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Churches Remain At The Heart Of Dispersed Black Communities

Up until the ‘90’s, most African Americans in Portland lived in inner North and Northeast. But U.S. Census figures indicate that over the last 20 years, gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods has pushed over 8,000 African Americans from their homes.

As Portland Monthly’s Aaron Scott reports, the area’s churches still tie people back to the community they once knew. 

At Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, the gospel choir is on its feet, and so is everyone else. More than 150 people fill the chapel as rare winter sun streams through the stained glass.

The Emmanuel Church of God in Christ United, where congregants travel in from all over the city to worship, on a recent Sunday morning. - Photo by Darryl James,

“I live in Beaverton, but when I come to church, I come in because I’m needing to feel like I’m being fed,” says Julianne Johnson.  She’s the church’s music minister and a professor of music at Portland Community College. 

“There’s an emotionalism that goes along with this music that isn’t carried throughout other styles of music.”

Johnson says that since the days of slavery, gospel music has helped the black community persevere in the face of hardship.

“When the troubles come, we hearken back to what our ancestors did which is to sing to God, and that somehow that little ounce of hope is there that says things will change.”

Some leaders in the black community say the churches provide a few of the last gathering places for Portland’s scattered black population.

“There is no black community per se.  There is no place to come home to,” according to Ed Washington, a former member of the Metro council. He served through the ‘90s and remains the only African American ever elected to the council.

“I would say the church is probably the last stronghold of African-American community here in Portland. But are they as strong today? No they’re not.”

For observers like Washington, the troubled state of black Portland calls into question the very core of our city’s values.

“We are the most livable city, we pride ourselves on it. Livable for who?”

On a recent Thursday evening, Ron Wright leads a small choir rehearsal at the Emmanuel Church of God in Christ United, a block off Alberta on 30th. 

Wright grew up singing in the church, which was started by his grandfather.

“And I had family all over the North Portland and it was nothing for us to get on bikes and ride to grandma’s house or aunties house or a friend’s house,” Wright recalls.

Wright says the heavy concentration of African Americans in inner North and Northeast in those days fueled a thriving sense of community grounded in black businesses, social clubs, and, especially, the churches.

“A lot of your churches in the Northeast have a great story to tell and a lot of it has a bit of pain and struggle, as well as glory and gratification, and you hear that in the type of songs that they sing.”

For more than a century, Portland’s African Americans have been pushed from neighborhood to neighborhood by urban renewal projects and discriminatory real estate practices.

Even as late as 1990, The Oregonian found that banks refused to lend to blacks in North and Northeast who wanted to buy or fix up homes and businesses. Consequently, when the city started to reinvest in the area in the early 90s, blacks were at a disadvantage.

A wave of mostly white homeowners and developers reshaped the neighborhood.

“We anticipated gentrification,” says Carl Talton, a local African American leader. He served on the Portland Development Commission for 15 years.

“We counted on it to a degree because we knew the investment had to come from somewhere.  What we didn’t see was this wildfire that would come in and totally take over the process.”

As prices more than tripled, Ron Wright found he couldn’t afford to buy a house in Northeast. And many renters like choir member Rita Ishmael were pushed to the poorer fringes of the city.

“It could be dangerous out here, it could be lonely.  Even your family don’t really want to come see you because you live so far,” Ishmael says.

Raised in Northeast, she now lives in a small apartment in Wood Village. The bulk of the black population moved east of 82nd Avenue, where census figures show their numbers have increased 151 percent in the last decade. Yet for many it remains an isolating place.

“I moved thinking I was coming to a better world, but I come to the same thing and worse in a way to me.”

Ishmael’s exprerience is not unique. Recent census and city data show that African Americans in Portland not only rank at the bottom of most socioeconomic measures, but their situation has gotten worse.

Over the last 30 years, home ownership has dropped, income has stagnated, and unemployment has climbed from 12 percent to 18 percent. That’s almost twice Oregon’s overall unemployment rate.

Karen Gibson is an urban planner at PSU and an authority on the area’s history.

Gibson says, “The patterns that you see today are results of cumulative effect of racial discrimination that really truncates the ability of people to have economic viability.”

Back at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist, that sense of community spills over the congregation with the vibrato of music minister Julianne Johnson’s voice.

For many who’ve moved out, it’s hard to travel back. So the churches have adapted.  They send vans to pick folks up.  A few churches started satellite services in Gresham and Beaverton. 

Even the choirs have changed.  Johnson said she’s had to adapt to the fact that people can’t come to rehearsals as often as they used to.

“It would be a hardship for them to come in every Sunday, because if you add all four Sundays, you’re saying you’re going to have four Saturdays of rehearsals.”

But Johnson has faith that the churches and the choirs will persevere.

“I think a new generation is pouring into what were doing here. We just have to keep being relevant.”

Click here for the complete Portland Monthly article.

Photo courtesy Darryl James: