The history of our neighborhood is somewhat easy to find online if you know where to look. The Oregon Encyclopedia and Wikipedia have entries, and many articles are posted on our Eliot Neighborhood Association website. Then there is the Oral History Project, a series of interviews by the youth of northeast Portland talking to the elders of their community. One name that keeps coming up over and over is Paul Knauls.
I had the honor of interviewing the “Honorary Mayor of NE Portland” about his thoughts on northeast Portland, its history, and its future. The stories of his childhood, how he became the man he is today, and his beliefs were inspiring and thought-provoking.
Paul Knauls grew up in Huntington, Arkansas. This coal mining town had an average population of about 600. Growing up with six sisters was a challenge, “mostly because there weren’t any hand-me-downs,” Paul laughs joyfully. They did teach him how to be a gentleman, which he appreciates.
One story that stuck with me was one about his father. Paul’s father was a coal miner and ended up dying from black lung. At that time, the federal government didn’t want to pay out claims for this cause of death, especially if you were Black. Instead, officials listing tuberculosis on Paul’s father’s death certificate meant his family was not entitled to any compensation.
Paul shared that there’s a lot of discrimination that most people don’t even know about. For 80 years after slavery ended, Black men were arrested on trumped-up charges and then forced to work for businesses or, rather, leased out instead of serving a jail term. This forced labor is uncovered in a book by Douglas Blackmon and documentary of the same title, “Slavery by Another Name.” You can find the film on pbs.org.
Besides our discussion on discrimination, I wanted to hear his story about living in Portland. Granted, a lot has been written about Paul Knauls. When I approached him at the Dawson Park concert in July and asked to interview him, he said, “Why would you want to do that? You can find out everything about me if you do a Google search”. This is true, and I’ve listed many sources below if you want to learn more about our neighborhood, Paul Knauls, and his impact on northeast Portland and the city of Portland’s music scene.
After leaving Arkansas, Paul was stationed in Spokane at Fairchild Air Force base. He was the first African American to be stationed at the base, and he was trained to repair typewriters. Paul also worked at the Davenport Hotel washing dishes and eventually became a wine steward there. He had a third job on the weekends as a ski instructor. He always worked 3-4 jobs with little time for sleep or any other activities, which “kept him out of trouble” (giggling as he says this). This dedication to providing for his family and learning the hospitality trade prepared him to be a bar and club owner and then purchase two more restaurants/bars running all three simultaneously.
The Cotton Club is probably the most famous of Paul’s businesses. He purchased it in 1963 and turned it from a sleepy club to a musical destination for many renowned singers boasting “Wall to Wall Soul,” as the club’s motto describes. It was located at 2125 N Vancouver just north of N Tillamook St. and was named after the club of the same name in New York City.
Some of the most famous music artists in the mid to late 60s came through the club and played for lucky patrons who never knew who might walk through the door. The house band included drummer Mel Brown and could play almost any song requested by artists such as Esther Phillips, Etta James, Mama Cass, Big Mama Thornton, the Kingston Trio, and Sammy Davis Junior, to name a few. Lesser-known bands like the twin brothers Walter and Wallace (Scotty) Scott of the Whispers (who still sing today) and Sunday’s Child from the Pacific Northwest and northern California made big names for themselves after playing at the club.
The Cotton Club operated from the early 60s to around 1970, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Unfortunately, there was wariness for Blacks and whites to attend the same entertainment establishments.
Knauls’ other businesses include Paul’s, a bar, pool hall, and restaurant located in the Hill Block at N Russell and N Williams. It sat near the local pharmacy topped with the dome that now sits above the gazebo in Dawson Park. The expansion of Emanuel hospital was the cause of the closure and demolition of Paul’s, and Knauls did not get any compensation except for a plaque in the hospital’s display recognizing the displacement of his and so many other businesses and homes.
Geneva’s Lounge was the third business Knauls started. It was a soul food buffet and located at 4200 N Williams. A plaque is posted by the location as part of the Historic Black Williams Project by artists Cleo Davis and Kayin Talton Davis.
Opening in 1991, the last business Knauls owned and operated was Geneva’s Shear Perfection, named after his wife. It was a barber and beauty shop that also served as a vibrant social meeting place. Paul had a shoeshine stand in the shop and enjoyed talking to anyone who stopped by. Many of the Blazers players would come in and hang out. Knauls, a dedicated Blazer fan, organized a shuttle bus to Blazer home games. The barbershop just recently closed down in May 2020.
When I asked Paul why he thinks discrimination is still so prevalent here in Portland and across the country, he said, “Somebody has to feel their better than someone else always. If everybody was green like plants, there’s always a darker green, and somebody always has to discriminate against that darker plant, that darker person, because that’s just how people feel about skin color. The white homeless man still feels he’s better than me even though I have a car and money in the bank—he’s never going to feel I’m equal to him. And that’s just the way it’s going to be because that’s what he’s been taught from the time he was born. A young kid was not born with prejudice in his heart, but it’s taught, and he grows up with it.”
So how do we move forward and get past discrimination? Paul says, “If everyone could read up on the history of black people, some of the minds would be changed. But no one will go check out a book. They only see the rich ballplayers that make millions and feel I’m stuck here with this job making so much less.”
Paul has a contagious laugh that is joyful, high-pitched, and so heart-warming. His smile lights up a room. He is so generous with his time and was willing to share his thoughts about many topics.
At 90, he still leaves the house and walks for an hour each day, either walking the Lloyd Center mall or one of the big box stores. Even though things have changed a lot since Knauls’ moved to Portland, he has faith that our community will recover and thrive. Let’s prove him right and instill the sense of community and caring that he has modeled all these years. It’s not too late to start.