Reckoning, and walking, with Portland’s past

In the 1960s Kent Ford helped found the city's Black Panther Party. Now he leads walking tours of the Albina District, linking past and future.

“I can’t tell you where we are going,” Mr. Kent Ford proclaimed while walking down the streets of North Portland’s Albina District followed by an attentive tour group, “but I can tell you where we’ve been.” 

Mr. Ford, 77, moved into Portland’s Albina District in 1961, when it was the heart of Portland’s Black community. In the ’60s he was a founder of the city’s Black Panther Party. Now he serves as a link between Black Portland’s past, present, and future, keeping alive what’s happened and teaching new generations through his walking tours.

We don’t always get the chance to engage history in the more intimate sense. More often than not we go about acknowledging history’s constant knocking on our front doors by sitting in a classroom or reading books and news stories. 

Mr. Kent Ford, bringing the history home. Photo: Brandon Chadney

Sometimes, though, we are lucky enough to experience history in the more intimate way— to not just acknowledge it, but also to open our doors and invite it into our home. When we invite history in, often by visiting hallowed grounds or listening to someone share stories about surviving a historic time, we invite an emotional connection with the past, not just an intellectual one. 

Luckily for Portlanders, since 2005 Mr. Ford has been giving community members the opportunity to open their doors to their city’s history of activism in his “Power to the People Tour” of North Portland’s Albina District. 

When Mr. Ford first started giving the walking tour he was doing it on his own, and working primarily with groups from local colleges as a way of teaching the next generation about the city’s history. In the last three years he’s received assistance in organizing and promoting the tour by the Portland memory activism organization Vanport Mosaic, which helps expand the tour to the public and also put on private tours for organizations. 

Vanport Mosaic has also helped to keep the tours going during the pandemic by implementing added safety measures, including limiting the tour group size and requiring face masks. 

So when given the chance to attend Mr. Ford’s “Power to the People Tour” in August, I brushed up on local history, donned my face mask, and headed to the Albina neighborhood.

Since Mr. Ford focuses primarily on his experience in Portland during the 1970s, I thought some background on Portland’s Albina District would be helpful to better understand why the area became the logical headquarters of Portland’s Black Panthers chapter.

The demographics of Albina have changed greatly due to gentrification. But in the 1960s, four out of every five African Americans living in Portland lived in the Albina neighborhood. Although African Americans began slowly moving to the Albina area after 1910, the real boom began in the 1940s after Vanport – Oregon’s second largest city in its World War II era heyday, and located in what is now the Portland International Raceway and adjacent areas – was inundated by waters from the Columbia River and destroyed after a railroad dike broke in 1948.  

At the time, the city of Vanport was home to most of the state’s African American population, most of whom were either working at the Kaiser shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., or part of the shipworkers’ families. With the city of Vanport razed, displaced Black families moved into Portland, causing the number of African Americans living in the Albina District to increase dramatically. 

Following the flood, Albina became the heart of Portland’s Black community, known for its thriving jazz clubs, boxing rings, and a host of black-owned restaurants and businesses.

Tensions between police and Portland’s Black community are nothing new. In this 1967 photo, three police officers chase a man during what was called the Irving Park Riot, an event that had begun as a peaceful rally by Black activists. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

Mr. Ford moved to Albina in 1961 as a young man, becoming involved with the area’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization led by students, as well as the peace movement, taking a strong stance against the Vietnam War. Believing in the use of self-defense in the face of violence, Mr. Ford found himself aligning with Black Panther Party values and eventually went on to become a founder of the BPP’s Portland chapter in 1968.

“We organized from down here,” Mr. Ford said, bending his knees and bringing his hands low to the ground to highlight the Panthers’ humble beginnings. People passing by in cars gave sideways glances, perhaps wondering what, in what appears to be just a hospital campus, all the gesturing was about. 

The Black Panthers frequently get written off in history as a fringe, radical political organization standing contrary to MLK Jr.-style nonviolent protests. What is often overlooked or forgotten is the Party’s progressive community and social programs that served tens of thousands of people living in underserved communities across the nation. 

On the two-hour tour, Mr. Ford brought participants to the locations where much of the Party’s grassroots planning and coordination efforts once took place. Meeting at the Matt Dishman Community Center, Mr. Ford – sporting a black shirt and the iconic Black Panther beret – led the tour on foot down Northeast Russell Street, pointing out where the Panthers’ medical and dental clinic used to be. 

Next, the group hopped in their cars or on their bikes for a two-minute ride over to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to see the BPP’s former resistance offices, one of which is now a newly renovated apartment building. In the past young men who didn’t want to fight in the Vietnam War could clandestinely enter the building and get cash and a bus ticket to Canada to wait out the war. 

After that, the group took to their cars and bikes once again to complete the tour with a visit to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, where unassuming classrooms on Northeast Sixth Avenue turned out to be the weekly meeting spot where roughly 40-50 party members would come every Wednesday evening to discuss their required readings.

