Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Portland's Black History Matters

Billy Webb Elks Lodge 

Little-known chapters of African American history in Portland earned a well-deserved boost from the National Park Service last week when the federal agency added the Billy Webb Elks Lodge to the National Register of Historic Places and approved historical evidence of dozens of additional ethnically-important sites.

The multi-property document means that large numbers of sites would be eligible for the National Register in the event formal applications are made.  “With all the pressures for development, these properties are now on the radar” as worthy of protecting, said Denyse McGriff, vice president of the Architectural Center and a state advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  “There should be no dispute about their significance.”

Many of Portland’s African-American historical sites were demolished as a result of construction of Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Interstate-5 freeway and demolition of the heart of Albina for Emanuel Hospital facilities that were never built. 

 Brandon Spencer-Hartle, historic resources program manager for the city Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said the multi-property listing should help preserve the ethnically-important resources, "many of which have been inexcusably and deliberately overlooked by past planning efforts."

Much of the multi-property documentation arose from the “Cornerstones of Community: Buildings of Portland's African American History” book researched and written by the late Catherine Galbraith, executive director of the Architectural Heritage Center, with the cooperation of local historians and numerous community members. 

The paper-bound book, completed in 1995, detailed many decades of struggle by Portland’s African American community fighting de facto segregation in housing, schools, public accommodations, entertainment, business and civil rights.  Galbraith died in 2018, but was working on the multi-property nomination until her final days.

McGriff said the National Parks Service, along with state and local preservation organizations, now realize that culturally important sites do not have to be impressive buildings architecturally. Indeed, one of the most important sites in Portland could be the small bungalow where Otto and Verdell Rutherford met for decades with political and civil rights leaders to change laws in Oregon. 

There is no dispute, either, about the significance of the Billy Webb Elks building.  “It is one of the most significant African-American buildings in the Pacific Northwest," Galbraith once said.

Located at 6 N. Tillamook Ave., the building was erected by the YWCA in Portland’s segregation era.  It became known familiarly as the “Williams Avenue branch” or the “Colored YWCA.”  It was the meeting site for many organizations, including the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality.  During World War II, the building was leased to the USO for entertaining members of the military.

In 1948, the Red Cross used the building to reunited family members who had been separated by the devastating Vanport flood.   Upon the completion of a new YWCA building in downtown Portland in 1959, the agency sold the building to the Billy Webb Elks Club, an affiliate of minority-run Elks clubs.  Billy Webb was an African-American band leader who worked on cruise ships plying between Portland and San Francisco.

The building underwent major restoration about 10 years ago.  Today it is open to the public (pandemic notwithstanding) for social events and club activities.

Golden West Hotel 

Among the many locations noted for their cultural importance, two stand out perhaps the most prominently: the Golden West Hotel and the second Mt. Olivet Baptist Church.

From 1906 to 1931, the five-story hotel at N.W. Broadway and Everett St. was the center of community life and business opportunity for Portland’s African-American citizens who were shut out of most other housing and business options.  Entrepreneur William G. Allen built the 100-room hotel that catered heavily to railroad workers working on trains arriving and departing at nearby Union Station.  Allen leased ground floor spaces to a barbershop, bar, athletic club and ice cream shop, providing  opportunities for other minority entrepreneurs.  There were few other doorways for African-Americans to lift themselves to middle-class incomes.

The Depression ended the hotel’s heyday.  Today the building has been renovated into low-income housing units run by Central City Concern.  In a nice historical touches, the large Golden West blade sign has returned to prominence and displays in two large windows on Broadway recount the building’s tenure as a vital element of the African-American community.

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church 

The second Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, at 1734 N.E. First Ave., throbbed with community civil rights activism for more than 50 years under the successive leadership of Revs. J.J. Clow and John H. Jackson.  Construction of the church was finished in 1923.  According to a church history, the project was assisted by building materials donated by the Ku Klux Klan, then politically active in Oregon, which wanted the church to move from its original location in Northwest Portland to the "proper side of town." 

The Mt. Olivet congregation outgrew the building in the late 1980s and eventually moved to a new site on N. Chautauqua Avenue.  Mt. Olivet still owns the “old” church, which is now used for services by The Well Community Church.


  1. I love these articles. This is reportorial excellence of the highest caliber. I don't live in Portland but do visit often. And I'm making a list of places I will visit next time I'm there.

  2. And.... when you are here, take a walking tour led by a volunteer docent with the Architectural Heritage Center!