CORNERSTONES and SUBSEQUENT EDUCATIONAL AND COMMUNITY PROGRAMS
African American Resources in Portland
In summer 2020, the AHC, along with many other organizations across the country, issued a racial equity statement. As we noted, we are in a unique position to draw from our perspectives on history, culture, and architecture to try to understand our contemporary context better and to find ways to create more just and equitable communities in Portland.
For decades, the AHC has promoted inclusive approaches to the built environment, be it exploring the diverse communities that made up our city’s historic fabric to being an active voice for sound future development that is equitable and affordable. In particular, the AHC has been a leader in learning about the architecture and culture of Portland’s African American community. One of our signature programs has been Cornerstones.
Cornerstones origins Produced in the 1990s, a project called Cornerstones identified about 1,300 buildings of significance in Portland’s African American community to recognize their history and encourage their preservation. To inventory this vernacular architecture as Cornerstones did at the time was groundbreaking because it showed that these properties were worth counting.
This project started in February 1994 when the AHC sponsored a seminar and walking tour at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church to celebrate Black History Month. At that time, it was recognized that we had barely scratched the surface in identifying and documenting the buildings associated with African American individuals, institutions, and events throughout Portland’s history. We made a commitment to continue that effort, based on community interest and a collective desire to attempt to fill in important “missing chapters” in Portland and African American history.
Cornerstones was published in 1995 and identified 325 standing buildings. Broad community interest and participation led to a revised and expanded publication in 1997 that included 1,284 existing buildings.
Cornerstones was led by Cathy Galbraith, AHC staff and board, and African American historians in both the community and local universities. Nearly 3,000 volunteer hours by all of the participants were dedicated to the project.
African American Resources in Portland Our most recently completed project, African American Resources in Portland, is yet another important step to shifting the paradigm for how we acknowledge diverse aspects of our built environment. This comprehensive study spans various types of sites related to Portland’s black history to create a basis for their individual listing in the National Register in the future. It is based heavily on the research and documentation that was unearthed in Cornerstones and explores different topics, such as businesses, journalism, entertainment, or civil rights, and examines black-owned and black-occupied buildings with cultural—more so than architectural—value. The emphasis on culture is critical because it opens the door to more inclusive recognition of sites that would otherwise be excluded because they aren’t always architecturally significant.
In July 2020, the National Park Service recognized the African American Resources in Portland project with listing in the National Register of Historic Places, a step that will lead to greater protection of buildings that are part of Portland’s African American community.
The work achieved in Cornerstones and African American Resources in Portland serves as the basis for significant ongoing educational and community programming. In 2021, an exhibition by artist Intisar Abioto entitled Black Exterior, Black Interior will present photographic work based on both projects, this time through the next generation’s eyes.