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Southwest residents share their experiences with racism and social change during special neighborhood panel

Kevin Rhea can remember the first time he was called the 'N' word in fourth grade while playing tetherball on the playground. It was the 1960s. His teacher brushed it off.

"The teacher's reaction was 'Oh, it's not that big of a deal, he probably didn't mean it,'" Rhea recalls. Maybe. Maybe the kid didn't understand the gravity of his words, but maybe he did.

Having to kickstart his internal dialogue around one of the most painful words in American history is a familiar exercise to Rhea, a Realtor and avid cyclist.

He's also had the slur hurled at him four times since June. One of the incidents happened while he was riding his bike, as he often does near his home. Another time, he was standing in line at a Fred Meyer grocery store.

"This is what I've experienced as a black man from fourth grade, to now being a 62-year-old man and still experiencing that same thing," Rhea said.

Rhea was one of three panelists who spoke about his experiences as a Black person in a predominantly white city to Southwest Portlanders Wednesday, Sept. 16.

SCREENSHOT - Kevin Rhea speaks via video conference during a special panel hosted by Southwest Hills Residential League.PHOTO COURTESY OF SWHRL - JembereSCREENSHOT  - Mingus MappsThe panel, called "Portland, the Black Experience: Neighborhood Reflections," was organized by Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL), one of the nearly 20 neighborhood associations in Southwest Portland.

The panel discussion is available to view on YouTube. Warning: Video contains graphic language. Rhea was joined by Martha Jembere, an African refugee with a background in pharmacology, and former Portland city employee turned City Council candidate, Mingus Mapps. Rhea and Jembere walked listeners through their lives using poignant, searing memories of racial discrimination.

For Jembere, who at 19 left her home in Ethiopia and started college classes in Russia before landing in East Germany, her memories of living in Africa are what she calls, "the life I had before I was labeled by skin color."

Jembere had never been classified by the color of her skin before filling out immigration paperwork. From Germany, Jembere eventually made her way to a refugee camp. When she finally got a sponsorship in Portland that allowed her to move to the United States, some of her first memories in Oregon were of she and a college roommate being chased by three people in Ku Klux Klan hoods while she was a student at Oregon State University's School of Pharmacy in Corvallis.

"One day after I studied so hard, it was night time, like 2 o'clock in the morning," Jembere recalled. "My Chinese friend, we started walking to our dorm. All of the sudden, all of the lights on the streets went dark. ...I saw three people wearing the KKK hood, following so close, telling us to stop. 'Stop where you are.' We were shaken. I started running, but I couldn't leave her. I had to drag her. She couldn't keep up."

Jembere said they ran into a nearby convenience store, but it was empty and the robed stalkers were still following. Jembere remembers thinking that day would be her last. She prayed.

"Even though they were going to kill me, I was praying, 'why do they hate me?'"

The girls made it to their dorm room, but the next day was a literal blur. "I couldn't see for the exam. I was blank," she said. "I saw the three figures, I saw the robes. … That changed my life."

Despite being terrorized by the KKK and finding noticeable gaps in Portlanders' knowledge of Africa, her love for Portland and the U.S. is unwavering.

"Once I arrived here to the United States, I fell in love," Jembere said. "Just (from) the time I arrived here in Portland, Oregon. People say it's a white state, but I sensed a mental diversity. That's the reason I chose to be here."

Mapps's history in Portland dates back farther. He was raised here--the result of several aunts who attended Reed College after the university implemented affirmative action policies.

For Mapps, who is now making a bid to help lead the city that raised him, racism has always been entwined in Portland's history, and it hasn't gone away, but he sees a concerted effort to right those wrongs.

"Race and racism very much continues to shape my experience in Portland, and probably everyone's experience in Portland," Mapps told SWHRL guests. "If you look like me and you grow up in a place like Portland, you're gonna attract a lot of attention. ... "If you were a young Black person growing up in Portland, you were probably over-policed. I have never had the option to walk into a room and be anonymous."

But, Mapps noted, "Portland certainly deserves to get credit for its commitment to issues surrounding racial equality."

Mapps isn't old enough to remember the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he does recall the impact of King's assassination.

"About 52 yrs ago, Martin Luther King was killed, and that was a tense moment in history," he said.

Rhea does remember that day. He was in elementary school in Ohio. Around that time, his family tried to dine out at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. The place was half empty, but his parents were told to wait for a booth. After a long wait with white guests coming and going, his family was never served.

"We stopped at a gas station and had candy bars for dinner," he said, " because we couldn't eat at the restaurant because we were Black."

Mapps and Rhea's encounters with racism were reflections of the country's painful, broken, post-civil rights era social system. But if their experiences in the 1960s and '70s served as a reflection of America at the time, the mirror hasn't changed much.

"I was called N----r four times in six weeks, through no provocation of my own," Rhea said, noting the slurs lobbed at him in June and July, as the country saw a surge in Black Lives Matter protests.

The interactions aren't subtle. Recently, while cycling, he said a pickup truck slowed, flipped him the middle finger, and yelled at him to "get off the road!" before the driver lobbed a slur at him. It's not the first time that's happened to him.

"This is why I say I need the life of Mingus, I need the life of Martha and I need my life to matter," Rhea said. He embraces the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but condemns the riots, saying, "those people don't speak for me."

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