One of the Portland Panther chapter’s crowning achievements, I realized, was its ability to effectively materialize visions of community-based social services into reality. With his fellow Black Panthers and with aid from community allies, in 1969 Mr. Ford helped to open a health clinic on the corner of North Vancouver Avenue and North Russell Street.

“We were serving the people from the grass roots.” Mr. Ford emphasized. “The doctors came from all walks of life.” 

The clinic, called Fred Hampton People’s Free Health Clinic, in its heyday was fully staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses donating their time to give free health care services to Portland’s underserved community members. It wasn’t long before the clinic gained recognition throughout the city. 

A historical marker at sidewalk level on North Williams Avenue and Russell Street. The tiles note the Black Panthers’ influence in the area, including the Party’s free health clinics. One tile is devoted to Mr. Kent Ford. Photo: Brandon Chadney

Leading the tour further down the street, Mr. Ford recalled, “After we started the health clinic, a lot of dentists came forward and said, ‘We’d like to chip in and do something, too.’” 

With the help of several dentists and dental assistants willing to volunteer their time to provide free services, in 1970 – only six months after opening the health clinic – the Panthers opened the Malcom X People’s Free Dental Clinic on North Williams Avenue. 

If providing free health and dental care from the ground up wasn’t impressive enough, the BBP also began a free breakfast program for school children.

“We were coming in with weapons of mass destruction—bacon, eggs, toast,” Mr. Ford joked as the group rounded Northeast Going Street and Northeast Ninth Avenue to Highland United Church of Christ, where the breakfast program used to be held. 

Just as with the health and dental clinics, the BPP relied on community allies in order to get their program off the ground. At its peak, Portland’s Black Panther breakfast program fed around 100 of Portland’s youth. Nationally, Panther breakfast programs fed around 10,000. 

Despite the progressive social programs the Black Panther Party provided the City of Portland, the federal government still viewed the Party as a threat for its stance against the war and communist leanings. 

“It’s hard to see how history plays out,” said Mr. Ford. “I never planned from the beginning to be doing these walking tours because I never expected to live long enough to tell about it.” 

He had his reasons to worry. At the time, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program sought to disrupt and surveil activist groups like the Black Panther Party and was active in Portland during the ’70s.

Throughout the tour Mr. Ford talked of the “three letter people” (referring to members of the CIA and FBI), sharing stories of sabotage orchestrated by the “three letter people” and his own personal encounters with them, including having his house raided by the FBI. 

By the 1980s, a combination of conservative policies being pushed by the newly elected President Ronald Reagan, orchestrated sabotage by the FBI, and BPP’s own issues with leadership spelled the end of the Black Panther Party. 

At the local level, Albina’s Black community was gradually breaking down due to an expansion project started by Emanuel Hospital (now Legacy Emanuel Medical Center) in the 1970s that facilitated the displacement of Black-owned homes and businesses to build new hospital buildings. 

Protesters march outside Emanuel Hospital in 1971, demanding jobs for the community and keeping a health clinic open. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

Even with the Black Panther Party disbanding in the ’80s, Mr. Ford remained an activist fighting for justice, educating others, and organizing community events. Today, at age 77, he is participating in Black Lives Matter protests. 

For Mr. Ford, the demands of protesters being made today are not new. What the Black Panther Party demanded in its Ten-Point Program back in 1966, have a startling similarity to the demands being made today by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Point Seven reading quite poignantly: “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.”

“If we had dealt with this back then, we wouldn’t have to deal with it now,” Mr. Ford reflected.  

With more than 100 days of consecutive protesting in Portland before the wildfire smoke set in, it might seem as though we are in a stalemate in trying to finally deal now with what they couldn’t back then. But with the perspective of history, Mr. Ford is hopeful: “They are making more concessions now than they ever did. With police reforms and taking money out of the budget and putting it into social programs.” 

When the Black Panthers were fighting against police brutality in the ’70s, most people didn’t grasp the scale and urgency with which Black people were being brutalized by the police. No legislation was being seriously discussed regarding police brutality. 

Now, with better research methods and activists able to mobilize via social media, a greater consciousness of the injustices and violence that Black people face is coming to a head and demands are being heard. 

We are still, however, at a crossroads of history. 

“Keep bringing it to them, keep it in the streets,” encourages Mr. Ford. “Let’s teach them a lesson they’ll never forget. Let’s put everything on the table.”

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  • For upcoming Power to the People tour dates, visit Vanport Mosaic’s Facebook Event Page

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  • Monica Salazar is a writer and journalist interested in amplifying stories from immigrant and marginalized communities. For the past two years she has volunteered for the Portland-based nonprofit The Immigrant Story and is working as an editor for its upcoming podcast “Many Roads to Here.

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