Eliot Remembered – Emma Brown

Emma Brown
Emma Brown

Emma and Finn Brown came from Biloxi, Mississippi, to the Pacific Northwest by train, and settled in Vancouver, Washington, in 1949, where their only child, Annie Louise, was born at St. Joseph Hospital. Finn first got a job working at a cannery; later, when he was hired on at Rich Manufacturing in Portland, they moved across the river. Emma went into domestic service with a family in Dunthorpe, with whom she worked for more than two decades. Widowed in 1978, Emma Brown, has also outlived many of her clients. Today she is 84 and still working part time.

Q: Do you remember what you first thought of the weather here, the rain?
A: I didn’t think much of it. I was used to the water. I used to work in the oyster factory, where they shook oysters.

Q: What did your husband do at Rich Manufacturing?
A: Well they made pipe, and he worked in the shipping department where he would load trucks and boxcars, you know, when they shipped pipes out.

Q: Where did you live when you first came to Portland?
A: When we left Vancouver, we stayed in an apartment until we bought this house. We lived near Interstate, on Benton Avenue, right where the coliseum is sitting, there was a street in there. That whole street is gone now. There used to be houses all along there. We had to move when they bought the houses out to build the coliseum.

Q: Move where?
A: We moved from Benton two blocks on up to Hancock. It was a big apartment house sitting right on the corner of Hancock. See what happened, people had a big house they made apartments and rented out. We had a kitchen in one room and a bed in the next room. That’s what people had then. I think that street is took out now, Hancock. They have the school district there now.

Q: When you moved in, did you realize that they were going to move you right back out?
A: No. All down in there used to be a lot of stores, used to be the drugstore, used to be a Safeway, before they put in the freeway. All kind of shopping, a little grocery store where they had vegetables.

Q: Were people angry about the move?
A: Some of the people, I’m sure, they didn’t want to give up their homes. All down in there where the coliseum is sitting, the Rose Garden, clear up to the Convention Center, was where peoples all used to live. They got rid of their homes for maybe a little or nothing. We didn’t own a home, so I don’t know what people sold their homes for.

Q: Where did those people go?
A: Most of those people now are gone. Those people I knew then, all those people has passed on.

Q: Then you bought on Rodney Avenue?
A: Yes. We had looked for a long time. When we bought this house, we bought it from Mr. Francis. He was a white man. Mr. Francis and his wife had moved to a retirement home. They said he worked on the railroad. He has tags up in the basement – like the tags from off your car—that’s been there ever since 1924. This house use to be the voting house, where people could come to vote. At that time you went to houses to vote. And this dining room was where they set up the booths. I don’t know how many booths they set up or however they done it, but this house used to have a swing on the porch, and people would wait on the porch until the other fellow finished and they would come in and do the same. Mrs. Turner, the white lady lived next door in the big house, she told me the history of her house and this house.

Q: What was this neighborhood like when you moved here?
A: Quite a few Blacks lived in here. When we moved in here, then I guess people were selling out to Blacks. This is as far as you could go; you couldn’t go across Union Avenue at that time.

Q: Where did your daughter go to school?
A: Eliot, over here on Flint. [Today, Tubman Middle School.]

Q: Then Jefferson?
A: No, she went to Washington High School, which is no more.

Q: Where would you shop for groceries?
A: Safeway used to be on Union Avenue, right off of Sacramento. When they closed that one, they put it up on Broadway. I don’t like the [new] store at all. When they remodeled it, that’s when the whole thing changed. It used to be a pretty good store. Every time I go there, it’s something I buy all the time, it’s gone up!

Q: What businesses did you patronize on Williams and Russell?
A: They had a drugstore there, a cleaners. They had a nice meat place; I used to love to get meat there. And if I saw some vegetables, something I liked, you know, I would go there. They used to have what they called like the old market, everything out where you’d see all the vegetables.

Q: Did you have a doctor in the neighborhood?
A: I had two doctors in the neighborhood. Course they are both gone now. I had a Black doctor who used to be here called Dr. Brown. And I also had another doctor, when we first moved over here, was called Dr. Marshall. I never went to Dr. Unthank. They say he was a good doctor; I knew a lot of people went to him, but I just never, you know.

