By Monique Gaskins
Summer is here! Portlanders can take advantage of the warmer weather to explore new parts of town and meet new people. While moving around Portland, you might notice posters supporting neighbors of various ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. Although this might seem unnecessary in “liberal Portland,” this wasn’t always the case. Starting before Oregon even achieved statehood, its inhabitants enacted various laws to preclude the immigration of non-white neighbors.
You may have overheard jokes about the lack of diversity in Oregon. For example, “There are no Black people in Portland.” Or, “You live in the Great White North.” You might have shaken your head and continued on, but the lack of diversity in Oregon is very real and isn’t due to chance. According to The US Census Bureau’s 2018 data, the percentage of Black residents nationwide is 13%. The percentage for the state of Oregon is 2%. The city of Portland is slightly higher, with 6% black residents.
The low number of black residents in Oregon is not an accident and is the outcome of over 150 years of exclusionary policies.
- 1844: The first Black exclusion law was adopted. This law mandated that “blacks attempting to settle in Oregon would be publicly whipped—thirty-nine lashes, repeated every six months—until they departed.”
- 1850: The Donation land act of 1850 granted land to white settlers, establishing home ownership specifically to whites. This offered an incentive for more whites to populate Oregon, and reap the benefits of land ownership.
- 1857: The Oregon Constitution was adopted. It excluded blacks from legal residence, including voting, using the legal system, and owning property.
After explicit race-based policies were unavailable, other methods were utilized to maintain the homogenous status quo. The Ku Klux Klan had an active presence in Oregon, targeting not only black but also Jews and Catholics. This preference towards white protestant neighbors led many neighborhoods and individual homeowners to add restrictive clauses to their deeds or neighborhood documentation. For example, a deed from neighboring Irvington (officially Dolph Park at the time) included the following, “For a period of twenty-five years from the date of this dedication, the premises shall be used exclusively for residence purposes and shall be occupied by the white race and no member of any race other than the white race shall own or occupy any portion of DOLPH PARK”. This practice, called Redlining, made it difficult to procure bank loans and housing insurance for homes in non-white neighborhoods. Redlining also meant that these homes weren’t providing as many wealth building opportunities to its owners as those in white neighborhoods.
These clauses and related attitudes consolidated non-protestant whites into specific areas of the city, such as Eliot. From 1910 to the 1960s, blacks began moving to Eliot because of its convenient location to transportation, railroad, and hotel jobs. After the end of World War II, Portland targeted Albina (including Eliot) as a suitable neighborhood for blacks who were displaced in the Vanport flood of 1948. According to an interactive redlining map of Portland from around 1930, the Eliot neighborhood ranked as “Hazardous”, the lowest of 4 possible categories. The clarifying remarks are, “Zoned multi-family residential and business. This area constitutes Portland’s “Melting Pot” and is the nearest approach to a “slum district” in the city. “Three-quarters of the Negro population of the city reside here and in addition there are some 300 Orientals, 1000 Southern Europeans and Russians.” These categories made it difficult to qualify for loans and home insurance in Eliot, but residents often didn’t have much choice, as they were unwelcome in other parts of the city.
Portland’s lukewarm approval of a multicultural neighborhood in the middle of the city wouldn’t last. In the 1960s, the I-5 construction destroyed parts of Eliot and displaced many black residents. In the early 1970s, the city condemned parts of Eliot – including the land purchased for Legacy Emanuel – further disrupting black families.
Today, housing in Portland is unaffordable for many people of all races, religions, and ethnicities. Let’s move beyond our history, and support policies that help all people feel more housing secure in our state, city, and neighborhood. A key to helping our neighborhood thrive is to allow diverse types of housing that would be more affordable to more people. Currently, much of Eliot is zoned for single-family homes, pushing up housing costs, and supporting a policy with racist roots. The Residential Infill Project aims to make housing more affordable by allowing more types of housing to be built in areas zoned for only single-family homes. Another resource is Portland for Everyone. They’re advocating for housing that will serve many different types of neighbors.
Let’s learn from past mistakes and embrace diversity. Let’s be good neighbors, especially for people that might not have historically been welcomed in Oregon.