Think Out Loud

New digital archive showcases Albina neighborhood’s Black history and culture

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2024 1 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Feb. 22

In February 2024, Albina Music Trust launched a digital archive documenting the arts and culture of the Albina, a historically Black neighborhood in Portland. Ken Berry, a musician and retired educator at PPS, donated his collection of recordings and photos like this image, which was taken in 1974 and shows him working at YSOL, a radio station that served Albina residents.

In February 2024, Albina Music Trust launched a digital archive documenting the arts and culture of the Albina, a historically Black neighborhood in Portland. Ken Berry, a musician and retired educator at PPS, donated his collection of recordings and photos like this image, which was taken in 1974 and shows him working at YSOL, a radio station that served Albina residents.

Courtesy Ken Berry


Earlier this month, the Albina Music Trust launched a digital archive containing thousands of photographs, audio recordings and film and video clips documenting the culture and history of the Albina neighborhood. Black Portlanders built a thriving community in Albina until redevelopment projects such as the construction of Interstate 5 more than 60 years ago destroyed the neighborhood, shuttering businesses, demolishing homes and displacing residents.

The Albina Community Archive is more than just a repository of sights and sounds from a bygone era. It also helps keep that history alive by allowing users to add their own memories or information about a photograph or recording. Joining us to talk about the archive is Bobby Smith, co-founder and lead archivist of the Albina Music Trust, and Ken Berry, co-founder and emeritus consulting producer of the World Arts Foundation, who donated items from his personal collection to the archive.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. In the middle of the 20th century, the Albina neighborhood of North and Northeast Portland became the epicenter of Black life, not just in Portland, but in the entire state of Oregon. Then came so-called urban renewal with projects like the construction of the I-5 freeway and the planned expansion of Emanuel Hospital. They shattered the neighborhood, closing businesses, demolishing homes and displacing many, many residents.

Now, a new digital archive is aimed at preserving the vitality and creativity of the neighborhood. It was created by the Albina Music Trust which collected and digitized thousands of photographs, audio recordings, film and video clips. Bobby Smith is a co-founder and lead archivist of the Albina Music Trust. Ken Berry is a co-founder and emeritus consulting producer of the World Arts Foundation. He donated hundreds of items from his personal collection to this new archive. They both join me now. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Bobby Smith: Thank you.

Ken Berry: Thank you.

Miller: There is so much in this archive. I got lost in it yesterday and today. Live performances, local news segments, family photos from the 1930s and ‘40s, community events. I want to play just one thing I found today that I found lovely. It’s an LP of performances by the Portland Public Schools’ All City Elementary Orchestra and Band, and a choir called The Humboldtairs, which I assume is based on what was then Humboldt Elementary School. Let’s have a listen to part of the song by this choir.

[Music and singing]

Miller: Bobby, how did this archive come to be?

Smith: Well, we’ve been working with musicians in the community for up to about a decade now. And at this stage, so many folks came through our studio at XRAY.FM. We were responding to folks in the community who were sharing their materials on air. And over time, a responsive practice just developed where we were digitizing materials for folks to have for their families so we could play on air and we would maintain a copy of these things. So it grew and grew, and a domino effect took place as musicians kept coming through the studio.

Miller: At that time, was it the idea that it would become a public facing archive or was it, just did it happen by itself?

Smith: We had humble roots. I never thought I would be an archivist myself. I’m an educator by trade. But again, we responded in community, it seemed that there was a growing need and many of these musicians had not been represented in local media or hadn’t had their music shared in the past.

Miller: Ken, you’re one of many people who donated stuff to this archive. But my understanding is that you’ve provided more than many people - photographs, tons of audio recordings, film footage. Why did you collect all this in the first place going back decades?

Berry: Probably my parents, and being part of Portland Public Schools for 48 years, always documenting different events and taking place.

Miller: Did you think of yourself as an archivist at the time?

Berry: Not at all. Basically, I’m a musician. I’m a photographer. I’m just a teacher and all things always led me to always document. And I met Bobby and it’s like a dream come true, from the standpoint of being able to take 50 years of collection of information and begin to start passing it on.

Miller: So you didn’t think of yourself as an archivist. You thought of yourself as an educator and an artist and a cultural creator. Did you have a sense at the time that it was going to be important to preserve what you were experiencing? I mean, I guess what I’m asking is, did you know that some really important part of this community was going to be destroyed?

Berry: Well, I wasn’t thinking about that, more so of the people that I was associated with, the shoulders of people I suit on who always guided me through the process of making sure you document any and everything that you do to preserve it. Because at some point in time, you may not be here, and you want your legacy to be in a place that can be used.

Miller: You mentioned almost 48 years as a teacher and administrator at Portland Public Schools. Part of that included the creation of a gospel children’s choir called Youth Sound. Let’s have a listen to one of the recordings that’s now publicly available in this archive and then we can talk about it. We’re going to hear part of the song “Thank You Lord” from a performance at Jefferson High School on May 2, 1982.

