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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: In thanks for Portland’s Black churches

Posted by | Catholic Charities Communications

In the history of Portland’s struggle for civil rights, the church communities of Black citizens wielded the Gospels powerfully and skillfully. They worked peacefully to provide a great promise, hope and future for their communities.

We who live here now owe a debt of gratitude to congregations like the one at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in North Portland. Without them, our city would be less just, less turned toward human dignity. Vancouver Avenue First Baptist has its roots in 1944 in a federal wartime housing project for ship builders in Vancouver, Washington. In April 1945, Rev. O.B. Williams was ordained as minister of the congregation. He served the church from 1945 until his death in 1993, overseeing its name changes and early moves until it found a home on Portland’s Vancouver Avenue in the Albina District.

The vibrant neighborhood boasted families, businesses and the arts. The church was a community hub that developed support groups and social service programs to meet the needs of the growing neighborhood.

In 1951, the congregation purchased a massive unused church nearby. The new building’s big shoulders were a sign of the church’s role in the community. With the largest congregation at a Black church in the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist played an outsized role in the 1950s and 1960s as Black Portlanders began to take on unfair housing and hiring.

One of the reasons the community was concentrated in Albina is that notorious redlining practices prevented Black families from buying homes in other parts of the city.

In addition to promoting civil rights, the church championed education, fair housing practices, community healthcare, social welfare, voter registration and employment opportunities. It supported and hosted public rallies and town hall meetings and was a meeting space and collaborator with organizations such as the Urban League of Portland.

Rev. O.B. Williams and his congregation pose at his 30-year anniversary party, 1975.

The church’s people took a strong position on civil rights and invited national leaders to speak. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon at the church in 1961; John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, spoke there in 1963; and Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, spoke in 1964.

More than 1,500 people, including state officials, attended the memorial for Rev. King at the church in 1968.

The church continues to be a significant place for worship, community gatherings, and social activism. It maintains a scholarship fund for North Portland students.

Churches like Vancouver Avenue First Baptist eventually formed groups to achieve great things.

The Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church choir poses in the 1950s.

(Photos courtesy Oregon Historical Society)

In the 1980s, the Portland Organizing Project addressed derelict properties which had become home to dangerous activities in some parts of North and Northeast Portland. With Black Catholics from churches like Immaculate Heart and St. Andrew joining in, the P.O.P. would go on to address high housing costs and low wage levels, the gruesome vice that has so long trapped Oregon families.

Persistent yet always rife with dignity, powerful and nonviolent, the people stand as a model of how to achieve real, lasting social change.

Obviously, this work of the Black churches is not complete. We at Catholic Charities have similar goals when it comes to housing and helping people earn enough for a dignified way of life. We are grateful that the Black churches paved the way and we are dedicated to following their example. Together we can accomplish great things.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., visits Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in Portland in 1961.