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Bringing Home the Civil Rights Movement


Sarah Anderson teaches middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies at a place-based charter school in Portland, Oregon. Originally from rural Vermont, Anderson has also taught nature studies to urban middle school students in the California Redwoods, career skills to at-risk youth on an educational farm in Vermont and Civics and Global Studies at an independent school in Maryland. She earned a masters in education in Integrated Learning from Antioch New England Graduate School. Sarah is an alumnus of CWI's Summer Institute and her essays on teaching are regularly featured in Community Works Journal.

When I was in middle school, my history teacher had a poster on his wall with a George Santayana quote that read, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This sentiment perplexed me as a student and, as a burgeoning history teacher, it continued to puzzle me. Such a view of history assumes that the only events worth studying and learning from are the “bad” ones, such as wars and political missteps. Isn’t it just as possible that as students of history, we can focus on the many successes from our past as lessons for what to do right? In its essence, isn’t history a collection of stories that can teach us about what it means to be human?

To put this theory into practice, I decided to teach the Civil Rights Movement. Studying the Movement in college was a tremendously powerful experience and I began to think about how to impart its lessons of courage, compassion and perseverance to my classes.  

I work at a school with a “place-based” focus, where we are expected to create our own lessons and teach through direct connections to the community. Teaching about the Civil Rights Movement presented me with an interesting problem: how would I create local connections in Portland, Oregon to historical events that primarily took place in the South?

To begin, I had to educate myself about local African-American history. My research took me first to the Oregon Historical Society and the local library. I was somewhat surprised to find that not many resources on the topic existed. I had to glean information from an array of newspaper articles and other primary source documents, but I was unable to find any comprehensive books or articles about the Civil Rights Movement in Portland, or even about the black history of Portland.

I decided to talk to an expert, so I interviewed the head of the Black Studies department at Portland State University. This turned about to be infinitely helpful. Through this conversation, I constructed a narrative of Portland’s black history. The professor also provided me with primary and secondary sources, including a short documentary from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The most comprehensive text I found came from an unexpected source: the city’s Bureau of Planning. The department had put together a report, approximately 100-pages long, called “History of Portland's African American community (1805-to the present).” This document, which I could download from the bureau’s website, included photos and references to other primary sources as well as a framework for the overall history. Selected excerpts would make good readings for my students.

Now that I had a better understanding of the history, I found the story that unfolded was astonishing; Portland’s civil rights history was richer than I ever knew. I learned that Oregon’s original constitution banned African-Americans from living in the state and that many towns and cities used to have “sun-down laws, which prohibited African-Americans from being within the town boundaries after sun-down. The Jim Crow laws in Oregon were considered the most severe this side of the Mississippi. Portland did not prohibit segregation in stores and hotels until years after other west coast states had established similar laws. Even then, the state had to enforce it because the residents of Portland voted against integration. One of the most dramatic tales was of the Vanport Flood, a preventable flood in the 1940s that demolished a low-lying part of the city, set aside for African-Americans. City officials knew that the dikes holding back the Columbia River were going to give way, but they did not evacuate the area because they couldn’t find another neighborhood that would agree to house the group of mostly black refugees. Some historians have compared this incident to the much more devastating (but similar) flood in New Orleans caused by hurricane Katrina. I also learned about the brave individuals of Portland’s African-American community who fought to change laws and set up support organizations: doctors, community organizers, ministers, and educators.


When it came time to extend what I had learned to my students, my impulse was to get them out into the city and actually see where history had taken place. I identified eight essential topics and events for understanding the civil rights history of Portland, starting with the Exclusionary Laws of the mid 1800s and ending with the on-going issue of segregation in our schools. For each topic, I selected a collection of primary sources: photos, newspaper articles, maps, deeds and other documents. Once we were a couple of weeks into our study of the national Civil Rights Movement, I split students into eight groups and assigned each of them a different set of documents. Their task was to observe and make observations and inferences about what they saw and read. Each group explained their guesses about the story the documents told. This was a way for the students to practice being real historians by trying to piece together the story from primary sources. They were going through the discovery process, just like I had when I researched the history, only I had done the sifting for them.

