A family of 5 from Alabama decides to make their way to Oregon for a promising future and opportunity. Not such an unusual story for today but being an African American family in the 1940’s such a decision would be brave and fraught with worry about how the Pacific Northwest would treat them and also that it could be a long time before they see their extended family again. This is the beginning of the story of Kay Toran’s life which has been nothing short of an amazing. Growing up in Eliot, working for public and government agencies and finally finding her place in nonprofit organizations, Toran has been a neighbor, role model and leader for our community. The following is taken from an interview with Kay Toran and it is meant to help new as well as longtime residents learn a little more about our neighborhood and one of the families that has lived in Portland for 3 generations.
Kay Toran was the second youngest of four children in her family. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama where her parents, Benjamin and Mary Rose Dean had also grown up. However, in the 1940’s during the Great Migration (1916-1970), many African American families moved from the south to all other parts of the country, including the Pacific Northwest, seeking better opportunities in what they hoped to be areas free of racism, discrimination and prejudicial practices. They left their extended families in hopes for a better future for themselves, their children and grandchildren.
In Portland during World War II, the call went out that workers were needed to build ships for the war effort. Many African American men answered that call and Benjamin Dean, Toran’s father, was one of those men and, because of his skills he learned at his Birmingham high school such as welding, drafting, and accounting he was able to be successful in many avenues of employment. His first job in Portland was welding and building ships and then after the war ended he became a janitor. Many families left Portland at that point, however, Dean didn’t stop there. He went onto drafting up plans for a beauty salon and barber shop. Toran’s mother was trained as a beautician at Madam C.J. Walker School of Beauty and had been operating a salon out of their home. With a more permanent building in mind, they opened up Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop which is still in operation today and located at 215 NE Hancock Street between Union Ave (now MLK Blvd.) and Rodney Avenue. It is the oldest continuously operating Black owned business in Portland spanning three generations. Dean’s granddaughter now runs the shop.
Toran remembers life in the Eliot neighborhood during her childhood as wonderful. The neighborhood was still known as Albina back then. Mostly Black families lived in the houses and “probably most of them owned their houses because there was not a great deal of rental practices to Blacks at that time. After the Vanport
flood even more moved into Albina. It was a real close knit community. Everyone knew each other and took care of each other,” says Toran. She attended the Eliot grade school, her neighbors were all Black, “except for one white family who had a boy named Billy.” The residents attended primarily black churches like Mount Olivet Baptist Church, Vancouver Baptist, and Bethel which was where Memorial Coliseum is today but it had to move further north because of Urban Renewal when the coliseum was constructed. She participated in activities at the YWCA which is where the Billy Webb Elks Lodge is today at 6 N Tillamook Street at N Williams. It was run by Gladys McCoy who went onto become the first elected African American school board member and then ultimately elected as Chair of Multnomah County. Her husband Bill was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives.
Albina was an intact, very cohesive community. Families looked out for each other and the kids knew that the adults were keeping a watchful eye and would let their parents know if they got into mischief. For this community, home ownership was the anchor. “As a child I had no clue that Blacks could not get loans from banks. So they couldn’t take care of their homes because they could not get loans for improvements.” Therefore, tensions have formed because gentrification has allowed whites to either move in and invest or teardown and rebuild. “We were denied the opportunity to stay in our home and maintain our homes because of politics and policy. We had to move out to the ‘numbers’ in Gresham, outer north and south east. Others have benefited from blacks having to move out instead of being able to preserve and stay in our homes and that is the reason for this tension.”
Toran remembers being a child in Eliot and waiting with anticipation to be old enough to go to places like the Knott Street Community Center with the older kids to the Friday and Saturday night dances and, even more exciting, the Cotton Club. However, the Cotton Club closed down before she was able to go. The Knott Street Community Center (originally at Tillamook and Williams home next to the YWCA and now the Elks Lodge) moved to Holladay School which is where Dishman Community Center is today at Knott and Rodney. The old school building was torn down and Dishman was built.
Communication was tough back in Toran’s childhood days. Telephones were very expensive so telegrams were the better form of communication. Also, her family went a long time without a car but she remembers the day they got their first automobile. “I remember when we finally got a car. Dad wanted to surprise the kids. He had purchased the car and put it in our locked garage. My brother could see a license plate through the space between the slats in the garage door. We asked my mother if dad got a car and she said to wait until your father comes home. Well, when he got home he told us he had bought a Nash Ambassador. It was big enough for the entire family to travel back to Birmingham to see family. However, that was a challenge at that point at a time when you really didn’t know where (as a Black family) you could stop, where you would be at risk and not at risk. Dad always had a AAA membership to help him navigate safe passage (in the mid ‘50s) and I’m sure they helped him navigate a safe route.” The challenges of racism and Jim Crow laws were obvious but, “our parents were very positive and hopeful people and never preached the negative side of discrimination. They focused on the reality only (of the situation).”
Toran went to Washington High School, University of Portland and eventually onto Portland State for her Masters of Social Work. She emphasized what a great school district Portland Public Schools was and especially Jefferson who has many noteworthy African American graduates such as the former Ambassador of the UN, Edward Perkins. Another African American, Matthew Prophet, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools was another highly successful leader.
Kay Toran has an extensive resume. Working as the Assistant to Governor Vic Atiyeh she served as the State’s Director for Affirmative Action. She also was the leader of the Oregon State Services to Children and Family, a post which she held longer than any other person in state history (PSU Alumni Profiles). In her commencement address for Central Catholic this past June, Toran stated, “My lifelong career commitment is to have the courage to be an advocate and activist for those in need. My lifelong commitment is to make a positive difference to the most vulnerable in our community.” Appropriately, since 1999 she has been working for Volunteers of America as the President and CEO. She has found satisfaction in this organization as it provides a way for the clients of the programs to help themselves reach their full potential rather than just handing them a check.
Now that times have changed the neighborhood Toran sees that connecting neighbors is an important task. “It has to be a concerted effort because there all these issues that you think why is that an issue for those on the outside coming in. But for those that have lived there a long time they are huge issues. ” Seeing each other’s point of view is important. “So we need to facilitate more ongoing conversations with each other and that contributes to people getting to know each other but we have a long way to go. The best way is sitting down in a relaxed setting and by sharing we realize that we have similar values and experiences and backgrounds. The events that Legacy Emanuel offers at Dawson Park are a start with their festivals of music and community gatherings.”
Toran feels like bringing back neighborhood pride would be an important start and educating residents, new and old, about the stories and people of the past as well as the new benefits of gentrification and diversity. As the seniors at Central Catholic heard and what she would like to share with you, the residents of Eliot, “Have the courage to embrace diversity! Lead the change to fix this problem. It is within our diversity that we are stronger as a nation, as a people and as a world. In the same way we know that we appreciate the beauty of different flowers—their color, their shape, their fragrance as we bring flowers together in a beautiful bouquet. The same can be true of bringing people together who are different. We are made stronger and more beautiful if we bring together and appreciate people and cultures that are different. We are better together!”