One man’s quest for an African American historic district‘The most racist city’ From The Sentinel Nov 2007 By Laura Paris
Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
Will Bennett with at the Golden West Hotel, the inspiration for his website, African-American-Historical-District.Com
‘The most racist city’
Ask Will Bennett about his website, and he’ll tell you a story.
It begins in 1989, when a group called the Friends of the Golden West set about to build a “comprehensive cultural resource inventory of African American contributions to the Pacific Northwest society.” The first step of the journey was to get a historic building in Chinatown renamed from the Broadmoor to its original name, the Golden West Hotel.
The building, on the corner of Broadway and Northwest Everett, is now a shelter for homeless people with mental illness. But when it was built in 1906, it was the only hotel in Portland where black railroad workers were allowed to stay.
The next step on the group’s agenda was to get the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places and make it a more prominent historic symbol. Finally, the group sought to identify a historically important location in which to open an African American history museum and to define districts that were historically significant to the black community.
The group successfully changed the building’s name. To this day, the Golden West is not yet nationally recognized as a historic site.
Bennett, who describes himself as a “community practitioner and amateur historian,” wants to change this, beginning where the group left off at the Golden West and eventually establishing more formal places dedicated to teaching local black history, like a museum, landmarks and official historical districts.
He’s taken some first steps — connecting with local black studies professors and historians and reaching out to Portland Public Schools. Slowly, the interest is building. He recently presented “Local Color,” a documentary that chronicles Portland’s history of racism, to a group of Portland social studies teachers at Franklin High School’s Professional Development Day, in an effort to help bring more local African American history into the curriculum.
“Portland Public Schools needs to integrate more Pacific Northwest culture. To teach African American history, you need to teach Portland African American history,” says Bennett. “Portland was [known in the black community as] the most racist city this side of the Mississippi.
As for the historical district, Bennett says that for now, at least, it’s virtual. “My site — that’s the district for right now,” he explains. He envisions a future district around Union Station, which he argues was the first African American community in the city, as well as along North Vancouver and Williams.
Bennett hopes the move toward establishing a district and historic landmarks will happen organically. “I don’t want to come to no decisions,” he says. “I want all the neighborhood involvement. The community needs to make the decisions.
”PPS Curriculum Adoption: Oregon’s Racist Acts http://tinyurl.com/ygpcamy
EXTRA – Visit the Golden West Hotel/Building