On July 1, the National Park Service (NPS) announced formal recognition of the historic significance of Portland’s African American experience through a pair of new listings on the National Register of Historic Places.
The first listing — African American Resources in Portland, Oregon, from 1851 to 1973 — is a 191-page umbrella Multiple Property Document (MPD) that elevates the eligibility of historic sites associated with Portland’s Black history for listing in the National Register.
The second listing — Billy Webb Elks Lodge — specifically recognizes the importance of the 1926 Williams Avenue YWCA building and serves as a proof-of-concept for the framework established by the umbrella MPD. Both were officially recorded in the National Register on July 1, 2020:
The designations follow three years of coordinated research, documentation and writing by City staff, community members and cultural resource experts to recognize — not just the physical artifacts of Black history in Portland — but the cultural associations that make them important. Particularly for Portland’s Black population, which has endured displacement several times over, the significance of longstanding businesses, churches, fraternal organizations, and other cultural and community touchstones cannot be underestimated.
Stephanie Whitlock, executive director of the Architectural Heritage Center and contributor to the MPD effort said, “Many African American properties that could have been candidates for National Register listing have already been demolished. Even more important buildings and other resources risk disappearance from the landscape and from our memory, unless we take steps right away to identify, designate, and protect them.”
Significance of listing in the National Register of Historic Places
The Billy Webb Elks Lodge on N Tillamook Street is one such place, and marks the first listing to occur under the umbrella MPD. "The NPS announcement is great news for us at Oregon Black Pioneers and for advocates of African American historic preservation everywhere,” said Oregon Black Pioneers Executive Director Zachary Stocks. “We are thrilled that the eligibility criteria established by the new African American Historic Resources of Portland MPD has already paved the way for the individual designation of the Billy Webb Elks Lodge. We look forward to seeing more properties with African American historical significance listed on the National Register."
In addition to recognizing the importance of historic buildings and districts, listing in the National Register provides demolition protections and eligibility for financial incentives, such as grants and tax benefits. Since its establishment in 1966, more than 700 Portland places have been listed in the National Register, ranging from iconic landmarks like the Bagdad Theater to unique areas like the Skidmore/Old Town District. Prior to the National Park Service’s announcement this week, only three of Portland’s 700 National Register sites had been designated for their association with African American history.
Multiple Property Document (MPD) elevates cultural significance – not just architectural significance – in determining eligibility of Black historic sites for historic designation
The now-approved MPD establishes a framework under which properties significantly associated with the Black experience in Portland from 1851 to 1973 can be listed in the National Register based on their cultural — rather than architectural — significance. The MPD document details seven thematic areas of history, including business, journalism, religion, and civil rights, under which historically Black-owned and Black-occupied buildings can be considered for listing in the National Register.
Additionally, the MPD details how the African American community’s historical exclusion from white-dominant systems of real estate, financing, construction, and employment resulted in alterations to buildings that — without the MPD framework — would render many of Portland’s culturally important structures ineligible for listing in the National Register.
“This is another step toward equity,” said Historic Landmarks Commissioner Derek Spears. According to Spears, non-architectural designations “… uncover the systemic challenges pertaining to historic preservation of minority cultures and communities. We need to continue to identify and remove barriers, allowing all communities equal access to protect their presence as we continue to strive for justice."
Process to secure National Park Service recognition
The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability initiated the MPD project in 2017 following directives in the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) People’s Plan, which called on the City of Portland to “recognize cultural significance as a necessary component of assessing historic preservation targets.”
In addition to building on the previous scholarship of African American historians and the venerated 1998 report Cornerstones of Community, the expansive research, documentation, and writing included in the MPD was made possible by the dedicated efforts of historians Kimberly Moreland, Cathy Galbraith, Raymond Burell III, Kerrie Franey, Matthew Davis, Caitlyn Ewers, and many others.
The effort to recognize and honor Portland’s African American historic sites garnered Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s attention. As co-chair of the Congressional Historic Preservation Caucus and advocate for designation of under-represented historic resources, he noted that, “Historic preservation is about honoring and protecting the places that hold significant importance in shaping a community, and recognizing the powerful tie between history and what we experience today. This milestone will highlight Black voices and experiences in Portland, but it is only one small step in our community’s work to be explicitly anti-racist in every facet of policymaking.”
Billy Webb Elks Lodge designation
The individual listing of the Billy Webb Elks Lodge stemmed from a request received from Lodge members during the development of the MPD. The Billy Webb Elks Lodge designation celebrates not only the history of one of Portland’s most important Black fraternal institutions, but also a building that previously served as a “Colored” YWCA, African American USO center, and Portland branch headquarters of the NAACP. Built in 1926 at 6 N Tillamook Street when Portland’s Black population was just over 2,000, the Elks Lodge remains owned, operated, and occupied by the African American fraternal society to this day.
Said Lodge Exalted Ruler Louis McLemore, “The awarding of this historical designation will mean a lot to the Billy Webb Elks Lodge membership for their hard work and efforts to keep the past in mind while looking toward the future of this community and the Lodge.”
The Lodge intends to leverage their recent listing in the National Register of Historic Places to secure additional funding for physical improvements to the building and relief from lost rental income due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"It’s great to see the National Park Service approve the long-deserved historic designation of the iconic Billy Webb Elks Lodge,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said of the decision to list the Lodge in the National Register. “The honoring of Black history by our public institutions is long overdue.”
In conjunction with the National Park Service decision, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability received a grant from the State Historic Preservation Office to nominate an additional property or properties associated with Black history to the National Register during the 2020-21 fiscal year.