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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Waking up to our area’s history

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: June 3, 2023, 6:02am

It is an interesting exercise. A cathartic exercise. An informative exercise, yet one that likely would be decried as “woke” by those who prefer to remain somnolent.

OregonLive.com is publishing an occasional series examining the racist past of The Oregonian. Sunday’s installment was about long-ago coverage of the Albina neighborhood, which for decades was redlined as the only place in Portland where Black people could purchase a home.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Albina became the center of the metro area’s Black population, developing a unique culture and independent business community. But before long, city, state and federal projects took a bulldozer to that community in the name of “progress.”

From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, the construction of Memorial Coliseum and Interstate 5 displaced hundreds of homes and businesses in Northeast Portland, primarily Black-owned. And in the early 1970s, dozens of city blocks were torn down for an expected expansion of Emanuel Hospital. The expansion never happened, but the homes and businesses and sense of community had been destroyed.

All of this has been well-documented. But OregonLive.com’s examination of how these events were reported seems to connect with current discussions about systemic racism. And a reconciliation with the nation’s past. And whether or not we are open to learning our history.

As OregonLive writes: “Block by block, government projects dismantled Albina, filling it with towering concrete pylons, thousands of polluting vehicles daily, acres of parking lots and the Trail Blazers’ eventual home. More than 1,000 houses were demolished; some were replaced by nothing more than lots that still sit empty.”

That stands in contrast to what the paper wrote decades ago, when it echoed officials’ assertions that the Albina area was “blighted” — a loaded term used by power brokers throughout the country to defend sweeping “urban renewal.” Translation: Black people live there, so we don’t have any qualms or expect any political pushback for destroying neighborhoods in the name of “progress.”

At one point, according to Sunday’s article, The Oregonian had speculated on possible causes for this “blight”: “Some blame community indifference, some blame a lack of individual initiative by Albina home dwellers, some see the blight as an inescapable consequence of low-income, uneducated families with little aspiration.”

Those aren’t dog whistles. They are racist tropes being blasted through a bullhorn.

Karen Gibson, now a professor emeritus at Portland State University, has a different explanation in “Portland Civil Rights,” a documentary produced by the Oregon Historical Society: “People are ghettoized into a particular space or place. And that means, we designate Albina as the place where African Americans live, we allow more vice activities to occur there; we don’t provide the same policing services, garbage services, education services, park maintenance services, housing maintenance. We neglect and disinvest in that area.”

This portrait of blight gave officials an excuse for paving over swaths of Albina (freeways, after all, were not built through Portland’s Laurelhurst area). And it was easily accepted by a readership that had been conditioned to believe it.

For example, a front-page Oregonian headline in September 1942 used the vernacular of the time and read, “New Negro Migrants Worry City.” The attached story labeled Albina a “colony” for Black people and quoted a police inspector talking of “numerous complaints of beat-ups, robberies and noisy parties.”

There’s more, of course. And Portland is not the only city with a complicated racial history.

But in reading the article, it is difficult not to think of families that were denied the generational wealth that comes with homeownership.

And it is difficult not to think of those who would prefer we don’t discuss or read about this facet of America’s past. All because they are fearful of being awoken to our history.