Reckoning with Racism Cohort Update: Black History Month

The St. Michael’s Reckoning with Racism cohort began our journey alongside several other Episcopal congregations in the Metro East Convocation including St. Philip the Deacon, the historically Black Episcopal congregation located in the Albina district at 120 NE Knott. Our collective work also started with and centered our parish “land stories,” researching them, writing them down, sharing them with our congregations, and even now, several years later, revisiting, questioning, and updating them.

We’ve learned that St. Philip’s was formed in 1911, basically at the same time as St. Michael’s. Their story is not ours to tell, but in our relationship-building with St. Philip’s over the last few years, we are beginning to understand how our own land story connects to and differs from other congregation’s experiences, including St. Philip’s.

We’ve also learned that, prior to 1900, the early Black community in Portland was concentrated near Union Station in inner Northwest. Between the early 1900s and the 1920s, because of redevelopment activities and rising property values in that area, Portland’s Black community was gradually displaced, forcibly relocated to and becoming concentrated primarily in Lower Albina, a collection of North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods including Eliot, Boise, King, Humboldt, and Overlook. In these neighborhoods, property was comparatively affordable, and a well-developed streetcar system connected residents to employment opportunities in the railroad and hospitality industries on the city’s inner west side.

St. Philip’s was initially located in inner Northwest Portland along with several other historically Black congregations. Following the larger pattern of Black relocation in Portland, the congregation moved to and settled in a former storefront at 242 NE Russell Street in 1919. The congregation later purchased a church building at 2660 NE Rodney Avenue from a white congregation sometime between 1924 and 1926. The St. Philip’s congregation then built a new church at 120 NE Knott in the 1940’s, which remains the congregation’s current location.

The concentration of Portland’s Black community into the Albina district and, more recently, the dispersal of and dislocation of the Black community to other parts of the city, is a function of systems producing the results that they were designed to produce.

Legal segregation in the early 1900s was a function of local land use and zoning laws, real estate practices, including racial covenants creating “whites only” neighborhoods, and banking and lending conventions. The federal government developed an assessment tool that came to be known as redlining in the 1930s in connection with the Great Depression and a potential foreclosure crisis. The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) assessed neighborhood desirability by assigning colors on a map (red, yellow, blue, and green). This categorization was, in part, determined by the average income and the racial or ethnic makeup of an area. Redlined neighborhoods or districts typically had comparatively high concentration of Black residents and other people of color. Approximately 12% of Portland’s total residential land area was “redlined” as of 1938. At this time, the Lower Albina neighborhood was described as Portland’s “Melting Pot” and the nearest approach to a “slum district” in the city. Three-quarters of the city’s Black population resided there, together with some 300 Asians and some 1,000 Southern European and Russian immigrants. 

After decades of discrimination and neglect, the Portland Development Commission commissioned and published a 1962 study finding that 80% of Portland’s Black population was living in a state of “advanced blight” in Albina. Most of the housing was substandard. The PDC recommended clearing the area to keep the blight from adversely affecting surrounding neighborhoods. Redlining and mortgage access continued to be used to maintain segregation, to control land use decisions, and to preserve the value of single-family homes in neighborhoods that were largely or exclusively white. This came at the expense of Portland’s Black communities and other communities of color.

Fast Forward to 1993 and Portland’s adoption of the Albina Community Plan. The city decided to address its prolonged disinvestment and disinterest in Albina by rezoning significant portions of its existing single family residential zones to higher-density zoning. The stated intent of this up-zoning was to boost economic development and investment in the district. However, by zoning major corridors along North Interstate, North Vancouver, and North Williams for high density, multi-family and mixed-use commercial/residential development, Portland set the stage for massive gentrification in Albina. From 1990 to 2016, over 4,000 households and more than 10,000 Black Portlanders were displaced from the Albina district.

Today, St. Philip’s is one of many aging Episcopal congregations with declining membership and attendance. Its diverse and still vital congregants have been reimagining their call and their place in Albina over the last several years. They have worked together with the Diocese to explore options to improve and stabilize their finances. They recently proposed to redevelop their property into a mix of affordable housing units and a new church building with related amenities to serve both the congregation and the surrounding neighborhood. However, these plans are now on hold over a misunderstanding or disagreement about the structure of the proposed development, which would involve selling the property to Habitat for Humanity.

As we continue to explore how we might best support and walk alongside the St. Philip’s community at this time, all are welcome to join with us in this work, whether you have time or availability to attend all our cohort meetings or not. Please reach out to Peter Sergienko with any questions or for more details (