Photo: Multnomah County Flickr

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

In our work to support transparency, accountability, and equity, we strive to elevate the voices of county employees. We are honored this month to uplift the following Black History Month article, which provides a lot of great information about the many contributions Black Americans have made to our state. 

As I previously shared, I have posted the Ombudsperson job opening on my Linkedin Multnomah County Auditor's Office Page. This is a critical role by serving as an impartial resource who receives complaints from people in Multnomah County who believe they have been treated unfairly by specific county government actions. For more information about the job opportunity in my office, please click here. We will be accepting applications until March 2, 2023. 

Warmest wishes and good health to your days!

Jennifer McGuirk
Multnomah County Auditor

George B. Hardin

Black History Month feature: A brief history of Black Americans in Oregon

By Ronald Kates, Department of County Human Services (DCHS), Multnomah County Managers of Color Employee Resource Group (ERG) member

The Early Days of Oregon

Black Americans have made important contributions to Oregon in culture, education and politics despite facing barriers and discrimination before Oregon even gained statehood.

Oregon settlers created a provisional government in May 1843 intended to be in place until the federal government could extend their jurisdiction to the area. Although the settlers’ temporary blueprint for their government prohibited slavery, in June 1844 the legislative committee enacted its first Black exclusion law. The law initially stated that Black people who tried to settle in Oregon would be publicly whipped for 39 lashes, which would be repeated every six months until they left, but it was later changed to a requirement for forced labor.

Thirteen months after Oregon became a U.S. territory, the Territorial Legislature enacted an exclusion law prohibiting Black people from entering or residing within the area. In November 1857, Oregon voters approved its constitution, which banned new Black residents and made it illegal for Blacks to own real estate, make contracts, vote or use the legal system. Although Oregon initially ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in September 1866, the ratification was rescinded the following month and the legislature failed to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment after it was passed by Congress in February 1869.

In 1860, there were not more than 16 Black residents in Portland. Despite the efforts of Oregon settlers to exclude Black people from the state, Portland’s Black population saw significant growth over the next decades, with nearly 800 counted by the 1900 census. However, many of the stores and restaurants refused to serve Black patrons, and the police wanted nothing to do with the community. In 1894, George B. Hardin was hired as the first Black police officer by the City of Portland after the department was pressured to do so by the Independent Colored Men’s Association, as they hoped having a member of the community policing the neighborhood would give more attention to their needs.

image of Beatrice Morrow Cannady
Beatrice Morrow Cannady

The Newspaper Business

By this time, the population was large enough to support two churches and a number of businesses, including Portland’s first Black newspaper, The New Age, which was established by Adolphus D. Griffin in 1896. Griffin’s mission for the paper was to keep readers informed of “the crucial racial issues of the day” while promoting Oregon as a relatively welcoming place for Black people to live, encouraging others to settle in the area. Although Griffin left Oregon in 1907, The Advocate weekly newspaper, which was established four years prior, continued to cover topics relevant to the Black community for 30 more years.

Beatrice Morrow Cannady became the associate editor of The Advocate newspaper after marrying its co-founder Edward Cannady in June 1912. Cannady also helped establish the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as the first branch formed west of the Mississippi River. Additionally, her work in The Advocate drew attention to the racial violence being inflicted on the Black community. Cannady became the first Black woman to graduate from law school, practice law and run for state representative in Oregon, paving the way for others to follow. Cannady was a leading civil rights activist for nearly 25 years, successfully advocating for the passage of bills leading to integration of public schools. Workers’ Rights Oregon’s Black American population grew substantially during World War II. The number of Black Portlanders grew from approximately 2,500 in 1940 to 25,000 in 1944. The shipyards and local unions initially refused to hire Black workers, but after pressure from the NAACP, as well as a reprimand from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, skilled jobs were opened to Black residents for the duration of the war.

To accommodate the influx of Black workers, the town of Vanport was built in the lowland area adjacent to the Columbia River. Eventually growing to 35,000 residents, Vanport became the second-largest community in the state, as well as the world’s largest housing project. Vanport was tragically destroyed in May 1948 when a 200-foot section of a railroad beam holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a flood and was never rebuilt. 

image of Dr. Charles W. Thomas II on the left
Dr. Charles W. Thomas II (left)

Higher Education

Black Americans with connections to Oregon have had a significant impact in the world of academia. Before being presented with the title of the “Father of Black Psychology” by the Black Students Psychology Association in 1971, Dr. Charles W. Thomas II became one of the first Black professors to teach at the University of Oregon in 1963. Thomas served as an assistant professor at the School of Education, specializing in rehabilitation counseling.

Thomas spoke out against discrimination, while advocating for racial equality and diversity on the campus, as well as the entire Eugene community. As a result of Dr. Thomas’s efforts to create more cultural diversity on the campus, Black American performers such as comedian and activist Dick Gregory, singer Johnny Mathis, and musicians Louis Armstrong and Les McCann all performed at the University of Oregon. During his time in academia, Thomas helped form the Association of Black Psychology, which sought to improve the state of Black mental health.

image of Gladys McCoy and Sarah Long
Gladys McCoy (right) and Multnomah County Library Director Sarah Long, with Rosie the Reader, c.1980s

Elected Office

Gladys McCoy was elected to the board of Portland Public Schools in 1970, becoming the first Black American to hold public office in Oregon. Gladys’s husband William became the first Black American elected to the state legislature two years later in 1972. One of William’s first actions after being elected was introducing House Resolution 13, ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which Oregon had never formally ratified. Combined, the McCoys served Oregon in various public offices for approximately 45 years. 

In 1984, Margaret Carter became the first Black woman elected to the Oregon Legislative Assembly. She would go on to serve a total of 24 years in office.

After serving in both chambers of the Oregon Legislative Assembly, Jim Hill became the first Black American elected to a statewide office as treasurer in 1992. Portland native Avel Gordly became the first Black woman elected to the state senate in 1997. In 1999, Jackie Winters was elected as a state representative, becoming the third Black woman elected to the Oregon Legislature. As state legislators, Carter, Gordly and Winters made landmark reforms for Black communities and Oregon as a whole, including removing the last remnants of exclusionary laws from the constitution. 

The Managers of Color ERG encourages County staff to make time to learn more about Oregon history and the contributions of African Americans.

Information for this article was collected from the following sources: 

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Apply for Community Advisory Committee 

We are welcoming volunteers to apply for the Multnomah County Auditor's Community Advisory Committee. Please follow the link to submit your interest and application here

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County budget process audit update

We are now in the fieldwork phase of our audit of the county's budget process. In fieldwork we dig deeply into specific objectives. Our objectives for the budget process audit are:

  • Does the Multnomah County budget process meet best practices with regards to community involvement?
  • To what extent is the county being transparent in its financial monitoring and reporting of budgeted vs. actual expenditures?