Beatrice Morrow Cannady’s profile is on the rise again in her adopted state.
A Northeast Portland affordable-housing complex called The Beatrice Morrow opened in 2018. The following year, Beatrice Morrow Cannady Elementary School in Happy Valley began classes. A Portland city park soon might be known as Cannady Park.
Such recognition, Oregon civic leaders increasingly recognize, was overdue.
Cannady, who died in 1974 at age 84, was one of the most impactful — and controversial — Black activists in 20th century Portland, but the passage of time allowed her name to slip from collective memory.
“She really made a difference,” says Kimberley Mangun, a University of Utah communications professor who has written extensively about Cannady’s life and work. “Sometimes that rubbed people the wrong way.”
Beatrice Morrow grew up on her parents’ small farm in Texas, helping out with chores and dreaming of becoming an opera singer. She attended Wiley College, a historically Black institution in her native state, and then began working as a teacher.
In 1912 she landed in Portland and married Edward Cannady, the longtime hat-check man at the Portland Hotel who also ran The Advocate, a four-page weekly newspaper for Oregon’s tiny Black community. Beatrice, then 22, promptly became the newspaper’s manager and associate editor.
She had found her calling.
Her new role as a member of the press allowed her to take up the fight against racism, which in many ways was as entrenched in Oregon as it was in the Jim Crow South. Known by friends for her intellectualism and her love of music, she now showed a different side of herself: determination.
She would declare: “Don’t ask for your rights. Take them.”
In 1914, she helped found the Portland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Beatrice’s fearless civil-rights advocacy — including protesting the screening of D.W. Griffith’s popular racist film “The Birth of a Nation” — helped make The Advocate the foremost Black newspaper in Oregon. She challenged discriminatory norms and tracked the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which wielded not just terror but significant political power in the state. (In an editorial battle with a Grants Pass newspaper, she mocked KKK members for having to “wear diapers over their faces and do their work at night.”)
Her success inevitably brought blowback — and not only from the powers-that-be.
Rival Black newspaper The Portland Times, in a 1919 headline, called the Cannadays the “Two Vampires,” and claimed Beatrice could “drink her whisky straight with any member of the underworld and never bat an eye.”
Beatrice filed a $25,000 lawsuit against the Times, asserting that the “veiled insinuations of immorality” were false. The Times published an apology and a full retraction.
By this time, however, Beatrice and Edward’s marriage had begun to fray. The relationship had started unconventionally: through an exchange of letters when she lived in Oklahoma and Edward, a friend of a friend, was more than a thousand miles away in Portland. She eventually headed out on a vacation “to visit points in the West” — and when she got to the Rose City and met Edward in the flesh, she cashed in her return train ticket.
This made for a memorable start to a marriage: an observer would note the “romantic glamour that adorns this union.” But in time, with children (they had two sons) and the relentless, sometimes dangerous work they pursued, that glamour inevitably rubbed off.
The couple separated and then divorced in the late 1920s. Edward would acknowledge that his beautiful, hard-charging ex-wife deserved “the lion’s share of the credit” for The Advocate’s success, noting her “intrepid courage … and her self-confidence.” Beatrice took over as the paper’s owner and editor-in-chief; Edward continued as a contributing writer.
Beatrice knew how to draw readers, prominently listing marriage announcements and upcoming social events, and even publishing a review of a salacious exploitation film that the mainstream press ignored.
But The Advocate’s editorial page remained deadly serious. Beatrice used it time and again to highlight official hypocrisy in Oregon and beyond. When a white mob in Maryland lynched a Black man named George Armwood in 1933, she pointed out that Congress had quickly passed an anti-kidnapping law when the son of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh was murdered, but it couldn’t manage to do the same with an antilynching bill.
Armwood’s murder, she wrote, was “just as terrible as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. And from one point of view, it was more horrible. The law-enforcement officers did nothing to prevent it. The culprits are known. The naked body of the victim was hanged before the house of a judge. The organized legal machinery of the State was defied.?” (Beatrice added the question mark after the period on purpose.)
More than eight decades later, a federal antilynching bill still hasn’t become law, failing most recently last year.
Running The Advocate was a full-time job, but Beatrice, always restless, took on other pursuits as well. She worked informally as a social worker during World War I, and then she went to law school, becoming the first Black woman to graduate from Portland’s Northwestern College of Law — now the law school at Lewis & Clark College.
