Tensions had been building for weeks.
Portland Police, emboldened by the newly established Intelligence Division, had become a regular presence in North/Northeast’s Albina neighborhood, monitoring civil rights activity and “agitators.” Police relations with Portland’s African American community had never been positive, but in the summer of 1967, two years after the devastating Watts Riots, distrust between the police and the Black community ratcheted to new heights. In the opinion of many local residents, in particular young Blacks, Albina had come to resemble a police state.
“Where else but in Albina do cops hang around the streets and parks all day like plantation overseers?” commented one young man to an Oregonian reporter. “Just their presence antagonizes us. We feel like we’re being watched all the time.”
In North Portland, as in the rest of the country, tensions between police and the Black community were at an all-time high, and the city was primed to explode.
The summer of 1967 was racked by nationwide uprisings. The “long hot summer” saw 159 racially motivated riots across the United States, beginning in June with violent events in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Tampa, followed in July with more outbreaks in Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, and elsewhere. The largest and most extensive riots occurred in Newark, New Jersey (26 dead, 1,500 arrests) and Detroit, Michigan (43 dead, 7,200 arrests).
By the middle of July it seemed as though Portland would escape the violence sweeping the country, but 50 years ago next month, the city’s decades-long practice of discrimination and displacement had finally reached its boiling point.
The Frustrations Start
Oregon’s history of legal discrimination is well-documented, and is much a part of state lore as the Lewis and Clark expedition. Upon being granted statehood in 1859, Oregon was the only state in the union to prohibit Blacks from living on or owning property within its borders—and this ban was not officially revoked until 1926. The Ku Klux Klan was prominent in the state in the 1920s, holding considerable sway over Oregon police and political leaders. The 15th Amendment—giving African Americans the right to vote—did not become state law until 1959, nearly 90 years after being ratified by the US Congress.
What could be considered Portland’s first Black community was situated west of the Willamette River on Broadway Avenue, since many African American men worked for the train station and the downtown hotels. With the arrival of World War II, the Black population skyrocketed, from 2,000 to 20,000. Most of these newcomers were housed in a newly and hastily constructed public housing community called Vanport, situated between Portland and Vancouver in the floodplain of the Columbia River. In the early 1940s, it was Oregon’s second-largest city, and the largest public housing project in the nation, with African Americans making up 40 percent of its population. When the Columbia River flooded on May 30, 1948, Vanport was home to 18,500 people who suddenly found themselves without a place to live. 6,300 of those who lost their homes in the flood were Black, and quickly had to find their way in an unwelcoming and at times hostile city—a city listed by the Journal of Social Work in 1945 as “the worst Northern City in Racial Relations.”
Following the war, Blacks began moving in large numbers across the Willamette River to Albina. Originally home to a large European immigrant community, the neighborhood, straddling the border of North and Northeast Portland, had seen a slow influx of African American residents as early as 1910, but after the Vanport flood the Black population of Albina surged. This was no accident, but a calculated bit of legal and commercial maneuvering, as a city-approved Code of Ethics forbade realtors and bankers from selling or giving property loans to minorities in white neighborhoods. “Redlining” effectively confined 73 percent of the city’s African American population to Albina. In the 10 years between 1950 and 1960, 7,000 more Blacks had moved into the neighborhood, while 23,000 whites had moved out—many of them relocating to the recently built suburbs. By the beginning of the decade, African Americans comprised four percent of the city’s population, while 80 percent of Black Portlanders were crowded into Albina.
Darrell Millner, professor emeritus of Black studies at Portland State University, explains that what’s often referred to as the “Black community” is not an organically formed entity, but a product of the existing power structure.
“The Black community was an artificial creation of a segregated society as we knew it in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “The composition of the neighborhood is not in the control of the Black population. The Black population is always reacting to what the dominant population is doing. And that’s the key dynamic.”