Q: Where did you go to church?

A: This church right down here, Mt. Olivet. It’s an old church. We moved out when we got a new preacher because the church had grown too much and it didn’t hold the people. But the preacher when I joined Mt. Olivet was Reverend Clow. And then Reverend Jackson came and he was an all-around preacher. Whatever came up in Portland, he was in it, you know. He was in the marches and stuff like that.

Q: And were you in the marches?
A: No. You know, most of the stuff that happened, whenever the marches were, I was working. I worked for a private family, and I worked five days a week.

Q: That was when you worked for Dr. Dowsett?
A: Yes. He was the head doctor at Emanuel Hospital, and his wife was home and they had two boys. And I was the maid. They lived out in Dunthorpe and I was there five days a week. I came home at night.

Q: When did you start working for that family?
A: When I was 24 years old. I worked for them about twenty-some years. My husband passed away, I kept on working for them. Then they moved from Dunthorpe to King Tower in the West Hills, from the West Hills to Charbonneau, in Wilsonville, and I went to Charbonneau on the bus. Then Dr. Dowsett got sick, he passed away. Mrs. Dowsett got married again and moved to Palm Springs. And she said, “You’re going to Palm Springs.”  And I said, “No, I’m not going to Palm Springs.”  And she said, “Well, what am I going to do?”  I said, “Well, you’ll find somebody in Palm Springs. I can’t go to Palm Springs.”

Q: Drugs used to be a problem in the neighborhood?
A: Now that’s something I never knew too much about. Because I was never around it.

Q: You once told me that the house I live in now was firebombed back in the early seventies.
A: Yes, yes. There was a guy lived in your house, everybody called him Poop. They said he was into drugs, you know.
It used to be an apartment in the back, where your deck is, and the garage sat in the front. Okay. Poop he had a guy lived back there called J.D. J.D. was sort of a handy man; he would do things for people, haul trash away or whatever you wanted him to do. That’s how he lived. And somehow, I don’t know exactly what happened, but the night the bomb was throwed in, we had went to bed. I don’t remember what time it was, but somehow we woke up and we could smell smoke. I thought the hot water heater had blew up. So I jumped up out of bed, ran downstairs, and I got down there and I found out the hot water heater wasn’t blown up. I ran back upstairs and I said to my husband,  “There’s lights flashing outside.”  And I went to what I thought was the window, and I stuck my head out the window and realized I was out the window. My head was out the window! I said, “Well, there’s no window here!” All these windows were gone but I didn’t know that because I didn’t turn any light on. It was police cars and fire trucks everywhere and there was dogs all around and people going around houses with lights. You know how firecracker smoke smells: that’s how it smelled. And this man they called Poop—he called everybody Poop cause that’s what people called him—he said “Somebody threw a bomb in here, Poop.”

Q: So he wasn’t in the room that got firebombed?
A: When the person threw the bomb, Poop was on the phone in the hallway, where the phone was. It tore the garage down. And in this back part of the house where J.D. was in bed, he was covered with glass, but he didn’t get a scratch on him. That was lucky. But the bomb was meant for Poop. He didn’t stay in that house after the bombing. He left and he bought a house way up on Williams Avenue.

Q: So now the neighborhood has changed again.
A: Well, I would say, yeah. Because most of all the Blacks has moved out.

Q: Where did they go?
A: They’re scattered around. I think a lot of people is out in Beaverton, some is out in Oswego, some is southeast. Gresham, there’s a lot of Blacks in Gresham now. They’s just all around.

Q: Why did the neighborhood disperse?
A: I don’t know. Some people move out because they want to move out. The people lived next door to me, Nancy Powell and her husband, they moved when Mr. Powell got ill. Some women figured they couldn’t take care of the house, they couldn’t do all the work, so they got an apartment. Or they couldn’t take care of the yard. I say it isn’t too many women likes to get out in the yard and dig like I do.