In Eliot there’s little left to see of the neighborhood’s complicated past. Once the vibrant, if sometimes dilapidated, center of Portland’s Black community, today almost all the landmarks are gone. The drugstore that anchored the busy intersection of Williams and Russell was beheaded and razed, its beautiful dome transplanted to Dawson Park. The Prince Hall Masonic lodge is now a tapas bar; the Cotton Club, flourishing in the sixties, sits abandoned behind a chain link fence; and the Black Panther medical clinic, which provided free health care to the community throughout the seventies, is long closed.
The changing character of Eliot was due to a series of man-made disasters known as “progress” downtown: Black homes and businesses were demolished to make way for the Memorial Coliseum, built in 1961; then the I-5 freeway; the proposed (and never realized) Emanuel Hospital expansion; and finally the district office for Portland Public Schools.
Neighborhood historian Pauline Bradford, now 81, has been keeping track: a total of 1,379 homes, the majority housing Black families, were eliminated in a 25-year period. “But remember the new MAX line,” Bradford points out, looking on the bright side. “One route they proposed would have taken out more of Eliot, but instead it’s running on Interstate. We finally fought back.”
Now there’s another victory, especially meaningful to the Black community: if you’ve taken a walk to the intersection of Williams and Tillamook in the last 10 months, you’ve seen a lot of activity there on the southwest corner. Rubbish fills a big dumpster out front while roofers, drywallers, plumbers, electricians and painters in coveralls come and go. That Colonial Revival building they’re working on, with its new brown cedar shingles, is the oldest surviving social structure built for African Americans in Portland.
Originally built in 1926, the building was sorely in need of some loving attention. For the last 50 years, in which it has operated as an Elks Lodge, members have had no resources to fix it up. The Elks boarded up the windows against vandals and watched with dismay as the original roof sprang leaks that spread dry rot below.
Now, as volunteers show up to pitch in—by no means all of them Elks nor Black—the community has come to appreciate with pride—sometimes even astonishment—how much can be accomplished when the spirit is there.
The idea for this project goes back a few years, when Wanda Broadous-Mills got permission from the Elks to try and raise money for the building’s most conspicuous problems. While not an Elks member, Mills recognized the unique role the historic building played in the lives of local Blacks. “I guess I was about 19 when I found out that’s where a lot of the old people went and had birthday parties and played cards and celebrated,” says Mills, now 62. “It was the only legal place we could rent that was considered ours.”
She wrote letters to other Elks lodges, citing the building’s special history and even went on the radio along with Melva Holmes, Exalted Daughter Ruler of the Elks auxillary, asking for help. Small donations, plus admissions from eight dances that Mills produced, starting in the fall of 2007, raised enough cash to fix the spongy floor behind the bar. “We rebuilt that area so that the bartender wouldn’t fall through the floor,” Mills says.
Jennifer Dishman, a Daughter Elk who manages the bar, agrees there was a lot of dry rot from decades of drink spills. Not exactly a hole: “But I would kind of feel the floor give,” Dishman says. “I didn’t think it would fall through,” says former Elks Exalted Ruler, Royce Warren. “But if it had, she’d have fallen into the basement into another meeting room.” That’s an apt image for the complex history of the building: beneath meeting rooms are other meeting rooms, going back more than 80 years.
The story of the building—“I still call it the Y,” says Pauline Bradford—begins just after the First World War, when local Black women determined to start a branch of the YWCA, given that Oregon’s white women’s clubs had voted, back in 1902, to exclude Black women from their organizations. In late 1918, Mrs. C.A. Jenkins wrote to the national office in New York asking for direction.
It was two decades after the vote to segregate, and the community had a friend in one particular board member at the downtown Y, then located at SW Taylor and Broadway: Mrs. E. S. Collins, who chaired the Committee of Color, helped get a portable structure established on the northeast corner of Williams and Tillamook in 1921, so that the Black women could organize their own branch.
Within a few years, Mrs. Collins made an anonymous gift of $12,000 to enable the branch to build a permanent structure. Some white people in the neighborhood challenged the construction of a building for the Black community, and wanted the City to refuse them a building permit. But the city attorney ruled in favor of the project, and it went forward.
On Sunday, June 13, 1926, the new Williams Avenue branch of the YWCA was dedicated to much fanfare, with Bishop J. W. Martin of the Los Angeles A.M.E. Zion Church preaching the sermon. Two days later, regular programming resumed in the Y’s new home: boys club on Tuesday nights and girls club on Thursday afternoons. Other meetings included the high school Girl Reserves, the Blue Triangle Club and the Birthday Matrons Club.
The puzzle of the cornerstone, with its two different dates, is hereby explained: the Williams Avenue branch YWCA began in 1921 and the building went up in 1926. It had a gymnasium and locker rooms, an auditorium with a stage, a kitchen and a lounge.