During the war years, Central Albina—the area around Williams and Russell in particular—became the heart of the community with bustling jazz clubs, salons, record stores, and restaurants. By the mid-1950s, however, the area was beset by encroaching blight, and city officials had singled out the area for urban renewal. Rather than invest in the existing community, the city decimated it. Construction of the I-5 freeway, Memorial Coliseum, and a proposed Emanuel hospital expansion (later abandoned) led to the loss of more than 1,100 homes and hundreds of businesses in Central Albina. Residents were given 90 days to find new housing. Many African American residents viewed urban renewal as yet one more example of “Negro removal.”
“Black folk had it rough in Portland... The system, especially the police, had a whole lot of feet on Black peoples’ necks.”
The Black population in the Eliot neighborhood shrank by two-thirds, and many relocated to King, Boise, and Humboldt, an area taking up roughly two-and-a-half square miles. Black residents made up 84 percent of the Boise neighborhood, while remaining only six percent of the city’s total population. Since African Americans made up just one percent of Portland’s 700-plus police officers, friction between the Black residents of Albina and Portland Police was inescapable. A clash was inevitable.
Henry Stevenson, a military veteran who moved from Washington, DC, to Portland in 1960 recalls, “Black folk had it rough in Portland... The system, especially the police, had a whole lot of feet on Black peoples’ necks.”
Frank Fair, a youth worker with the Church Community Action Program, put it this way: “When you get to feeling locked in—that’s when the frustrations start.”
Sunday at the Park
The afternoon of Sunday, July 30, 1967 was bright and warm. Around 100 people—most of them young and Black—congregated in Irving Park, directly south of Fremont, anticipating a rumored demonstration with speakers and events. Ostensibly promoted by the Ad Hoc Committee for Black Culture, the “Sunday at the Park” was to feature a performance by the Black Arts Theatre from San Francisco, live music, a photo exhibit from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and a special visit from Black Panther Party Minister of Information and Soul on Ice author, Eldridge Cleaver. During the week leading up to the demonstration, many of the city’s older Black leaders and clergy members, including respected pastor and civil rights activist Reverend John H. Jackson from Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, had gone around the neighborhood trying to dissuade young people from attending, but their efforts were roundly rebuffed.
Though riots had been exploding across the country, Oregon Governor Tom McCall, speaking at a news conference in late July days before the park rally, acknowledged race relations in Oregon were not ideal, yet claimed they were better than in other states. He did not believe that the waves of violence visiting other states would hit Oregon. Regardless, the governor’s assessment didn’t stop local law enforcement from amping up surveillance of the park. Increased police presence—including seven cars of plainclothes detectives and two officers posted on a nearby hill, watching the park through binoculars—only further inflamed tensions.
As the afternoon wore on, there was no sign of Eldridge Cleaver or the Black Arts Theatre, prompting new rumors they had been detained by law enforcement somewhere along the way. Young Black activists set up a platform with a PA system and microphone to address the crowd about police brutality and resistance. Some of the more militant activists led chants of “kill the honkies,” “Whitey, go home,” and “burn the town down.”
Neighborhood Service Center worker Erma Hepburn, who had been dispatched to survey the scene at the park, later reported to the Oregonian: “I heard one of them say it was rumored they were there to incite a riot. He said that wasn’t true. But he added, ‘If you’re here to talk revolution, then that’s something else.’”
The first reported incident happened at 5:18 pm, when a group of Black youths began to throw bottles and rocks through the windows of the Lampus discount store. Shortly after, at around 5:30 pm, a group of four or five young Black men—in their late teens and early 20s—surrounded and attacked Ira Williamson, a 51-year-old white employee of the Portland Parks Department who was there watching the rally. Williamson suffered bruises to his ribs, cuts to his mouth, and five broken teeth. His wristwatch and wallet were also stolen. He was rescued and brought to the hospital by Linzi Roy, an African American school teacher then working in the Park Bureau’s summer program. Another white man, Vernon Wolvert, who lived across the street from the park, was also allegedly attacked, but not severely injured and didn’t require medical attention.
