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Black Historic Places Matter

July 13, 2020

By: Kimberly Moreland, Oregon Black Pioneers, Oregon Heritage Commission

The recent approval of the National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation (MPD) of Portland’s African American Resources and the National Register nomination for Billy Webb Elk Lodge (Williams Avenue YWCA) marks a significant milestone towards more inclusive historic preservation efforts. Produced in partnership between the Bosco-Milligan Foundation: Architectural Heritage Center and the City of Portland’s Bureau of Sustainability, with assistance from the State Historic Preservation Office, the MPD represents a comprehensive architectural and cultural study of the African American community in Portland from 1851 to 1973. 

The late Cathy Galbraith, the founding director of the Bosco-Milligan: Architectural Heritage Center, in her seminal work, entitled the Cornerstone of Community: Buildings of Portland’s African American History, began an enormous effort of identifying African American historic buildings. Building on Galbraith’s work and others, the MPD serves as a National Register of Historic Places umbrella document that make it easier for individual property owners to list their property in the National Register.  

The MPD and National Register Nomination are preservation tools that provide an opportunity to connect Black history makers to the places where they lived, played, worshiped, and conducted business. In addition, preservation tools can provide a level of protection for Black historic properties that are experiencing deferred maintenance and/or threatened by real estate development pressures. Home Forward recently named their flagship affordable housing project after a Black woman named Louisa Matilda Thacker Flowers. As the new building was being constructed, her home built in 1885 and located at 1815 NE 1st in the Eliot Neighborhood was being deconstructed and demolished.

Born in Massachusetts, Louisa Matilda Thacker arrived in Portland in 1882 when she married Allen Ervin (A.E.) Flowers, a farmer and single father of Hattie Ann Flowers. Born in 1847 in Columbus Ohio, A.E. Flowers, arrived in Portland in 1865 as a cabin boy aboard the Brother Jonathon Ship. While docked in Portland, Allen jumps ship and began his life in Oregon. The Flowers were civic leaders and they had four sons (Lloyd, Elmer, Ralph and Ervin) and owned several homes in lower Albina, that was formerly part of the city of Albina, and what is now known as the Eliot Neighborhood.

Louisa Flowers was an active member of the Old Rose Club, an early Black women club.  Unprecedented for a Black woman at the time, Louisa is documented in the Morning Oregonian as purchasing land in 1901 and 1902. The couple owned acreage of farmland in Mount Scott in the Lents area and the farm became a gathering place for Portland’s small, black community.  In 1913, serving as president and secretary of the home ownership association, A.E Flowers, and E.D. Cannady, organized a lecture by Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute. Washington spoke to an audience of 500 people at the Gipsy Smith Auditorium, urging Black Portlanders to invest in farmland to take advantage of the influx of newcomers to Portland.

The Flowers’ remarkable legacy is just one example of the resiliency of Black history makers who thrived under the backdrop of Black exclusion laws that infamously adorned the Oregon constitution until 1926. Over years, due to many factors, many of the inventory of historic buildings that reveals the triumphs, struggles, culture, and religious and social life of Black Portlanders have disappeared. Black Historic Places Matter! Let us protect the remainder of Black historic places in Portland that quietly stand tall, waiting to cultivate a more restorative and inclusive understanding of Portland’s history.

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