter, MS ’94 and UO instructor, and Chris Ruiz, MS ‘10, “The house is the only identified residence in Benton County that was owned and occupied by former African American slaves who crossed the Oregon Trail during the settlement period. The mother and daughter, Hannah and Eliza Gorman, purchased the property and built the house, after being freed from slavery, and during a period in which Oregon’s exclusion laws prohibited African Americans from owning property.” Carter states, “As such, the building stands as an important primary resource embodying the struggles and triumphs of African American pioneers during Oregon’s settlement period.” Image courtesy: Oregon Black Pioneers.
Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church: The Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church of Portland, Oregon is a prominent ethnic landmark in the Albina neighborhood. Originally designed by Richard H. Martin, Jr., and built in 1909, the church has 29 Povey Brothers glass windows. The church is one of the oldest mid-20th century African American congregations in Portland and held a significant place in the community. Through the outstanding leadership of the church’s pastor, Oliver Booker Williams, the church became central to the Civil Rights movement in Portland. The Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church was added to the National Register in 2016. The nomination was written by Raymond Burrell III. Photo courtesy: Raymond Burrell III.
Rutherford house: The home of Otto and Verdell Rutherford in NE Portland’s Albina neighborhood pictured in 1920 is on the National Register of Historic Places. The couple was active in the passage of Oregon’s Civil Rights bill (see below) and served as leaders in the Portland chapter of the NAACP. Cathy Galbraith, the 2010 McMath Award recipient, prepared the nomination with thorough background on the house, the social context, and family biographies. Image courtesy: State Historic Preservation Office.
NAACP delegation on April 13, 1953 thanking the sponsors of the Civil Rights Bill, also known as the Public Accommodations Bill, ending segregation in restaurants and other public places. Left to right seated, Senator Philip Hitchcock, Rep. Mark O. Hatfield. Left to right, standing: Edgar Williams, Marie Smith, Ulysses Plummer, Rev. J Harold Jones, Lorna Maples, Verdell Burdine Rutherford and Otto Rutherford. Image courtesy: State Historic Preservation Office from the Verdell A. Burdine and Otto G. Rutherford Family Collection, Gift of the Rutherford Family, Special Collections, Portland State University Library.