I then set up a scavenger hunt, with five locations across Portland for small groups to visit with a parent chaperone/driver. Groups were provided with a map of the city, indicating each location, and a clue telling them where to go first. In each location, students had to locate a site where I had left packets for them. At the train station downtown, where many of Portland’s African-Americans worked in the late 1800s, I left the packets behind the ticket counter with an Amtrak representative. (I spoke to the manager a couple of weeks ahead of time and they were happy to participate!) The clue to find the packet read:
If you get tired of Portland rain,
You can come here to take a train.
Go to the office where you would retrieve,
The stubs of paper that would let you leave.
Once found, their packets contained a reading about the significance of the location and instructions for a short journal entry. For the train station, the journaling instructions were:

  1. Write three facts from the reading
  2. Sketch a panel from the ceiling
  3. Find and write the dates of the two large photos on the back wall on either side of the door leading to the trains.

Each group also had a camera and had to take photos at each location. The train station instructions were:

Take a group photo in front of the Oregon Heritage Foundation display

Lastly, the packet contained the address and clue for the next location. During that afternoon, students saw the site of the Vanport neighborhood, before it was wiped out by flood waters. The site is now a large city park and golf course. Students also visited a park where a riot had broken out in the turbulent days of the late ‘60s located in the middle of a neighborhood that was mostly made up of African-American residents until a recent wave of gentrification. They stopped by the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church where some of the largest Civil Rights rallies were held and where Martin Luther King, Jr. actually visited in the mid-1960s. I had left the packets with the church secretary, a very warm and welcoming woman who invited all of the students to tour the church and ask questions. Students also investigated the Memorial Coliseum, which had only been built after displacing hundreds of African-American families in the 1950s.

My students and their parents were astounded to learn that African-Americans have undergone such hardships as segregation and police discrimination in Portland. They were equally amazed to find that Martin Luther King, Jr. had once visited the very church that they themselves stood. History, and the meaning behind it, came to life. I remember one student, a 7th grade girl who was not always easily “recruitable,” exclaiming, “That was the best field trip I’ve ever been on!”

In the days following the scavenger hunt, we continued our study of civil rights in Portland. We interviewed seniors at a community center run by the Urban League and heard first-hand about neighborhood segregation and discrimination. We visited the main offices of the Urban League, who had recently put out a study documenting the current status of Portland’s African-American population in terms of health, education, employment, and other areas. The minister from the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church came in to speak to the class and share his personal story and the current work of his church community. We watched the documentary given to me by the PSU professor. When we wrote biographies of famous civil rights activists, some students were assigned local people. One student was able to interview the grandchildren of Portland’s first black doctor, Dr. DeNorval Unthank, who was also an activist, and another student did a phone interview with Ron Herndon, the chairman of the board for the National Head Start Association, who was also a major voice for the desegregation of Portland schools.  Through all of this, we found that the struggle for civil rights is far from over. Segregation and discrimination are not mistakes of the past that were solved by the Movement. The important lessons we learned from activists- both national and local, past and present- were lessons that we could implement in our own lives, in our own city.

As a culminating event for our study, we worked with a local playwright/director to create short vignettes based on each of the local topics. Every small group of students specialized in one topic, created a short story illustrating the central conflict and using specific historical references, and acted out the scene. The director linked the stories together with music from the Civil Rights Movement and audio from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. We put together a program, which gave more historical background for each vignette and performed the piece in a theater downtown- who donated the space to us for a night- to a packed audience. Most of the people who came to see it were parents and extended family members, but several members of the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church also attended, including the minister. When the skit about their church started, they clapped and cheered. This was one of the highlights for me- making real connections with a community group who we never would have met if we hadn’t reached out.

Throughout this local study we continued to learn about the Civil Rights Movement in the South, paralleling it with events in Portland. But visiting real places provided a perfect way to make deep and real connections for my students without having to travel across the country. It also gave us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, our place and the future we want to build for ourselves.

Scenes from the Dream


Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 @ 6:30 P.M.
@ Artists Repertory Theatre
1515 S.W. Morrison Street

Scenes from the Dream:
Moments from Portland’s Continuing Civil Rights Struggle
As Dramatized by
Southwest Charter School Middle School Students

Director: Bruce Hostetler
Teachers: Sarah Anderson and Paul Banta
Playwrights and Performers:
Genna Angle; River Baily; Michael Bower; Shannon Bransfield; Sienna Charriere; Gabby Downey; Justin Forbes; Elise Gonsalves; Nat Gurnee; Matt Hertler; Jack Hickey; Leah Hostetler; Theo Ketrenos; Joseph Lea; Stevie Levin; Izaya Lingo; Jesse Maack; Zoe McDonnell-Myers; Alivia Mickleson; Jobe Miller; Madi Nomura; Liam Pulliam ; Jaden Salama; Levy Watkins

