You don’t have to do more than scratch the surface of Pacific Northwest history to see how unwelcoming the area has been for African Americans. Oregon’s constitution, enacted on this date (February 14) in 1859, made it illegal for Blacks to even stay overnight in the state. As late as 1941, Portland–the only Oregon city with more than a handful of African Americans–had fewer than 2,000 in a population of 300,000.
And Seattle wasn’t much better. Despite being desperate for workers at the start of World War II, Boeing refused to hire even highly skilled African Americans. And most of the neighborhoods in Seattle’s north end (where I grew up) were formed with covenants forbidding house sales to people of color.
The Northwest’s midsize cities, smaller towns, and rural areas were no better. Even now, it’s rare to see a Black face anywhere outside the larger cities. According to the Census Bureau, in 2020 Washington State was only 4% Black, Oregon 2%, and Idaho 1%.
Given this history, it will come as no shock to hear that the area’s white-owned newspapers generally ignored its Black residents. The dearth of stories about people who looked like her became so painful to Portland resident Kathryn Hall Boyle (1906-2003) that in 1937 she arranged for a meeting with the Oregonian‘s city editor to show him the pitiful number of Black-oriented articles she’d found in his paper. His response was to ask her to write something herself.
And so she did. Eighty-five years ago today, her 2,000-word article, “An American Negro Speaks of Color,” became the first piece published by a major Northwest newspaper to describe what it was like to live as an African American in the region.
While Bogle’s article may have been a watershed moment for the area’s white press, it was far from the first piece to be written about African American life in the Northwest. The region has been home to Black-owned and Black-focused newspapers since at least the 1890s.
Washington’s first successful Black newspaper was the weekly Seattle Republican, one of seven Black newspapers to begin publishing in Seattle between 1891 and 1901. You can read several editions of this important paper here. Despite the Oregon constitution’s ban on African Americans, Portland entered the field in 1896 when a young man named Adolphus D. Griffin started publishing the short-lived but important weekly New Age.
One of the region’s most successful early Black papers was the Northwest Enterprise, published from 1920 through 1952. Although centered in Seattle, the Enterprise had a Portland bureau where several women from the Bogle family served as editors. In fact, the Enterprise was an early leader in hiring women as writers and editors. You’ll find facsimiles of several issues of the paper here.
Today, you’ll find Northwest news for and about the African American community in several newspapers, including:
The Skanner (Seattle and Portland)
For a full list of historical Black-owned newspapers, go to these Wikipedia pages:
And for a fascinating look at many issues of Portland’s older African American newspapers, visit the Portland State University library’s Historic Black Newspapers of Oregon site, where you can browse and download editions from the Rutherford Family Collection.