According to YWCA records, classes were offered in Bible study, gymnastics, general athletics, Spanish, hat making, sewing, business, singing and dancing. For 16 years, the branch thrived, with membership soaring to over 1,000.
Eventually the NAACP had an office in the basement.
Pauline Bradford reports that the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs held their annual scholarship tea there. Today, Bradford is still a member of the Harriet Tubman Club, which was meeting at the Williams Avenue Y as early as 1927, according to a newspaper article of that year.
By 1940, 2,565 Black people lived in Oregon, most of them in Portland and originally on the west side of the river, near the railroad, then their largest source of employment. The social center of the community was in the Black churches, according to Elizabeth McLagan’s history, A Peculiar Paradise. Outside the churches, social life was centered in the fraternal lodges, women’s auxiliaries and other clubs.
But in 1942, the YWCA turned the Williams Avenue branch over to the United Service Organizations (USO) for the use of “colored” soldiers, a way of maintaining strict separation in the Jim Crow army of that time. While the building served as a USO club, programming for Williams Avenue members was moved downtown, and many African American members just quit participating.
In 1947, when the Y got their building back, the branch was not as successful as before the War, in part because an attempt at inter-racial programs had mixed results. Rose Murdock, writing in the Journal of Women’s History, describes the problem: “Moments of unity across lines of color developed, [such] as… a Christmas vesper service at Williams in which the ‘thrill of real beauty and real friendship’ was evident among a diverse group of celebrants. Yet these glimmers of unity and friendship did not survive the postwar racist backlash of white Portlanders or prevent the decision of the downtown YWCA board of directors to sell the Williams Avenue building…”
The buyer, of course, was the Elks, and that is its own story.
When the WW II ended and shipyard workers were laid off, over half moved out of Vanport City, once the largest public housing project in the country. Those workers who were African Americans found a limited welcome in Portland: most settled in a long rectangle between Interstate and Union Avenue (now MLK), north of Oregon Street and south of Fremont. Then, in 1948, with 17,000 people still left at Vanport (out of a mixed race population that once had been as high as 40,000), a massive flood engulfed it. During the ensuing days of sorrow, chaos and emergency, the Williams Avenue Y served as a switchboard for locating family members separated in the flood and also a place where people could get something to eat: with the help of the Red Cross 515 meals a day were served to people flooded out of their homes.
It was then, in the late fifties, that houses and businesses in the southern end of the Black district were demolished to make way for the Coliseum.
In 1958, Fraternal Hall, then at 1412 N Williams, was bulldozed, leaving many Black fraternal organizations without a place to meet. So the following year, the Elks purchased the Williams Avenue branch from the YWCA, whose efforts at this point were turned toward raising money to build a new downtown Y at SW 10th and Main. Resources and enthusiasm for the flagging branch had been scarce.
This Elks lodge is affiliated with Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOE of W), headquartered in Winton, North Carolina, the Elks organization for people of color. It was first organized in Cincinnati in 1898 by a Pullman Porter, and the first Portland IBPOE lodge dates from 1906.
Billy Webb, after whom IBPOE Lodge #1050 is named, was a pianist whose quartet of Black Elks Club members played on steamships in the 1920s. Exalted Daughter Ruler Melva Holmes says not a lot is known about Webb, whom she describes as a “jazz ambassador.” She has read that he was a mulatto, originally from Mobile, Alabama, that he came to Portland with his mother in 1906, that the first reference to him is in the 1911 City Directory where he is described as a music teacher, that he married Laura Smith Singleton of Albany, with whom he had no children, and that he died in 1925.
When the rehab finally began in earnest, in June of 2008, it was not through the efforts of Wanda Mills, but because the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMCO) had begun to have their monthly meetings at the Elks and NAMCO president James Posey was appalled by the condition of the building. Today, he ticks off the problems: “Roof leaking, boiler inefficient, the building cold in winter and hot in summer. When the rain came in, dry rot all over the place. The toilets were miserable. Smoke ridden. Shingles falling off.”
For him it was a matter of African American pride.
“You don’t want that building to look like somebody should have bulldozed it last week,” Posey says. “It’s disrespectful not to take up the issue of being represented the way we want to be.”
No one was more thrilled than Mills, who’d been banging her head against the problem for three years. “I just knew McMenamins was going to have it in a minute,” she says. “And then all our memories would be gone.”
James Posey isn’t even from Portland. A native of Indianapolis, an Air Force veteran of Vietnam and a social worker turned personnel manager, he took early retirement from the U. S. Forest Service and bought a dump truck. “My very first job was digging out the atrium at Emanuel Hospital.”
Right away he noticed how little work fell to minority companies. “Nibbling around the edges and taking token projects will do us no good,” Posey insists. “We’re already behind.”
After documenting the fact that the City consistently fell short of its minority-contracting goals, Posey began sending letters to Mayor Vera Katz. Her response—Posey shakes his head to recount—was to put his name on a terror watch list!