Her new career got off to a bad start: the college’s dean, Judge J. Hunt Hendrickson, asked Beatrice and her friends to leave a commencement event at Multnomah Hotel because of “dancing in a mixed crowd.” Years later, Hendrickson told her that he had “in my address to the class counseled against group prejudice,” to no avail. (Hendrickson closed his letter: “I believe that someday in your paper you will acknowledge that I am fair and just.”)
It didn’t get better from there. Beatrice was eager to begin practicing law, but she failed to pass the bar exam on five attempts. At that time the Oregon bar exam appears to have been somewhat informal. Today’s standards, with test-taker anonymity for grading, were not in place 90 years ago.
Beatrice’s granddaughter, Cynthia Cannady, a Harvard Law School graduate, describes her grandmother as “brilliant. I don’t think it’s likely she couldn’t pass. It’s more likely she wasn’t permitted to practice law.”
There certainly is reason for such a suspicion. During her first decade in Portland, Beatrice had gained a reputation as uncompromising and difficult — not surprising, considering she was an ambitious Black woman at a time when women and people of color were expected to know their place.
Cynthia Cannady says she’s tried without success to find out about the bar exams her grandmother took.
“I feel there should be an investigation into why she didn’t pass the bar,” she says. “I think her memory deserves that.”
In the years that followed law school, Beatrice continued with her civil-rights advocacy. She worked to integrate Portland’s public schools, took up the cause of prisoners convicted with dubious evidence, and lobbied the Oregon Legislature to pass anti-discrimination laws. In 1932 she ran for the legislature herself, garnering more than 7,000 votes in a Portland-area district — not enough for election, but a surprise to local political commentators, seeing as her vote total far outstripped the number of Black people in the city.
Beatrice clearly did rub some people the wrong way; she was the spark for bitter fights both within the Portland NAACP and in the wider community. Yet at the same time she tried to focus on inclusiveness, and in the most radical possible way.
Recognizing that people of different races and backgrounds couldn’t understand one another if they never interacted — and, in the 1920s and ’30s, they mostly didn’t — she launched a series of “interracial teas” at her Northeast Portland home that brought together eclectic groups. Beatrice would move through the crowd all night, her soft voice (still sporting a Texas drawl) causing people to lean in.
These events, sometimes with more than 100 people in her small house, sent a buzz through Portland’s social scene — after all, for many of the white guests, it was the first time they had ever set foot in a Black person’s home. Soon, the teas had a waiting list.
“It must have been such a dynamic, interesting, culturally amazing experience to be there,” Mangun says. “After the newspaper, I think this was her most important accomplishment.”
The Advocate, now operating out of Beatrice’s home on Northeast 26th Avenue, became more difficult to sustain during the Great Depression. The readership of the paper probably was around five times its 3,000-or-so paid circulation, but that didn’t help the bottom line much.
“She had very little help,” Mangun says. “She did a lot of the writing herself. I think she was worn out.”
Finally, she had enough. She’d tried to do some straightforward legal work, such as estate planning, but she received a threatening letter from the bar association warning her off. So in the late 1930s Beatrice shut down the newspaper and decamped for Los Angeles, where her grown sons George and Ivan lived.
“I think she left Oregon because she felt like she couldn’t do anything anymore,” Cynthia says.
Cynthia, the founder of the niche intellectual-property firm IPSEVA, remembers as a child browsing through Beatrice’s vast collection of first-edition books by Black authors while her grandmother cooked for her in the kitchen.
“I admired her,” she says. “She was not warm and fuzzy. She was elegant. Charismatic.”
Beatrice continued to push for civil rights after moving to California, particularly for residential desegregation, but outside of Los Angeles’ Black community she “fell into obscurity,” Mangun points out.
When she died in 1974, neither The Oregonian nor The Oregon Journal published a news obituary of the most important Black journalist in the state’s history. They likely weren’t aware of her passing.
Slowly but surely during the past four decades Beatrice Morrow Cannady’s life and accomplishments have worked their way back into the public consciousness in Oregon. Her name lives on — including now being etched onto a couple of buildings in the Portland area.
“She had detractors,” says Cynthia Cannady. “She was the kind of person you either loved or hated, and a lot of people hated her. But she deserves a lot of recognition — and understanding.”