Earlier this month, Nike told the Soul District Business Association that the company would be closing its store in Northeast Portland permanently. Ron Herndon was one of the people who brought that store to Northeast Portland in the 1980s. As a leader in the community organization Black United Front, Herndon helped convince Nike to support and invest in the Black community.
“Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller spoke with Herndon about the legacy of the store. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How the Black United Front was working with local companies in the 1980s
“We approached Safeway, Fred Meyer, Albertsons. We said, ‘Hey, look, you’re in the Black community. You hire very few Black people. And by the way, we’ve done price checks on your store and compared them to stores and white communities, and we find that you’re charging Black people more money, and in certain cases, the store is not being kept well.’ So those conversations resulted in hiring programs with those stores that resulted in Black people being hired, prices being lowered.
“And we also approached a soft drink bottling company that had no Black employees and said, ‘Hey, look, we have hiring programs we’ve established at three or four corporations here in Portland. We’d like to set one up with you since you have no Black employees.’ They essentially told us to take a hike. We said OK. We began a boycott of all their products. Black restaurants, mom and pop stores stopped carrying their products, and after about a month, they got in touch with us, which resulted in a hiring agreement with them that resulted in Black people being hired there. So when we approached Nike, we wanted to help them and help the Black community develop a partnership that would have an impact, not only here in Portland, but nationwide.
“The idea was developed about a community store, a factory outlet store that would be located in the Black community and that a percent of the pre-tax profits would go to help community organizations, and they would hire from the Black community. This had never been done by Nike anywhere in the country.”
What the store meant for the community
“It was a tremendous source of pride because, mind you, the Black United Front was a community-based organization. We did not receive money from any outside institution. We passed the hat and we aggressively fought to mitigate the forms of racism that I mentioned earlier. But it was a tremendous source of pride. Members of the community were hired there. Money from the store did go to help Black institutions.
“And one of the things that Nike found out was after the store was set up, the majority of the people who were shopping at the store were white and did not live in the Black community. Now, mind you at that point in time, there were no major corporations in Portland investing in Albina. The story was if you put money there, you’re gonna lose it. The only people who invested in Albina at that point were people who were investing in illicit activities. But once Nike came in, there were a number of other corporations that got involved in development in Northeast Portland.
“So it really was a tremendous source of pride and accomplishment because when the Black United Front approached Nike, we did not involve any institution of government, be that city government, state or county government. This was a community-led issue. Nothing like it had ever been done and it became so successful that Nike replicated this in several other large cities in America.”
On the store’s closure
“[We] had several conversations with Nike administrators about the store and why we thought that every effort should be made to keep the store open. And during those conversations it kept coming up, that more theft is occurring at this store than any other Nike store in the country, that we can’t keep going on like this. We made several suggestions about security guards. And at that point in time they said, ‘We have a policy of not having armed security guards.’ And we said, ‘You should revisit that policy because theft will continue until people feel that there is the threat of arrest and conviction.’
“So they said, ‘OK, what we’ll do is ask the city if they will allow us to hire and pay for off-duty cops.’ And along with that, they said that they would approach the city and see what would be the response time if, in fact, a person was arrested there. How long would they have to be physically held before they expect a cop to show up? The city turned down the request for Nike to pay for off-duty cops and they never came up with a definitive answer about response time.
“We saw that Nike went the extra mile to even change policies to keep that store open. Yes, I’m saddened by the store’s closure. But you know, I can understand given the lack of help that they receive from City Hall. I can understand.
“It hurts more because it was the Black community that approached Nike, and it was the Black community in Portland. It’s responsible for not only that store but several stores like it that Nike has opened across the country. So yes, it hurts. There are very few communities that are able to say they have that kind of success working with a Fortune 500 company. What I’m also thinking — as a matter of fact, hoping — in my conversations with the brass at Nike, they said they’re not deserting Northeast Portland, not deserting Albina. And they are looking forward to building a new store and hopefully they will have more support from the city at a new store in Northeast Portland.”
Press the play button on the audio player below to listen to the entire conversation with Ron Herndon: