Historic Black Williams Avenue Project

by E. Hill

North Williams and Russell, 1962

North Williams and Russell, 1962

It is now very well known that North Williams Avenue is changing significantly. And quickly. What many now living, working, and entertaining themselves in the area don’t know is that for the majority of the 20th century, N. Williams/Albina was Portland’s largest African American community.

Though forced into the area by government-supported discriminatory and race-based land ownership and financing regulations, the Black community of Portland went from a few thousand pre-1940 to more than 20,000+ in less than seven years. Those changes, the important history of surviving Jim Crow Oregon, establishing a strong community despite those significant barriers, and thriving against disinvestment and regional socio-economic limitations are now part of an effort driven by the Historic Black Williams Project. The ReBuilding Center’s previous Community Outreach Manager, Linda Hunter, started the work with them providing services and support for the project and Edward continued through the end of 2016 helping them establish their 501c3 status.

Historic Black Williams Project

This multimedia arts project is now culminating in the installation of colorful and historical sidewalk tiles along North Williams Avenue, once the vibrant heart of Portland’s Black community known as the “Black Broadway,” which served as the primary corridor for business and cultural activities for the Black community between 1940 and the early 1990s.

In 2011, a 26-member community-based Stakeholder Advisory Committee, in partnership with the Regional Arts and Culture Council, accepted the charge to address safety and traffic concerns on Williams between Broadway and Killingsworth and made recommendations to PBOT. The group agreed to make decisions with a contextual understanding of the safety issues on Williams Avenue while also acknowledging the damaging planning processes of the past and those who have been hurt or damaged by those planning processes, specifically focusing on the historically displaced Black community.

Black History of Williams Avenue

The Black Williams Project was a direct result of that work, and was moved forward to begin to reconcile the wrongs. To lead this effort, they chose a dynamic African-American couple to direct and design the project. Kayin Talton Davis and Cleo Davis, both native Portlanders, brought a combined background of architecture, industrial design, materials science, mechanical engineering, graphic design, fine art, and a deep connected love of the Black community of Northeast Portland. Kayin and Cleo are bringing this fading history into public view through this cultural and historical multimedia public art project. The art project is funded by PBOT and administered by the Regional Arts and Culture Council with a $100,000 grant from the $1.5-million-dollar Williams Safety Project—a street redesign project that was supposed to cost $370,000 dollars and ended up stretching past schedule to 18 months at a cost $1.4 million for street improvements.

As part of their process, they also sought and received assistance from the ReBuilding Center’s Community Outreach Program, under the leadership of now-retired Linda Hunter. The overall goal of the project was to gather and collect visual images and personal stories about the quickly evaporating history of Williams Avenue and the broader Black community of NE. “Many of the landmarks are no longer around and our friends’ families no longer live in the area,” says Cleo Davis. “We grew up with stories about the Maxey’s and the old crew on Gantenbein, going to Hank’s Dairy on Williams and Fremont, and attending Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church on Ivy and Rodney.” It is this history that will now being creatively integrated into public walkways and streetscapes along the Avenue.

The couple recently previewed their work at a May 20th Black community event held at the Billy Webb Elks Lodge. The Historic Black Williams Project is holding its first public viewing on Saturday, June 3rd as part of the Art Unveiling + Community Walk from 12:00 PM - 2:00 PM at Dawson Park located at N. Williams Ave. and N. Stanton St.

PBOT’s Public Involvement Coordinator and supporter Irene Schwoeffermann stated, “These events are a cultural and historical ‘homecoming’ for both longstanding and displaced community members.” To learn more about the project directly, contact PBOT at: historicblackwilliamsproject@portlandoregon.gov or by telephone at (503) 823-4239.

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