Preserving a part of Black history with Oregon Black Pioneers

In 2018, Oregon Black Pioneers, a unique historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting Black history in Oregon, received a collection of historic photographs from the owners of a house in Portland’s Albina neighborhood. Two fragile photo albums, which the homeowners had discovered stored under a stairwell, contained pictures dating primarily from the 1940s-1960s of a Black family who lived in Vanport, Oregon, and later in Northeast Portland.

A sample album page, with studio portraits and outdoor snapshots. The image on the lower right shows Vanport buildings in the background.

Oregon Black Pioneers recognized the photos as an important document of Black life–not only in the historically Black neighborhood of Albina in Portland, but in the World War II-era city of Vanport, and as part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South in the early 20th century. With PSU Black Studies, PSU Library Special Collections, and the Oregon Historical Society, OBP envisioned a Black Studies course combining historical research with the digitization of the photograph collection.

Creating a historic Black archive in Special Collections

In Winter 2023, four students, Jeff Donaldson-Forbes, Kay Johnson, Alana Krubl, and Hailey Machlan, joined Professor Walidah Imarisha’s course to fulfill the project. The students worked with PSU Library Special Collections to organize, describe, and digitize the photos, while researching the historical context of the collection and composing reflections on their work that will appear in the summer 2023 Oregon Historical Quarterly.

Preparing the photos and albums for digitization in Special Collections.

The Oregon Black Pioneers Historic Photograph Collection is now a publicly available resource in PSU Library’s digital repository, PDXScholar.

Fragments from a Portland family history

Digitizing a photo album using a large-format book scanner.

As the students worked with the images and pursued their research, they made connections between people and places shown in the photos, discovered family relationships between some individuals, and identified some locations.

Handwritten inscriptions in the albums suggest that they belonged to McAlma Lucille Thomas McKnight Hastings, and that some of the people in the photographs are members of her extended family. She was born in 1912 in Arkansas and died in 1987 in Portland. Voting and housing records show that she lived in Vanport in 1945 and, after 1958, in the Albina house where the albums were found.

Since very little is known about the subjects of these photographs, Oregon Black Pioneers appreciates and welcomes information from the public which could help identify them. Please contact OBP or PSU Special Collections with any information or inquiries.

At the conclusion of the term, the students spoke on their experiences in the course and on their research at a public presentation, “Creating a Historic Black Archive,” presented by PSU Black Studies’ Black Bag Speaker Series and introduced by Professor Imarisha and Oregon Black Pioneers’ executive director Zachary Stocks. Watch for their upcoming feature in the summer 2023 issue of OHQ!


Oregon Black Pioneers Historic Photograph Collection

Oregon Black Pioneers

Black Studies at Portland State University