Filed under: art & entertainment
Cornerstones of community : buildings of Portland’s African American history.
Portland, Or. : Bosco-Milligan Foundation, 1995.
[MCL call number: 720.9795 C815; eight copies, no holds; four copies reference only at Central and North Portland Libraries]
Portland is one of the whitest cities in the United States, and its whiteness is a significant feature of its history. Perhaps because Portlanders of color have always been so outnumbered by their white neighbors, over the years the city has also been very clearly segregated, with broad expanses of the city more or less off-limits to anyone but white folks. Segregation here has taken different forms at different times, neighborhoods have changed greatly in the city’s 150 year history, and communities are fragile even in their vibrancy — so we don’t always see evidence of the past in streets, houses, and neighborhoods.
Cornerstones of Community is an attempt to make some of the history of the buildings and neighborhoods of Portland’s African American community more accessible. It is really more a work of social history than it is of architectural history — buildings and neighborhoods are presented as the context in which history happened, rather than examined as material artifacts in their own right. The book’s text provides a history of black people in Portland — migration to Portland at different periods, state and local laws restricting black people’s lives, social and religious life, jobs and work opportunities, and political activism — all in light of how they affected home ownership, rental housing, business ownership, and community centers like churches, social clubs, and political organizations. This history is presented chronologically, and each section is followed with maps showing African American population centers during the period discussed.
The book is appended with a series of maps showing locations of houses, businesses, and community organizations at different periods in Portland’s history — together with a master list of individuals, institutions, and businesses keyed to the maps. This is perhaps the richest resource Cornerstones of Community offers, but sadly the appendix’s information design sharply limits its usefulness — looking for a person or business is easy, but there is no straightforward way to use the maps to get information about who lived or did business on a particular street at a particular time. So, the appendix is invaluable if you want to find out some of the many places Dr. DeNorval Unthank and his wife Thelma lived in the many years they fought for fair housing practices, but not so great if you would like to know who the other African Americans noted as living along SE Tibbetts Avenue were.
However, there is no getting around the fact that no other book — probably no other resource of any kind — tells this particular history. And it is vital to anyone who wants to understand the history of our city to learn the story of where African American Portlanders have lived and worked, where they have worshiped and where they have spent their leisure hours, and how these places fit into the fabric of the city as a whole.
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