In the 40’s and 50’s, Williams Avenue anchored the Mecca of Portland’s thriving African American community. In this installment of Oregon Black Pioneers ongoing community dialogues, first hand accounts of panelists Ben Johnson, Paul Knauls, Bill Rutherford, Jim Thompson and moderator Michael Gricewill focus on “The Avenue’ during the 40’s and 50’s. The presenter’s will offer a historical perspective on the area, music and the community as a whole on Monday, March 30th during History Pub at McMenamin’s Kennedy School.
Redlining made Albina the black cultural center of Oregon in the late 1940s and 1950s, with North Williams as its beating heart. The corridor was lined with small black-owned businesses: groceries, bakeries, record shops, churches, pool halls, bars, and jazz clubs.
The corridor, anchored by Slaughters Pool Hall, hosted the era’s musical legends.
Musicians (and most of the rest of the area) stopped into Slaughters after a night of music to unwind. ‘Growing up in the pool hall’ Ben Johnson met many of the big names who stopped at Slaughters for R&R after the shows. It was the ‘only place in town’ to unwind and many of the hottest band members of the era frequented the pool hall including Coleman Hawkins, Al McKibbon, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum,Lionel Hampton, Roy Eldridge and many others, according to Johnson.
The district had two tiny hotels available so musicians arriving to play in the local clubs benefited from the community’s generosity. Folks in the neighborhood opened their homes to the legendary musicians who arrived in town to play their gigs. Plenty of things were rationed during the war effort but generosity wasn’t in short supply.
Options for the African American community to get a little R & R were few in those days says Bill Rutherford. Along with segregated dates for the roller rink, Jantzen Beach was closed to residents of “The Avenue”. But kids could attend the Friday night dance at the Knott Street Community Center with less than a dime in their pocket. Dances featured the latest big bop, bebop, swing and jazz records. The flow of legendary musicians throughout the area fueled Rutherford’s passion for the piano. Listening to his stories a person might just catch juke joint fever.
Jim Thompson’s family moved to the area when his dad took a job with at the shipyard and their standard of living flourished. In 1950 bought a home and were active in their community. The roots of the community run deep: Thompson’s activism led him to work volunteering for the Urban League and the early Model Cities projects. Back in the 40’s and 50’s more than 30 African American business flourished near the Williams Corridor.
The rapid change of the area of today compares in many ways to the growth of the businesses and the community surrounding those few square blocks back in the 40’s and 50’s. It’s a different kind of migration now, with an entirely new focus. In those day folks prospered from being tight knit and supporting one another. Thompson has watched the community scatter over the years. In a large part it’s one of the reasons he gives for being part of the panel for Monday’s community dialogue. Giving people a glimpse of the history can deepen young folk’s appreciation for the community and an area that brought up generations of community minded citizens.
“ A Community on the Move- Night Life, Clubs, Restaurants & the Music” continues Oregon Black Pioneer’s mission highlighting the African American experience in Oregon. Visit our exhibit A Community on the Move at the Oregon Historical Society through June 28, 2015. Our calendar page has more events listed.
Sponsors of History Pub and the community dialogue were Race Talks, Holy Names Heritage Center and Oregon Black Pioneers . March 30, 2015 from 7-9 pm at McMenamins Kennedy School, 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave.
Portland OR 97211.