Oregon Black Pioneers focus on African American history
There's been little effort, until recently, to shed light on black history in Oregon.
But the Oregon Black Pioneers are helping to lead the way to remedy that problem, including a collaboration with the city of Portland, American Heritage Center and the state Historic Preservation Office. Though Portland is a focus, it's taking on the entire state.
"Although Portland's African American history is a compelling, rich history, it doesn't represent the beginning or the totality of the black experience in Oregon," says Kim Moreland, vice president of the Oregon Black Pioneers. She says historic sites provide plenty of evidence of black presence since the state's inception in 1859.
They've worked hard to document historic sites throughout the state that were crucial to African American history in Oregon, while also preparing a big document that identifies several properties to list on the National Register of Historic Places.
This includes sites such as Vancouver Avenue Baptist Church, which was listed on the National Register in 2016 for its significant role in Portland's African American history. It had a majority African American congregation, which relocated to inner North Portland after the Vanport flood in 1948.
Sites such as these, if not for organized effort, might have gone under the radar, perhaps even demolished to make way for urban development, Moreland says.
"Often times the historic and cultural significance of African American historic buildings are relatively unknown or disregarded, and they're demolished without general acknowledgement to the emotional ties to the black community," Moreland says. "That's why we're trying to bring the history to the forefront and partner with historic preservationists who are actively working to protect historic sites."
The Oregon Black Pioneers are receiving the University of Oregon's George McMath Historic Preservation award, presented annually by the University of Oregon's preservation program in its School of Architecture and Allied Arts. It's the first time that an organization, rather than a person, is receiving the award.
They'll be recognized at a May 17 luncheon at White Stag Block, 70 N.W. Couch St.
About the group
The all-volunteer nonprofit, based in Salem, was formed in 1994, and has produced a number of publications, exhibitions, conferences and even stage productions. It also leads bus tours that travel throughout the state.
The organization has published two novels, "Perseverance: A History of African Americans In Oregon's Marion and Polk Counties" and "African Americans of Portland."
It's working on a number of different initiatives, including helping the University of Oregon in its plans to build a black cultural center.
The Oregon Black Pioneers will collaborate for the fourth time with the Oregon Historical Society on a 3,000-square-foot interactive exhibit called "Racing for Change: Oregon's Civil Rights Years" focusing on years between 1960 to the late '70s and early '80s, to show a chronological history of African Americans in Portland.
Its previous exhibits included: "Perseverance," which documented history beginning in 1788; "All Aboard! Railroading and Portland's Black Community" in the 1890s; and "A Community on the Move," which looked at African American history in Portland between the 1940s and '50s.
Oregon Black Pioneers' president Willie Richardson, who's centered in Portland, says "Racing for Change" "also focuses on activities on Oregon's campuses during this tumultuous era. The exhibit, which just received a grant from the Northeast Neighborhood Coalition, will be on display in 2018.
However, the group is seeing beyond the physical exhibit and is looking to "finish our goal of a museum," Richardson says.
"After much discussion and chatter, the board has outlined and redefined the concept of a museum," she says.
She says instead of a large, brick-and-mortar building that would be "hard-pressed to sustain over the long term," their museum will include different components, such as a virtual museum.
"Virtual museum is our museum online with access from around the world," she says. It will include electronic versions of all exhibits and photos of artifacts.
Meanwhile, they'll continue to work on identifying historically significant sites throughout Oregon that they can make "travel ready" and "include electronic conversion."
But, in the immediate, they need volunteers to help carry out these visions — particularly those who have skills in research.
"We are an all-volunteer group ... our future need is now," Richardson says. "We need to find resources to hire a staff for continued long-term future and success."