By 6:30 pm, the small rally at the park had developed into a neighborhood-wide clash. Reports of rock throwing directed towards cops and motorists motivated police to the seal off a 30-block area of the neighborhood and request additional officers to the scene. Many businesses along the single block between Fremont and Beech on Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard) had their windows broken by rocks or bottles.
And soon after came the first reports of firebombing.
Just after 10 pm, fires destroyed the Sav-Mor Food Market on Mississippi Avenue, and a two-story building on Union Avenue—housing both the Union Coin Operated Laundromat and American Auto Parts, Inc. Police officers fired on 18-year-old Jesse Johnson after witnessing him allegedly tossing a Molotov cocktail through the window of the Alberta Furniture Store. Johnson survived, but suffered buckshot injuries to his back, legs, and stomach. He was booked on arson charges with a $5,000 bail.
One of the cops on the scene was a young white officer named Tom Potter, who would eventually go on to become North Precinct captain, chief of police, and then mayor of Portland from 2005 to 2009. However, on the night of July 30, 1967, he was just a young beat cop in over his head.
“At the time, Portland was very unprepared for anything like this,” Potter recalled in an interview for OPB’s Oregon Experience. “We didn’t have any riot gear. What I was told was, ‘Bring whatever long gun you have from home, and we’re going to be going out on patrol....’ During the night, I can remember standing on what was then Union Avenue and Fremont, and every building I could see was on fire, and I could hear the ‘pop pop’ of guns.”
Police Inspector Frank Springer, speaking at an evening news conference, insisted that the disturbances happening at that moment should not be considered a riot. Yet the situation had gotten serious enough to warrant an emergency visit by Governor McCall. The governor arrived in Portland at around 9 pm, and convened with Mayor Terry Schrunk at the governor’s suite at the Hilton Hotel, along with heads of the Oregon National Guard, Oregon’s adjutant general, the head of the state police, and other members of the governor’s staff. McCall and Schrunk then reconvened at the mayor’s office, where they set up a command post for the night.
At the height of the disturbance, approximately 300 young men and women—predominantly African American, but with some whites—were in the streets, largely confined by police to the vicinity of Upper Albina. Two hundred police officers had been ordered into the area, with another 200 nearby, ready to provide assistance. Helmeted officers rode four and five to a car, ordered to keep their rifles and shotguns inside the vehicle, out of public view. The Oregon National Guard’s 2nd Battalion of the 218th Field Artillery, with 500 men in reserve at the Portland Air Base, was on notice with another 6,000 reservists at home.
“Tell them Portland stinks behind its roses. Tell them we’re not monkeys and this isn’t a zoo.”
Nineteen people were arrested by midnight, including six juveniles and three whites, mostly on charges of vandalism. After midnight, police continued to arrest both Blacks and whites for being in violation of a newly imposed city curfew ordinance. By 12:30 am Monday morning, Police Inspector Springer declared that the situation “remains clear and under control.” Before the sun came up Monday morning, however, the police would make 28 more arrests, and the Portland Fire Department would receive 15 more fire calls, bringing the total number of reported fires to 26, with extensive property damage to the immediate area surrounding Fremont and Union Avenue.
Covering the unrest for the Oregon Journal, Ralph Friedman quoted a male African American resident of the area who wanted readers to understand the root cause of the violence. “Tell them the white merchants on Union Avenue could have 10 Union Avenues for all the profit they’ve drained out of us,” the man said. “Tell them Portland stinks behind its roses. Tell them we’re not monkeys and this isn’t a zoo.”
Separate and Unequal
After the disturbance, public reaction was mixed, with a majority of residents on record renouncing the violence and praising the relatively subdued police reaction. Older Black residents of Albina were especially critical of the disturbance, attributing it to the influence of outside agitators. Reverend John H. Jackson asserted that people had driven up to Portland from California specifically to stir up local youths.
