Memorial Garden for Oregon’s First Black Politician

By Ruth Eddy

The Gladys McCoy Memorial on MLK and Knott. Photo credit Sue Stringer

At the busy intersection of Knott and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, a small semi-circle of grass with a few roses gives a break to the surrounding concrete. At the center of a faded, red brick wall is a portrait of Gladys Sims McCoy etched in stone, with wafted hair and bright eyes watching over passersby. McCoys’s smiling face is surrounded by an engraved list of her accomplishments, as well as the mindless graffiti tags familiar to underappreciated spaces of a city. 

McCoy’s accomplishments were many. She was the first African American elected to public office in Oregon. She was elected to the Portland Public School Board in 1970.  She also served for many years as a Multnomah County Commissioner. In remembrance, her name now graces a public park in Portland, public housing, and most recently, Multnomah County’s new downtown health department building.

Gladys McCoy – Photo courtesy Multnomah County

When she died in 1993 from thyroid cancer, her name wasn’t on any buildings, and her friend, Venerable Booker, wanted to ensure her legacy was remembered.

Booker was then the President of American State Bank, the first Black-owned commercial bank in the Pacific Northwest, which was located in the building directly north of the memorial, now a dialysis center.

A few blocks north of the bank, Hillary Mackenzie owned an architecture firm. As a customer of American State Bank, she got to know Booker well and was hired to design the memorial. She recalled he had a clear vision for the project, which would include “a walkway so you have to enter in the site, to settle in and read it. He wanted that recognition and then he wanted it to be pretty, so it was a place people would linger for a few minutes.”

McCoy’s portrait has recently had a front-row seat to many protests marching past in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. After the first night of protests in May, Irvington resident Kate Thompson went to survey the damage she had heard about on MLK. Across from the smashed Nike store windows, she found herself lingering at the memorial. “I walked past it for over a decade, walking to work at Good Sam’s,” she said. “It was not until I retired that I had time to be curious about its history’.

She started pulling weeds that day and has been returning most Friday mornings for the last three months. She has recruited others who wanted to help and started calling the group the Gladys’ Garden Gnomes.  The garden has become a place for Thompson to channel her outrage of racial injustice into something positive.  “We all need time for reflection,” she said. “Quack grass gives us that opportunity.”

For Thompson and her fellow volunteers, pulling up weeds provides an apt metaphor for our nation’s racism. The grass is deeply rooted and sends out runners in many directions, making it difficult to remove. Thompson acknowledges that she doesn’t know what good it will do, but that “it’s a choice to have hope.”

Thompson has been in contact with Mackenzie to add irrigation and some other features to the original design, including a way to memorialize Venerable Booker, the man who made sure our community knew Gladys McCoy’s life was a Black life that mattered.

Kate Thompson and the five arborists from Mossy Tree Care – photo courtesy Kate Thompson

Update: In October Mossy Tree Care donated their time to get the trees in shape which was very apprciated especialy after the big windstorm. According to Kate Thompson, “Five men from Mossy Tree Care each donated two and a half hours of energetic labor to clean up the hardscape of the garden. They were a delight to work with.”

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