A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Eight - A Very Prejudiced State
Discrimination in Oregon 1900-1940
Black people lived under discriminatory conditions in Oregon as well as in the rest of the nation. Social discrimination was common; black people were regularly refused admission to restaurants, theaters, and hotels. Medical care was difficult to obtain, unions barred blacks from membership, employment practices confined them to certain jobs and integrated housing was resisted. Passing a state public accommodations law to make discrimination illegal was a long and difficult struggle. It began in 1919 and despite repeated attempts was not successful until 1953.
According to a long-time black resident,
Oregon was a Klan state.., a southern state transplanted to the North . . . a hell-hole when I grew up. It has always been a very prejudiced state. It is today, believe it or not. There's a lot of prejudice even now, as,far as that's concerned, but nothing like it used to be.
The attitude of the black press changed, and contributed to greater activism within Portland's black community. A.D. Griffin, editor of the New Age, consistently maintained that prejudice was only confined to the lower elements of white society, and that the race problem would be solved when black people proved by their industry and good character that they were the equal of white people. The Advocate took a more positive position. Instead of elaborating on the problems of the black community, it focused the blame on white attitudes.
Some white people are exceedingly generous with their advice to colored people as to how to solve the race problem in America. If these same individuals would take time to examine themselves, they would find that the key to the solution lay within. The race problem is not a one-sided affair: it has at least two sides like all other things. The white man is on the one side and the colored man on the other. Reading history back three hundred years ago, we are constrained to believe the white man has the biggest side to solve.., this white man is not willing to concede manhood, nor even human rights, to the colored man. When that individual becomes willing to deal justfully and manfully with his colored neighbor, then and only then will the race problem begin to be solved.
Black people recall that many theaters practiced discrimination.
I can remember my children going to the Egyptian Theatre on Union Avenue for years before we realized that the only place they could sit was in the balcony . . .
In 1905 a decision by Judge Frazier in Portland set a precedent for the right of theaters to draw the color line. Oliver Taylor, a black man and Pullman car conductor, had purchased tickets for a performance at the Star Theatre but was refused seating by an usher who informed him that it was against the policy of the theater to allow black people to occupy box seats. The usher offered to exchange the tickets, but Mr. Taylor refused and sued the manager of the theater for $500 in damages. The judge ruled that a theater ticket is a revokable license, and that anyone could be refused admittance; the theater's only obligation was to refund the price of the ticket. This doctrige, the court said, applied to all people, and the fact that Mr. Taylor was black did not in any way influence the decision.
The Oregonian printed an editorial the following day which commented on the court's decision, agreeing with it based on the belief that theaters should respect the known prejudices of its patrons.
If one person--a Chinaman, for example--has a right to buy any seat in the house, and sit in it, so may any other person--a Hottentot, or a woman of notorious reputation--do the same thing. It is not a question as to whether a white person objects to sitting next to a Chinaman. It is simply a well-known fact that he does object, and the theater must govern itself accordingly?
The editorial concluded that the decision was probably good law, and clearly good sense?
In the 1920's and 1930's the black community opposed discrimination by theater owners, and in some cases stood their ground and refused to be intimidated by theater managers and ushers. The Advocate commented when the Pantages Theatre, which made a practice of limiting hlacks to particular seating, was robbed.
Some local colored people think they see in the attack made on Jack Johnson, manager of the Pantages Theatre, by a holdup a few days ago, the unseen hand that, having hit moves on. Johnson may not have dealt a physical blow to a single colored person but he just as surely dealt and does deal the entire colored group a blow when he flatfootedly refuses them admission to his theatre in any part except the gallery?
On one occasion Beatrice Cannady was able to obtain the seats she wanted for a show at the Oriental Theatre only after refusing repeatedly to take inferior seats. She related the incident in an editorial titled "Some of the Joys of Being Colored," where she described the incident and concluded:
Guests see show but can't enjoy it because of the humiliation in obtaining seats.
In 1929 a white lawyer, Milo C. King, persuaded the manager of the Pantages Theatre to give complimentary tickets to a black man and his children who were previously refused tickets, and the same year W.D. Allen and his son attended a performance at the Orpheum'Theatre, ignoring the protests of the usher and manager. When the light went up at the end of the show Allen noticed that Chinese and Japanese were sitting in front and in back of him?
In 1922 the license of R.D. Stuart, who operated a rooming house, restaurant and cabaret at 220 N. 15th Street was revoked, following a raid by police who observed white women dancing with black men. The action to revoke the license was taken by the Portland City Council under Mayor Baker, who declared, despite protests that racial intermingling was not unlawful, that there was one law that prevented it: the law of common decency. Baker instructed the council to draft an ordinance which would prevent racial intermingling in the future. He denied that race prejudice was a factor, saying:
when you take our white girls and allow them to get drunk' in your establishment, and allow them to consort with negro men, I want to say that it is humiliating to the white race and an insult to the decent negro people as well?
Mr. Stuart said he had tried to keep the white trade out, but because of declining business was forced to let them come in. He said that he had not advertised his cabaret, and that white people had come in of their own free will. He also pointed out that city police frequently visited his establishment to evict intoxicated patrons, and they had assured him that he conducted his business in a satisfactory manner. Despite his protest, the decision to revoke his license was unanimous.
The black community and the NAACP sent a formal protest to the city council opposing the enactment of any discriminatory ordinance,
· . . the language of which conveyed the impression that any colored people, regardless of their position in life, are lower than the lowest element of the white race, is not only a damaging statement to yourself and the white race, but is a direct insult to the colored people of this city?
The black community objected to the passage of an ordinance prohibiting racial intermingling because it would set a precedent for discrimination already practiced in theaters and restaurants, and might lead to segregated streetcars, schools and colleges.
