We pause today from our customary respect for vintage buildings and public places to honor a small piece of Portland’s long-gone architectural history and a man who should not be forgotten, Abner H. Francis.
Francis was an early Black Portland pioneer, who, with his brother, I.B. Francis, operated a well-regarded clothing store in one of Portland’s earliest brick buildings, located on the corner of S.W. Stark Street and Front Ave. This alone was a major feat in a territory that by law said a Black person could not reside, vote, or own property.
Francis had been an active abolitionist for 20 years before arriving in Oregon, where he hoped that the Oregon Territory would allow freedom for Blacks to build businesses and enjoy equality guaranteed by the US. Constitution. He had become a friend of Frederick Douglass long before his arrival in Oregon, and wrote nine mostly lengthy to Douglass discussing racial issues in Oregon and San Francisco, where he travelled often on business.
Douglass printed Francis's letters in his abolitionist newspapers.
The Oregon Black Pioneers history organization is aware of other Black pioneers like Francis who remained in several Oregon locations despite the constitutional provision. Many of them ran successful small businesses or were successful at trades. However, they did not enjoy the greater rights and opportunities assured to White residents, and survived by keeping a low profile in their occupational and social lives.
The deprivations suffered because of race apparently aren't worthy of discussing or teaching in modern schools, according to a popular view of many who apparently believe that American history is composed only of feel-good moments.
In 1860, A.H. Francis had an opportunity to visit Victoria, B.C., where the parents of his wife had emigrated. He liked the appearance of the city and the opportunity it represented. In a letter to Douglass, he wrote, “In relation to colorphobia, I must close by saying that there is a grand future for the colored man in British possessions on the north Pacific.” Certainly more grand than in Oregon.
A plaque honoring Francis has been placed near the site of his long-gone store by the Lang Syne Society, which places historical markers around the city, and by Oregon Black Pioneers.