Rose City's early black leaders stand as monuments to struggle

by: COURTESY OF THE OREGONIAN NEWSPAPER AND OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Beatrice Morrow Cannady was a crusading Portland newspaper editor and pathbreaking civil rights leader. PSU students are shining a light on Cannady and other early-20th century African-American women from Portland who are little-known by the public.In 1928, Beatrice Morrow Cannady and her two sons went to a movie at Portland’s Oriental Theatre, where an usher tried to steer them upstairs to the “Negro section” in the balcony. Cannady refused and sat down in the center aisle — 27 years before Rosa Parks sat down on that Montgomery, Ala., bus.

There are no public monuments to honor Cannady, a crusading newspaper editor who some consider Oregon’s top civil rights leader of the early 20th century.

But Portland State University students, in a senior capstone class called Monumental Women, are trying to shine more light on Cannady and some of her contemporaries. They’re researching influential but often neglected African-American women in early-20th century Portland history, and are compiling the information to create a self-guided historical walking tour.

In a public program Sunday, the students will unveil the map that’s the culmination of their work, which they call “In Her Steps: African American Women, 1900-1940.” The walking tour, consisting of 15 stops downtown and in inner North/Northeast Portland, will capture a slice of life that was ignored by mainstream media at the time and still isn’t taught in area schools.

“We’re actually naming these people; we’re recognizing their lives — the normal things they did and the amazing things they did,” says Sarah Huddleston, a student in the class.

Kara Zambricki, another student in the class, says she especially appreciated learning about the women’s sacrifices and struggles to build community in the face of many obstacles.

When students — and the public on walking tours — can see where the women lived and carried out their work, it helps them relate more to their history and appreciate it, says Janice Dilg, a historian and adjunct PSU instructor for the Monumental Women capstone series.

Senior capstone projects, required for most PSU graduates, are six-credit explorations involving inter-disciplinary and community-based learning. Last year, Dilg led a capstone class that created a walking tour in conjunction with the centennial celebration of women’s suffrage in Oregon.

The study of women’s history, she says, is largely about “making the invisible women visible.”

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - The Culture Club, shown here in 1924, was one of several women's clubs that were vital to black community life in Portland during the first half of the 20th century. Shut out of women's clubs formed by white women, African-American women started their own.

Rediscovering Cannady

It doesn’t take much reading into Cannady’s life to realize she went unappreciated far too long. University of Utah professor Kimberley Mangun began researching Cannady’s life several years ago, and her preliminary findings were featured in a 2007 Oregon Experience video documentary aired by Oregon Public Broadcasting. Mangun completed her full biography, “Beatrice Morrow Cannady and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Oregon, 1912-1936,” in 2010.

As Mangun relays it, Cannady moved to Portland in 1912 — the same year Oregonians approved women’s right to vote — to marry Edward Cannady, the cofounder and publisher of the Advocate, a newspaper serving Portland’s small black community. This was a time when black women were largely confined to jobs as maids, nannies and menial jobs at hotels and trains — even those like Cannady who were college-educated, Dilg says. 

Cannady soon became an editor and later ran the Advocate, using its pages to argue passionately for civil rights and call attention to racial discrimination. She protested Portland showings of the racist film “Birth of a Nation” and championed the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Alabama teenagers wrongly imprisoned for sexually assaulting two white girls. 

Cannady cofounded the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1914 and became its vice president and regional branch organizer. Known as a bridge-builder between the white and black communities, she held interracial teas at her Irvington home and frequently lectured on race relations at Reed College and Lincoln High School. Cannady also presented her views on the new medium of the era: radio.

In 1916, she sued the Portland School Board to protest blacks being relegated to separate swimming hours at the publicly owned Couch Street pool, in the basement of present-day Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest Portland. She lost the lawsuit but went on to attend law school at night at what is now Lewis & Clark Law School. In 1922, Cannady became Oregon’s first African-American woman to graduate law school and go on to practice law. Mangun says Cannady flunked the bar exam five times but nevertheless continued practicing law here.

It wasn’t until 1960 — 38 years later — that Mercedes Diaz became the first African-American woman to pass the Oregon bar, Mangun writes.

To research notable African-American women of the early 20th century, Dilg’s students combed through back issues of surviving copies of the Advocate. There was little coverage of the black community in The Oregonian or other daily newspapers in those days, Dilg says. Students also delved through the personal papers and other materials collected by another of the Monumental Women, Verdell Burdine Rutherford, which include numerous boxes recently donated to PSU’s archives.

Early suffragists

Hattie Redmond and Katherine Gray are two other largely forgotten African-Americans who played important roles in the fight for women’s suffrage in Oregon. Their contributions came to light partly through the work of historians such as Dilg and Western Oregon University professor Kim Jensen, who researched the suffrage movement to prepare for last year’s yearlong centennial celebrations.

Redmond and Gray cofounded the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League, drawing members from five Portland African-American churches, Jensen says. Redmond became president of the league, which was part of a broad-based coalition that finally secured passage of the suffrage amendment on the sixth try on the statewide ballot.

The early-20th century years marked the Progressive Era, a time when everyday citizens mobilized to promote many causes. Women were forming settlement houses and lobbying for public health measures and other causes. But black women were excluded from white women’s clubs, so they formed their own.

At the time, Redmond was a janitor at the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, and Gray was an attendant at the public park bathrooms downtown.

Gray worked alongside Cannady to protest “Birth of a Nation” showings in town and to organize the local NAACP chapter, Dilg says.

She went on to become the president of the Oregon Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, Jensen says.

When African-American women and girls in Portland felt unwelcome at the downtown YWCA, they petitioned the national YWCA to form their own. In 1920, a new “Y” for the African-American community was erected at the corner of North Williams Avenue and Tillamook Street.

This was the period when the Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in Oregon and become a dominant force in state politics.

Portland, dubbed by some blacks to be the most racist large U.S. city outside of the South, adopted some of the South’s Jim Crow segregation policies. Some stores posted signs saying blacks and other minorities weren’t welcome.

by: COURTESY OF PSU - Verdell Rutherford led an effort to push for a 1953 civil rights law in Oregon.The Y became a focal point of the African-American community, hosting children playing in the gym, lectures and musical performances, and providing office space for the NAACP. The Y, which survived into the 1950s, hosted “Negro history week” long before February was adopted nationally as black history month, Dilg says.

Along with the Y, the Monumental Women walking tour will highlight the work of Kathryn Bogle, Willie Mae Hart, Marie Smith, Rutherford and others. Rutherford was a leader of the NAACP and instrumental in winning state passage of the Oregon Public Accommodations Bill in 1953. That made Oregon the 21st state to outlaw racial discrimination in public accommodations, 11 years before the passage of the landmark national Civil Rights Act.

Such post-1940 events will be covered in a future senior capstone class, Dilg says.