Exclusion Laws and their Legacy
Script written by Zoe, River and Michael
Performed by Zoe, River, Michael, Austin and Shannon

Many original white settlers moved to Oregon because they wanted to escape racial tensions they felt were festering in pre-Civil war America. Once they moved here, they passed laws called “exclusion laws” to exclude not only black residents, but also Asians and Native Americans.  When Oregon became a state, exclusion laws became part of the state constitution: “No free Negro or mulatto… shall come reside or be within the state or hold any real estate, or make any contract, or maintain any suit therein….” 

After the Civil war, while African American attempted to achieve full citizenship in states around the nation, Oregon passed more laws prohibiting people of color from voting, witnessing in court, or inter-marrying with white people. Additionally, many counties and cities had “sundown laws” which required black people to be out of town by sundown, or suffer consequences.

These laws were eventually repealed, but the sentiment persisted in many places, especially outside of Portland. The KKK was very active in many towns (including Portland) and there is at least one lynching on record in a coastal town. The Green Book was a guide to safe houses and other places that welcomed African Americans traveling in America. The Green Book was used by travelers up through the 1960s. (Photo credit:

Vanport City Flood
Script written by Matt, Jesse and Genna
Performed by Matt, Jesse, Genna and Levy

In 1948, a large portion of Portland’s black residents lived in Vanport City. Vanport was a housing development that had been quickly built during World War II to house shipyard workers and was not meant to be permanent housing. Many poor families lived there- including 5,000 African Americans- because there was no other housing available.

On the morning of May 30th, 1948, the Columbia River threatened to break the dykes around Vanport. City officials notified residents that they should not be alarmed and that they would be given adequate warning if they were in danger. Meanwhile, officials met behind closed doors, knowing catastrophe was near, but because they could not find a place in the city to relocate Vanport residents, they did not evacuate. That afternoon, the dykes broke, flooded the development and virtually wiped out all housing units. Vanport became a lake. Most people were able to evacuate in time, but they lost all of their belongings. In the official report, it was announced that 13 people lost their lives in the flood. However, many former Vanport residents believe this was a cover up and that other bodies were secretly buried in the Terminal Ice and Cold Storage Company Building.

Dislocation of Black Residents in Portland
Script written by Leah, Liam, Elise
Performed by Leah, Liam, Elise, Theo and Madi

Prior to World War II, the small black population of Portland lived throughout the east side of Portland. In November 1956, citizens voted to build a memorial Coliseum. Under the constitutional clause of “eminent domain,” the government is allowed to take private property as long as it fairly compensates the owners. The city cleared an estimated 150 black residents from the area just east of the Broadway Bridge, one of the poorest parts of town.

When the city built the I-5 interstate freeway between Broadway and Fremont, they dislocated about 300 people, mostly black, and did not help them find new homes.

Later, in the 1970s the expansion of Emmanuel Hospital further dislocated black families. Most moved north, further into the Albina Neighborhood. (Photos courtesy of Oregon Historical Society CN 023743

Public Accommodations Law
Script written by Theo and Jack
Performed by Theo, Jack and Austin

Before 1893, African-Americans and Chinese people were not allowed to live in Oregon according to the state constitution.  The constitution also prevented them from voting and intermarrying. There were also many stores, hotels and restaurants who did not permit black or Chinese customers in their establishments.

Between 1893 and 1953, African-American leaders attempted to pass a civil rights bill in Oregon, but were repeatedly defeated. Finally, in 1953, the Oregon Legislature approved a state civil rights bill called the Public Accommodations Law. The law made it illegal for motels, hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, skating rinks, theaters and parks to discriminate based on race, religion or national origin.  This was a relief to the black community of Portland since they had tried to pass a similar city law in 1950 and it had been defeated by city residents. Oregon Historical Society CN 0034

Racist Real Estate Practices
Script Written by Stevie and Jobe
Performed by Stevie, Jobe and Izaya

Between the years 1920 and 1930 in Portland, housing segregation became widespread. It was difficult for African Americans to buy or rent homes or apartments in neighborhoods of their choice. They were driven into low quality neighborhoods. In 1919, the Portland Reality Board made a rule as part of their Code of Ethics stating that none of the member realtors were allowed to sell property in white neighborhoods to African Americans or Asians. 