Portland’s two leading newspapers at the time, the Oregon Journal and the Oregonian, published photos, statements, and reactions to the disturbance, some less nuanced than others. Few of the articles connected the events in Albina to the uprisings taking place in other cities across the country. In a front-page article in the Oregonian, under the headline “Negroes Break Windows, Set Fires,” staff writer Stan Federman reported: “Roving bands of Negroes, most of them teen-agers, surged through the streets Sunday night in a sudden outburst of vandalism in the Albina section of Portland.” (Not mentioned were several white males who had also been arrested, many of whom were picked up in the area for carrying guns in their cars.) A photograph of a broken window superimposed with a small white arrow was captioned: “Arrow points to billiard ball which was tossed through window of Oregon State Liquor Store at 3532 NE Union Ave. by gang of Negro teenagers.”
At a joint press conference, Governor McCall and Mayor Schrunk acknowledged the Black community’s frustration over inadequate education funding and programs, but neither considered the event a race riot, and they, too, blamed the violence on a small group of outsiders. The troublemakers, Governor McCall claimed, did not represent the larger Black community.
“The mood of Portland’s non-whites is one of intolerance toward violence,” the governor said. “The seeds of hatred find inhospitable soil here in the city of Portland.”
A 15-year-old African American boy, who had been arrested during the disturbance and taken to Donald E. Lang Juvenile Detention, had a different opinion: “The riot spirit is catching,” he told the Oregonian. “As long as there are riots and trouble in other cities, there will be riots here. I know it’s not going to do anyone any good... but there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Later that Monday afternoon, at about 4:30 pm, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a pile of tires at a service station on Union Avenue, while a crowd of approximately 80 young Black men and women had gathered near Irving Park, throwing rocks and bottles at the windows of passing vehicles. Police set up a traffic barricade at Union and Fremont, as the crowd continued to throw objects at police cars, motorists, and homes. By 8 pm, Mayor Schrunk ordered police to clear the park and “start making plenty of arrests.” Nearly 150 police officers, carrying rifles and shotguns, again moved into the area, supported by three 18-man tactical operations platoons specializing in riot control. By midnight, after several reports of firebombing and arson, police declared the situation calm and under control. There were 68 arrests and 13 reports of fires.
As the city awoke following a second night of violence, residents—both in Albina and throughout the city—were appalled. Letters to newspaper editors, chief of police, and the mayor all denounced the violence, reasserting the popular view that outsiders from California, or else a small group of local rabble-rousers, were responsible. Some Portland residents, like Margaret Luyben, suggested Mayor Schrunk authorize Portland Police to shoot any “militant black negroes” seen destroying property.
Despite a brief flare-up on that Tuesday—which saw the firebombing of a fuel company and arrests of 10 adults and 15 juveniles—there were no further reports of disturbances in the area. Police returned to their normal duties after being subjected to 12-hour workdays. As the public mostly heaped praise on the police for their swift and effective response, the mayor then contended with those who saw his response as too reliant on force and large-scale arrests, while others believed the mayor had been too accommodating to vandalism.
Nevertheless, the disturbances near Irving Park sparked a citywide conversation over the city’s disengagement from the Albina community, a draconian police presence, inadequate housing, and lack of jobs. Though the overwhelming majority of participants in the clashes were young—and many older residents renounced the violence—these concerns were not unique to the young, nor were they anything new. In the view of some participants, the insurrections in Albina on July 30 and 31 were a show of solidarity with the mood spreading across the United States that summer.
While riots were still taking place throughout the country, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission on July 28, 1967 to study the causes of recent violence and to make recommendations. The report addressed problems stemming from racism, white entitlement, and the failure of federal and state governments to provide housing and education. “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” the report warned, “one Black, one white—separate and unequal.” President Johnson ultimately rejected the Commission’s recommendations and, after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination on April 4, 1968, over 100 cities again erupted in large-scale rioting.