In 1997 he sued the Port of Portland over the same issue: sidestepping federal regulations meant to provide jobs to minority contractors. His suit won him a financial settlement without getting what he really wanted: a fair shot at the work.
In 2004 Posey ran for mayor, losing to Tom Potter.
In 2006, he turned his efforts to rebuilding NAMCO, which had lapsed in Portland. That was when he moved their meetings to the Elks. Looking around him at the dilapidated building, he decided that, precious as it may be as a piece of history, it wasn’t good enough to represent Black people—and certainly not Black people in the construction trades. He persuaded NAMCO members—35 African American, Hispanic and Asian generals and subs—to fix up the building themselves.
“I attempted to raise the respect quotient,” he says today. “That’s what that building is all about.” But from there, he steps back, insisting that all he did personally was to grade out the back lot. “Even though I got it started, there is one lady who is killing herself to make it happen: Faye Burch. She’s the one trying to keep everyone’s spirits up.”
Burch’s personal involvement with the building predates her NAMCO membership: “I can remember going there with my mother, Beatrice Gordly, in the 1950s,” she says. A photograph of her maternal grandmother, Alberta Randolph, hung on the wall.
Burch has managed to impart that feeling of personal involvement to people who may never have stepped inside the Elks until the present work began.
Burch recruited Bill Hart, one of a very few Black architects in Portland, to provide drawings of the existing structure. An “outsider” like Posey, Hart came to Portland from Boston 20 years ago and has tried to support local African American projects. While the Carleton Hart firm mostly works with affordable housing, they have done a feasibility study for Black United Fund and are working on a new design for Miracles Club on MLK. The drawings Hart contributed enabled the whole orchestration of subcontractors who would volunteer their work on the Elks lodge. Like everyone else on the project, Hart has a high regard for Burch. “I have to give her a lot of credit, both for her energy and her integrity in bringing people together.” (This is Hart’s code for not playing favorites.) “Faye wanted to clearly demonstrate a model for how people could work together.”
The club remained open while exterior work was going on last summer. The first order of business was the new roof, provided by Kaleidoscope Construction. “They are a Russian-and- Ethiopian-owned business,” says bar manager Jennifer Dishman, excited by the ethnic diversity at work on this project.
When the boards over the windows were popped off and the cedar shingles—years ago painted white — were replaced, suddenly the building looked like the original photos from the 1920s.
Then work began inside and the lodge had to close. Since it is such an important hub, especially for Black seniors, everyone is anxious for them to once again have a place to go. And besides that, the African American Men’s Club, the Arkansas Club, and the Elks themselves are now homeless while the work proceeds. But choreographing so many people, all of them volunteer, is not easy, and the project has found its own pace.
On any given day, Faye Burch is on the phone. She has the responsibility of parceling out the $50,000 that PDC chipped in, money earmarked for materials and supplies that NAMCO members can’t otherwise pony up. She has also asked lumber companies and other vendors for contributions. As she takes a call from a contractor putting in the new furnaces (Northwest Natural donated four new energy-efficient gas furnaces that will permit them to heat the building in separate zones), she notices someone else is texting her saying, “I can put up the doors for you.”
From Gresham came Viktor Vakarchuk, a young Ukrainian man in the U.S. since 2001, to put the nine new wall sconces in the social hall on dimmer switches, working alongside Portlander Ricky Booker who was running MC cable for the lights. Both work for Affordable Electric and both are members of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus.
The electrical system—like everything else—got a major overhaul. “Before, it wasn’t unusual for the Elks to turn on two pieces of equipment—say the air conditioner and the television—only to have the lights blow,” Posey explains.
From Tualatin, a “guest client”—Dishman’s name for people who patronize the bar but don’t belong to the Elks—came to donate uncountable hours of demolition.
Meanwhile, well-known Black contractor Calvin Jackson, owner of CJ Jackson Construction, has been there every single weekend to volunteer.
These—and many more too numerous to name in this article—are the people whom NAMCO and the Elks hope to honor at a grand opening one day soon. They want music playing when people walk through the door at 6 North Tillamook and see the new gas fireplace in the bar, the ADA bathroom on the main floor, and the handicapped ramp on the southwest corner of the building leading to the Social Hall. Because there’s a groundswell of gratitude for all the people who made this possible.
NAMCO also wants the general public to see the miracle they’ve pulled off. Just inside the foyer, visitors will find an antique bronze drinking fountain (formerly hidden from view inside an add-on cloakroom), and above it the original 1935 bronze plaque of appreciation to Mrs. C. E. Collins, who paid for the original building, “From the Negro Citizens of Portland.”
The Billy Webb Elks Lodge #1050 has always been open to guests. As Melva Holmes, Exalted Daughter Ruler, best puts it: “The book is right there for visitors to sign. All we do is ask the gentlemen to please remove their hats.”