[Music and singing]

Miller: Oh, I hate to interrupt, but there’s so much I still also want to talk about. What’s it like for you to hear that now?


Berry: It’s a memory of basically taking 100 kids and rehearsing for six months to make that happen. These were kids who had little or no musical experience from Portland Public Schools, throughout the Portland community. And we wanted to make sure we brought those children together and do a major presentation, which we did at Jefferson High School on May 2, 1982.

Miller: Bobby, can you give us a sense for what’s in this collection? I mentioned five or six categories of stuff, but can you give us a better sense for what all is there?

Smith: Sure, certainly. So we are documenting the arts and culture legacy in Albina, mostly pre-internet, as we have a lot of equipment that really helps to facilitate that work. It’s a collection of photography, film, audio, printed materials, articles, oral histories and beyond. Our focus as Albina Music Trust is really with music, but we’ve also opened things up for other mission-aligned organizations to host their own pages with us. And so that’s expanded to take on photography of Vanport flood survivors or social clubs, dating back to even the 1930s in Albina.

Miller: Visitors on the website, they can also add their own memories or annotations, right? So, what’s the idea behind this? How is that going to work?

Smith: Well, we hope, as a community archive, we have this capability to be living in a sense, it’s a living document. And sometimes, we’re working with community members to get the information as best we can, but we don’t always get it right. And history and memory are two very different things. So the idea that there’s a portal in which folks can contribute, can type things in and we receive that information, enables users to generate or correct us if we’re wrong. They can generate content as well.

Miller: You can hear Bobby [Smith] on KMHD on Fridays from 8 to 10 p.m. when he hosts the new radio show, Music from the Albina Community Archive.

Let’s listen to another excerpt from this huge archive. It’s a demo of the song “La Funk” by the band Gangsters. But Bobby, before we hear it, what should we know about what we’re about to hear?

Smith: Well, the Gangsters…this was the first major project of our in-house record label. We received funds from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in 2018 to document this highly under-documented group. It was 1970. They’re a memory who would later go on to win a Grammy with Esperanza Spalding. It was his first recorded musical output.

Miller: Let’s have a listen.

[Music playing]

Miller: Ken, we’re gonna be talking tomorrow about the city of Portland’s efforts to boost Black homeownership and rentals in inner North and Northeast Portland, an update on a kind of right to return program they’ve had for a couple of years. On Monday, we’re going to talk with the leader of Albina Vision Trust, which is working to rethink and to and to literally rebuild various parts of the same area. Obviously, it’s embedded in their name. Those are physical projects in different ways. I’m curious how you think this archive fits into that larger hole?

Berry: Well, as a product of that community, I would hope that it would continue the legacy so that the dream is never deferred, that it continues on, because a lot of people were displaced because of movement during that time. But again, as a product of that particular building, 48 years of it, I hope that it would just continue on in a positive way, bringing more positive things such as the artists, performing artists. And I know it’s gonna be used for residential purposes, but just trying to preserve the history as much as possible. So it’s never forgotten.

Miller: Bobby, what role do you think the culture that you’re putting in this website…what’s the connection between that and the physical ideas of rebuilding a neighborhood?

Smith: As we think about the role of preservationists in this day and age, in many ways, we think of those things existing in institutions and larger organizational structures, but in its essence, the role of preservation and the type of materials that we’re housing, it’s quite simple, you’re preserving, describing, arranging and presenting materials. We could see a vision, perhaps in alignment with Albino Vision Trust and a lot of this rebuilding work that’s happening, where there could be a cultural center for these materials to be experienced in real time in a physical location. For now, we’ve set up the architecture for it to be digitally experienced.

Miller: Let’s listen to one more recording. Ken, this is from your collection. It is a YSOL, a radio station’s air check from October 2, 1975. The reel-to-reel tape is labeled “DJ George Fitz Black on Black.” Let’s have a listen.

[Music and singing]

Miller: What was YSOL?

Berry: It’s very special that you selected that particular piece because YSOL was a station that was started and built by young people in 1968. And the purpose of that was to train young people that may want to consider entering broadcasting. And George Fitz, I might mention right now, I apologize for, regret to have to say he’s in hospice right now. So it’s ironic that you would share that particular piece because that means a whole lot to him and his family, because I’m gonna make sure that they also hear this as well.

Miller: Ken, what do you most hope people are gonna get from this new archive, take from this new archive?

Berry: That we have to preserve, we have to document, and other people should all, everyone should make sure that they’re doing or preserving their history, their family history, so it’s never lost, stolen or strayed. I commend again, Albina Music Trust, to Bobby Smith and his staff who have delegated, I mean hours and hours and decades of just collecting all this information and now making it a reality.

Miller: Ken Berry and Bobby Smith, thanks very much.

Berry: Thank you.

Smith: Thank you.

Miller: Ken Berry is co-founder and emeritus consulting producer of the World Arts Foundation. Bobby Smith is co-founder and lead archivist of the Albino Music Trust.

As I mentioned, you can hear more selections from this archive on our connected radio station KMHD. It’s Fridays from 8 to 10 p.m.

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