A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940

Chapter Eight - A Very Prejudiced State
Discrimination in Oregon 1900-1940

Griffin later approved of a man who obtained work as a truck driver for the Banfield, Veysey Fuel Co., whose regular drivers were on strike, and suggested that other black men seek work in similar situations. We have repeatedly warned [the Unions] that.., in case of a strike or difference between them and their employers the Negro would have no cause to feel any pangs of conscience about taking the place of the strikers.

When the Civil Service and Police Commission ruled that no one who had worked as a janitor or porter in a saloon could qualify for a position on the police force, Griffin wondered if the same rule would be applied to white applicants, and concluded:

Shut out by the Unions, who refuse to admit the black worker to membership, from securing more lucrative employment, the fact that he accepts menial labor rather than steal or starve, in the eyes of our Democratic commissioners counts against him. Verily where an excuse is wanted, it is not hard to find one.

In 1924, the Advocate reported that white waiters were hired in the Portland Hotel's grille room, because the unions insisted that these jobs should not be given to black waiters?2 The NAACP intervened when black employees were discharged by Olds and King, and they succeeded in having the women rehired. A new position was also created and filled by a black man. They were able to make small gains with other employers, but discrimination in employment continued, and black people were generally barred from unions until 1949, when the Oregon Legislature passed a fair employment practices act, making discrimination in employment illegal?

In the years before World War II, discrimination was persistent, but not as intense as that which was experienced during the 1940's. One resident recalled,

It seems that most black people thought that we didn't need a civil rights law, because they could go wherever they wanted, and participate in anything they wanted, and buy wherever they wanted. But when the war came along and a lot of blacks came in from different states, that's when they started discriminating. So blacks found out that they needed a civil rights law?

The degree of discrimination that black people experienced varied from person to person and place to place. The most extreme examples occurred in small towns such as Coos Bay and Medford, where the Ku Klux Klan was strong. Black people in Portland faced continued inequalities in employment, housing and public accommodations.

An active leadership developed that protested incidents of discrimination, often successfully. But the power of the black community was limited and operated without civil rights legislation and a large population that could initiate economic boycotts and exert political pressure. Many black people were leaving Oregon. In 1936, for example, the black population of Salem had virtually disappeared, as a local NAACP officer observed:

Salem has no Negro population, except a few inmates in the Penal Institution, and Insane Hospital. All of the colored people who did live here, have all moved to Los Angeles. I know of no Negro living in Salem at the present time.

As one resident remembered, a good deal of energy had to be spent simply in making a living.

We were just a mere handful of people here in Portland . . . We were so scattered. We had people living as far as Lents, St. Johns, and heck, you couldn't get them together! Then on top of that the majority of men were railroad men. They were out of town?

The End of Chapter 8

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