Historic churches are spread throughout North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods, but Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church is a significant building in a new program.
The church, at 3138 N. Vancouver Ave., will be part of a Multiple Property Documentation (MPD) aimed at preserving significant African American historic resources. An MPD, an umbrella document of the National Register of Historic Places, records groupings of historic resources that fit into a category, such as building type or ethnic/cultural group.
The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is working with the nonprofit Architectural Heritage Center to document sites important to Portland’s African American heritage. By having properties listed in the document, owners will have some steps already completed and, if they choose, they could move more quickly to place a site on the National Register.
The documentation builds off the heritage center’s 1995 Cornerstones of Community project, a citywide survey of African American historic resources, according to a news release from the city bureau.
Cathy Galbraith, now retired as the founding executive director of the heritage center, is leading the MPD project.
“Formal documentation and protection through National Register listing of our city’s African American heritage is long overdue,” she said in a news release. “Without proactive efforts by the city and the community, Portland risks losing a significant part of its cultural heritage.”
Galbraith coordinated a team that completed a 225-page publication, Cornerstones of Community: The Buildings of Portland’s African American History in 1998. It identifies more than 1,280 significant buildings plus the social movements and individual histories behind the structures.
The publication has provided data for the Multiple Property Documentation, which the city is working to complete, said Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the historic resources manager.
The Oregon State Historic Preservation Office has been reviewing the city’s first draft of documentation, Spencer-Hartle said. He expects the MPD to be ready for property owners to use next year if they are interested in a National Register listing.
The National Register, its literature says, “is the nation’s official list of buildings, structures, districts, sites and objects significant in American history, architecture, archaeology and culture, and is maintained by the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.”
While some property owners may consider a national listing, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church is already there. It was listed in 2016 for its role in the city’s social history.
According to the nomination form, “The church itself was all important in motivating people of color during the local civil rights movement by actively engaging a populace individually and collectively by confronting the prevailing political powers within the city, the state and throughout the region … It was also a spiritual refuge for the countless men and women who devoted their lives to the cause of change.”
In addition to the church, the Rutherford house, at Northeast Ninth Avenue and Shaver Street, was the site of civil rights organizing in the mid-20th century. It was listed in the National Register in 2015.
Otto and Verdell Burdine Rutherford moved into the house, originally owned by Otto Rutherford’s parents, after they married in 1936. For many years, he was president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and she was secretary. They started the NAACP Credit Union in their dining room, at a time when African Americans often faced obstacles getting banking services.
Their civil rights work was rewarded in 1953 when Oregon’s Public Accommodations Act was passed under the sponsorship of Rep. Mark Hatfield, who later was governor and a U.S. senator.
Another church important to local history is the old Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, built in 1923 at Northeast First Avenue and Schuyler Street (the congregation moved to a larger building on North Chautauqua Boulevard in 1994). Marcus Garvey, leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and its Back to Africa movement, spoke there in 1924.
The organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, spoke there several times. Some national white political leaders considered him the most dangerous African American man in the country in the 1920s because, before the interstate highway system and air travel, railroads were vital for commerce. Randolph was in a position to disrupt that, the Cornerstone publication noted.
Mt. Olivet isn’t on the National Register, but it is considered a “significant resource” that could be listed if its owners wish to complete an application for state and federal approval, said Spencer-Hartle.