FIGHTING RACISM. Local Color, a documentary on African America’s unsettled social and legal status in Oregon, airs February 14 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting)
From The Asian Reporter, V19, #6 (February 10, 2009), page 11 & 13.
Suppressing local color
Directed by Jon Tuttle
Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting, 1991
Airing February 14 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus
By Ronault L.S. Catalani
We should’ve been doing this 15 or 20 years ago,” says an aging icon of Oregon civil-rights history, Otto Rutherford, standing on camera in afternoon traffic noise near the southwest shore of Portland’s Broadway Bridge “… ‘cause all of those who really could contribute, they’re dead now. And I’m damn near dead, so when I’m gone I don’t know who you’re gonna do, who you’re going to talk to.” Mr. Rutherford was 80 in that opening scene of Local Color, a recently re-released documentary about Oregon race relations.
The esteemed state elder, whether known or revered or not among Oregon’s current mainstream, goes on to say how much Oregon has changed for local black families, whether or not younger generations of African Americans understand and use their local history. Things now are not how they used to be, Mr. Rutherford explains, taking off his worn glasses. Wiping his tired eyes.
It is precisely this missing perspective, it is in fact Mr. Rutherford’s missing story, as much as it is Oregon’s ugly race history, that constitutes our state’s awful human tragedy. Our tragedy. We are not told the awful truth. We cannot build historical perspective.
Ironically, it has taken almost 20 years to free Jon Tuttle’s film Local Color from legal disputes over image copyrights — nearly two blind decades have passed before the documentary was cleared for public distribution. Mr. Tuttle passed away shortly after his film’s completion in 1991. Otto Rutherford perished on August 21, 2000.
The truth, known or not, is not pretty. Oregon’s settlement history has been cruel to people of color. Indeed, as Mr. Tuttle and Mr. Rutherford together with several extraordinary local leaders who will one day stand as iconic elders of state history try to make plain in Local Color: Oregon’s institution foundations intended to keep public services and private property from nonwhite residents. Our state’s original Constitution barred free negroes and mulattos (mixed bloods). City ordinances allowed businesses to ban “Coloreds, Filipinos, and Orientals.”
U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield recalls in the documentary how he and classmates at Salem’s Willamette University took Paul Robeson to dinner, but then had to drive the world-renowned professional athlete, Shakespearean actor, gospel singer, labor activist, and civil-rights lawyer an hour up the road to a Portland hotel. Mr. Robeson was black.
The truth was: outside then-thriving N.W. Broadway’s African-American community, Portland theaters, skating rinks, and swimming pools were strictly segregated. The young Otto Rutherford “grew up on Chinese food, as far as restaurants were concerned,” adding that “Greeks down on Second Avenue … would cater (ice cream) to you.”
It wasn’t until rookie state representative Mark O. Hatfield teamed with already seasoned civil-rights advocate Otto Rutherford during the 1953 Oregon State Legislature to make racial discrimination illegal in public accommodations. A community effort 17 previous legislative assemblies failed to pass.
Local Color rolls out a tight, bitter, and well-documented urban history — from Broadway’s energetic African-American core’s sudden collapse during the Great Depression to the black community’s cynical reconstruction near North Portland’s wartime shipyards; then, that revived community’s sudden disappearance under Columbia River’s 1948 flood of the Vanport lowlands; to the 1950s funnelling of displaced African-American families into northeast Portland’s Albina District, at a time when now-hip Albina was deemed least desirable by Portland planners and real-estate and mortgage brokers.
Director Jon Tuttle lets the story get told in the words of living history, by many local treasures who have now, by the time of Local Color’s DVD release, passed on.
It would have meant so much to Mr. Otto Rutherford to have those of us following his stubbornly courageous generation to finally understand, in true historical perspective, what Mr. Rutherford solemnly asserts in Local Color’s closing moments: “That we have made progress … here in this little 2×4 town, we have made a great deal of progress. Yeah.”
Said U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield, at Otto Rutherford’s passing eight years ago: “He was gentle as a dove for peace, fierce as a warrior for justice.”
Local Color airs on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus on February 14 at 3:00am. The documentary is also available at the OPB online store. Visit <www.opb.org> and click “shop” to learn more.