According to Dr. David Campt of the Ally Conversation Toolkit project, we need to stop having conversations about our perspectives on race and start having conversations about our experiences with race. If we can listen to and acknowledge each other’s experiences, then we can begin to understand each other. This started me thinking about my early childhood experiences with race.
The current Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon remind me of the protests in 1967 to 1969. Uniformly, historical documentation refers to these protests as “race riots,” and almost none of the sources mention the reason why. This passage in the Oregon Encyclopedia sheds light:
“The other major racial issue in Oregon during this period involved the relationship between the black community and the police, as many blacks charged the police with brutality and racism. In the summers of 1967 and 1969, race riots exploded along Northeast Union Avenue [now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.], the main thoroughfare of the black community at the time. Police and their supporters attributed the riots to ‘outside agitators’ and lawless militants. Many blacks laid the blame on police incitement and the harassment of black youth.”
The cause: police brutality and racism. Sound familiar? We haven’t made any headway since my childhood.
The other issues during this time were segregation and housing discrimination. Per the Oregon Encyclopedia:
“By the 1960s, Portland and many other communities in the country were struggling with how to integrate schools in a segregated city—a legacy of the housing restrictions placed on blacks in the past. The NAACP pushed hard for the integration of Portland schools, but stiff resistance from the city’s educational and political elites, including the school board and conservative-leaning politicians and residents, led to the Blanchard Plan, named after the superintendent of Portland schools, Robert Blanchard. The plan, to be implemented in 1970, called for busing black students to white schools and systematically closing schools in black neighborhoods. By the mid-1970s, the school board had voted to close Jefferson High School, which served most of the city’s black community.”
Not only this, but there were still many “White Trade Only” businesses in Portland, even though most of the signs had come down. Black families had to sit in the balconies of the movie theaters. Oaks Park Amusement let Black people in, but they still weren’t allowed to go on the rides or go skating. Little is written about this, except in a few published oral histories of Black Portlanders.
White only skating in Portland
As a child, I was clueless about this segregation. It wasn’t until I was doing my own research a few years ago that an incident that happened to me at the Lloyd Center skating rink in 1968 or 1969 finally made sense to me.
Portland Ice Skating Club, Lloyd Center, 1962; Oregonian Archives.
We went ice skating for the first time at Lloyd Center. I think that it was with my Brownie Girl Scout troop, but I’m not certain. However, I am certain that my aunt who is my age was there. This was my first time on ice skates and probably hers too, because we both had to hang onto the railing in order to stay up.
Each time we skated around to the side of the rink where people in the mall could stand and watch the skaters, a Black teenage girl would bop us on the head with her umbrella. I told my mom what was happening, and she said that one of us would have to skate out to the center where the attendant was and tell him. So my aunt, being five months older, wobbled out to the middle to report the girl. The girl, by that time, had already left.
I asked my mom why this teenager was bopping us on the head. My mom said that it was because the teenager couldn’t go skating. At the time, I thought she meant that the teenager was too poor to go skating, so I had some sympathy for her. It was only a few years ago that I finally realized why she wasn’t allowed to go ice skating: segregation prevented her.
Anti-miscegenation in Coos Bay
Before the incident at the skating rink and just weeks after the Loving v. Virginia case overturned the ban on interracial marriages in the United States in the summer of 1967, my white uncle-in-law (his sister married into our family) married an African American woman with two small children in California and brought her home to Coos Bay, Oregon.
His family would have nothing to do with him, because of his wife. Because of this, he called my dad and asked for his help to find a place where they could settle. I remember my dad being upset that our uncle-in-law’s family wouldn’t help him. He said, “Family is family. No matter what you think of their decisions, you should still help them.” So my dad loaded all of us into the pickup, and we drove to Coos Bay to help this family settle.
Once we got there, I was excited to play with the wife’s two little children. However, my dad wouldn’t let us get out of the pickup. “Stay here,” he said sternly. We’d never had to stay inside the pickup before, so I was confused. Then I saw that my uncle’s new family was Black, so I figured that’s why we couldn’t play with them.
After my parents came back, I asked my mom questions about them, such as where they were from. My mom said that the wife was from Mississippi and that my uncle-in-law had bought her a sleeping bag for a wedding present, because she’d never seen one before because it never got cold where she was from. I tried to imagine this faraway land where it never got cold. It wasn’t until I did genealogy research as an adult that I found out that she’d been born and raised in California, not some faraway place that didn’t have sleeping bags or cold weather. I figure that my mom probably didn’t actually know, so she just made an assumption based on where she thought Black people would live.
Once we were home, my father took me aside for a serious talk. “Don’t ever marry a Black man. Otherwise, no one will have anything to do with you. Not white people, and not Black people. You’ll be all alone in the world.”
Here I was only six years old, and my dad thought it important to tell me not to marry a Black man! He was so serious about it, that I believed him. After all, look how my uncle-in-law was disowned by his family. I held this belief until I after I got married, moved out of Oregon, and saw many interracial couples in the Midwest. Then I finally realized that many people’s attitudes had changed in those 20 years.
The only reason I had believed this for that long was because I had only associated with other white people.
Featured Photo: NAACP Housing Discrimination Protest Outside Portland City Hall, 1963 (cropped); City of Portland Archives.