Albina saw turmoil once more, beginning on the night of Friday, June 13, 1969. Following a violent confrontation with police—outside the popular hangout spot Lidio’s Drive-In on Union and Shaver—hundreds of young Black residents traveled throughout the area, throwing bottles and firebombs, assaulting motorists and police officers, and vandalizing property. By early Monday morning, after dozens of arrests and thousands of dollars of property damage, the altercation had come to an end.
In the aftermath of this new disturbance Kent Ford, along with Percy Hampton, announced the formation of the Portland Black Panther Party. During their decade-long tenure, the Panthers ran a children’s breakfast program, operated free medical and dental clinics, and condemned what they saw as a racist and repressive police presence in Albina.
“We want fascist pigs out of the Albina district,” Ford declared. “We don’t need those pigs here.”
Then and Now
The 1970s and ’80s were acutely devastating to Albina, owing largely to city disinvestment and housing abandonment. As Black families moved out, gangs and drug pushers moved in, taking advantage of an untapped market and introducing crack cocaine to the troubled district. Afflicted by gang warfare, economic stagnation, predatory lenders, speculators, and absentee landlords, the percentage of Black Portlanders in Albina ultimately shrank by more than a fifth toward the end of the ’80s, with many of Portland’s Black population moving east of Albina, to outer Southeast and Gresham, known now as “the numbers.” Albina’s population decreased by nearly 27,000 since 1950, and the value of homes dropped to 58 percent of the city’s median.
And then in the ’90s, for the first in 50 years, Albina’s population began to grow again—though not with African Americans. Attracted by affordable home prices and city reinvestment, whites descended on the area. By the turn of the century, less than one-third of Black Portlanders remained in Albina.
In her 2007 study “Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000,” Karen J. Gibson, associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, offers a view of gentrification as “not just a matter of individual preferences for older centrally located neighborhoods; it is a matter of financial and governmental decisions. When capital is withheld from certain areas, predatory lenders move in to fill the void.”
The Albina community today is nearly unrecognizable compared to 50 years ago. Northeast Portland is now popular for its boutiques, art galleries, and artisanal ice cream shops, while North Williams Avenue is once again a thriving community—albeit one in which African Americans are largely absent. If the Black community had been created artificially by the existing power structure—the dominant population—then that same system has been responsible for destroying it.
Since the last presidential election, cities across the country have been beset by street protests and riots, often accompanied by property destruction, but Portland has arguably seen more than any other American city. While addressing different grievances, some similarities can be made to the riots of 1967, namely nonhierarchical (and at times chaotic) strategies, a heavy-handed police response, and a mayor on the defensive. Black Lives Matter and Don’t Shoot PDX have more in common with the direct action mobilizations of the late '60s and '70s than with the nonviolent marches of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation.
But not until the May 26 deaths of two innocent white men on the MAX train—murdered while defending two Black girls from a white supremacist—had the veil of Portland’s long history of racism been so violently pulled back. While white residents have subsequently begun to make an effort to listen to the concerns of Portland’s vulnerable people of color, it’s too soon to know whether these efforts will bring about any changes, or whether they are merely symbolic. In the meantime, Black Portlanders continue to move further away from the city, away from a familiar and supportive community, and—with a population still lingering near six percent—they have reason to feel, as they did 50 years ago, like second-class citizens. The city has long taken for granted its status as a progressive paradise, but the Albina riots, while not widely known or studied, can serve as a caution for the present day.
As Shelton Hill, executive director of the Urban League, said on the Monday following the two days of rioting in 1967: “The only good that could possibly come out of a thing like this is that it may shake Portland out of its complacency. It shows that these things can happen anywhere.”
Further reading: Karen J. Gibson, Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment: 1940-2000and The Portland Black Panthers: Empowering Albina and Remaking a City; Lucas N.N. Burke and Judson L. Jeffries. Special thanks to Dr. Darrell Millner, and Joshua Joe Bryan for his 2013 PSU thesis, Portland, Oregon’s Long Hot Summers: Racial Unrest and Public Response, 1967-1969.