This vignette was inspired by the Code of Ethics and by an incident known as the “Wiley Case.” The Wiley Case of 1960 was when the Wiley’s, an African-American family who tried to build a house in a white suburb, met with multiple obstacles, ranging from a court case to the burning down of their house.

This type of segregation led to the creation of majority-black neighborhood in one section of North Portland, one of the only areas that were “approved” by realtors. (map courtesy of Portland Bureau of Planning, City of Portland)

Riot at Irving Park

Script Written by Shannon and Sienna
Performed by Shannon, Sienna and River

On Sunday, July 30th, 1967, the public was invited to an arts event called “Sunday in the Park” in Irving Park. The press and the police called the organizers “outsiders” and local church leaders told youth to stay away from the park. The Portland Police were patrolling, as well as FBI officers, fearing a riot. People at the event began to talk about revolution and several youths began chasing FBI officers and some people threw bottles at passing cars. A riot began, lasting two days. One man was shot, 50 people were arrested, and several businesses along Union Avenue were firebombed and looted. The riot clearly demonstrated to the city that residents from the Albina Neighborhood were frustrated and unhappy and how crucial it was to open a dialogue between the city and neighborhood residents. (photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society OrHi 25045)

Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church
Script written by Austin, Madi and Jaden
Performed by Austin, Madi, Jaden and Jack (Izaya on Guitar)

This vignette represents a church that existed, and still exists, at the heart of the African-American community in Portland. It connected people to “The Movement,” and it connected people to hope and faith. This is a day in the life- a snapshot- of Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church. The day that we are dreaming of is September 22, 1963. On this day, 1200 people gathered outside of the church to honor the four girls who had recently been killed in a Birmingham Church bombing. The crowd marched throughout the streets of Portland in the name of peace and freedom. According to some, this was one of the Movement’s largest actions in the city.

Segregated Schools and School Closures
Script written by Joseph, Nat and Gabby
Performed by Joseph, Nat, Gabby and Alivia

In the 1960s, most of the black community in Portland lived in predominately black neighborhoods. By default, because students went to neighborhood schools, the public schools in Portland were segregated.   In 1964, the NAACP of Portland and the black community were frustrated because they felt like the black schools were not as good as the white schools and the black neighborhood children were not getting as good of an education.

The NAACP went to the Board of Education to try to expose the segregation and make education across the city more equal. The Board’s solution was to shut down the black neighborhood schools over time and bus the children to predominately white neighborhood schools. They started by busing out all the 8th graders, followed by the 7th graders the next year, then the 6th, and so on. When the board threatened to close Jefferson High School, however, the black community protested and the city discontinued the busing. The issue of school inequality and how to address it continues today. (Oregon Historical Society OrHi 95005 )

Thank You So Much!!!

  • Thank you to the Artists Reparatory Theatre for generously donating their space to us for the evening. It is a privilege and a thrill to have the opportunity to perform in a real theater.
  • Thank you to hand2mouth Theater Company for permitting us to perform on their set. We appreciate your flexibility!
  • And lastly, thank you to everyone who allowed us to visit and interview them while we researched this play: Pastor Matt Hennessee and Church Secretary Izora Green from Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, Inger McDowell, Marcus Mundy, and Lauretta Slaughter from the Portland Urban League, members of the Multi-Cultural Senior Center and Professor Darrell Millner from the Black Studies Department at Portland State University. We thank you for your kindness and helpfulness, and we hope you enjoy our interpretation.

Oregon Historical Society,

Portland Bureau of Planning, Portland’s Albina Community: The History of Portland's African American Community (1805 to the Present), City of Portland: 1993, Portland, Oregon

Burell, Raymond, Vancouver Avenue : Yesterday, Today, & Forever ( celebrating 65 years as a spiritual landmark), Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church: 2009, Portland, Oregon

Music Credits
“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” performed by the SNCC Freedom Singers, Sign for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, released in 1990

 “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” performed by Hollis Watkins, Sign for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, released in 1990

 “This Little Light of Mine” performed by the Montgomery Gospel Trio, The Nashville Quartet, and Guy Carawan, We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-Ins, Folkways Records, originally released in 1961

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was recorded in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963

This article was originally published in shorter form by Teaching Tolerance Magazine.

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