The city council decided that an ordinance prohibiting racial intermingling would not be necessary, but supported Mayor Baker's decision to stop white women from dancing with black men in public in the interest of "common decency". The mayor hoped that his decision would have the support of the black community, saying,
We can only assure those negroes who have signed their names to resolutions that they need have no fear of any action of the city council being taken to encourage in any way any race prejudice or anything against any law-abiding person of their race. We have found that no additional legislation is necessary and will handle the situation through police vigilance.
Discrimination was practiced in restaurants, with or with out the display of jim-crow signs. It was the exception rather than the rule for white-owned restaurants in Portland to serve black people, as one resident recalled:
I can remember the signs in all the eating places: "We Reserve the Right to Serve Whom We Please." I can remember around the corner a place called "Porky Pig," a hamburger place, my son and one of the boys who grew up next door to us going aroufid there one evening to get a hamburger and being told, "Get out of here. We don't serve 'niggers' in here.
In 1907 the New Age noted that complaints of discrimination were increasing, where there had been little or no discrimination ten years before.
It is within the memory of nearly all when Negroes' patronage was welcomed and largely sought for in such places as the Quelle and Freeman's, now they are excluded from both places and with this came a number of smaller fry following in the footsteps of the more stylish places.
A.D. Griffin suggested that the actions of one black person, if dishonorable, reflected on the whole race, and attributed the increase in discrimination to the behavior of the local black community.
When the Advocate reported instances of discrimination, it suggested that black people boycott eating establishments that had refused to serve black people.
It might be advisable for colored people who have been patronizing the Mannings' store to cease it. We have patronized the Mannings stores on 4th a~nd Alder and also on Yamhill street for many years but from now on and until the Mannings stores cease to draw the color line, we shall find other stores [in] which to spend our money. Colored people must learn not only not to spend their money where they cannot work but also not to spend their money where they cannot eat.
One incident that aroused the ire of the black community and the NAACP was a public announcement by a black man, Mr. B.J. Johnson, that his restaurant, The Barbecue, would no longer serve black people. The NAACP made a public announcement condemning Mr. Johnson. He quit his subscription to the Advocate, ten new subscriptions were obtained, and the restaurant soon went out of business.
The black community of Bend resented the use of jim-crow signs and succeeded in having them removed. In 1925 a group of black men registered a protest with the Bend City Council. They maintained that jim-crow signs were a public humiliation to the black citizens of the town, who were aware of which local restaurants would refuse to serve them. They said they had no desire to try to eat where they were not wanted, and preferred that owners refuse service to black people privately. The City Council adopted the resolution, and had the signs removed.
Jim-crow signs were also used in Portland. The Advocate reported one instance of their use.
The Million Dollar Club Restaurant on Fourth Street, so we are told, has hung out a sign reading: we employ white help and cater to white trade. Heretofore this restaurant has served colored people as well as any other. However, colored folk can buy bread and doughnuts there to take home. But will they?
NAACP monthly and annual reports mentioned success in having jim-crow signs removed from various restaurants. One report stated,
Nothing special outside of having signs removed from restaurants--"No Colored Trade Wanted"?
The Ku Klux Klan was reorganized in 1915, six months after the release of D.W. Griffith's film, Birth of a Nation. Based on Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, this documentary style film claimed to present a true picture of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. It was sensationally and violently anti-black. The NAACP lobbied the National Board of Censorship, seeking the removal of some of the film's most obnoxious scenes, but that attempt failed, and the film was approved for public viewing. It then became the responsibility of local government to approve or deny permits to show the film.
In 1916 the film was scheduled to be shown in Portland. A group of black people, including Mrs. Katherine Gray, W.D. Allen, Rev. J.W. Anderson, Rev. R.W. Rowran, O.S. Thomas, E.D. Cannady, and representatives from the local NAACP appeared before the city council to protest the showing of the film. The city attorney, council members, Mrs. Cannady and other black citizens viewed the film, and the council passed an ordinance which would ban the showing of any film which would stir up hatred between the races?
In 1922, James Weldon Johnson, National Secretary of the NAACP, sent a telegram to Ben Olcott, the governor of Oregon, to protest the showing of Birth of a Nation, scheduled to open at the Blue Mouse Theatre. Johnson urged Olcott to ban the film, saying,
· . . we are informed that there are five hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan in Portland?
The telegram was sent at the request of Mrs. Cannady. In 1923 the Advocate reported that the film was being shown in several theatres in Portland, "... but not a word of protest was heard from the local branch [NAACP]."
The film was banned in Portland in 1926. In 1931, it was scheduled to be shown again, sponsored by the American Legion, who would receive a percentage of the profits for their charity work, and to raise money for a convention to be held in Portland the following year. Sound had been added to the film, and some of the more objectionable scenes were removed, but many groups joined the black community's protest, including the president of Reed College, the secretary of the Council of Churches, and several women's organizations. A private viewing of the film was held, attended by a large interracial group, who agreed that nothing substantial had been changed. The owner of the theatre withdrew his application to show the film.
It was also cancelled in Salem because of that community's opposition.21
Although the Ku Klux Klan was organized in Oregon in 1921, groups of its type had existed in Oregon in the nineteenth century. Settlers coming from the border states and the South carried their baggage of prejudice with them: the activities of the Knights of the Golden Circle is only one example of the appearance of southern white-supremacy organizations in the West?
Shortly after the turn of the century, an e~ample of small town violence and southern style justice took place in Coos Bay, Oregon, then called Marshfield. The incident was reported in the Oregon Journal:
Alonzo Tucker, the black fiend who assaulted the wife of Ben-
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