Waddles Coffee Shop in Portland, Oregon was a popular restaurant in the 1950s for both locals and travelers alike. The drive-in catered to America's postwar obsession with car culture, allowing people to get coffee and a slice of pie without even leaving their vehicle. This was a welcomed convenience for some people. But if you happened to be Black, the owners of Waddles "implored" you to keep on driving. When I use the word implored I'm being kind. The restaurant had a sign outside with a very clear message: "White trade only."
It's the kind of scene from the 1950s that's so hard for many Americans to imagine happening outside of the Jim Crow South. How could a seemingly progressive, northern city like Portland have allowed a restaurant to exclude non-white patrons? This had to be an anomaly, right? In reality, it was far too common in Oregon, a state that was explicitly founded as a kind of white utopia, a bubble in which white people could both separate and insulate themselves from Black people.
America's history of racial discrimination is most commonly taught as a southern issue. That's certainly how I learned about it while going to New York City public schools.
As I've gotten older and conducted my own research I realized that many white people outside of the South seemed to learn about the Civil War and civil rights movements from an incredibly safe (and often judgmental) distance.
The kind of racism that I had learned about as a Black child growing up in New York, seemed like outrageous behavior that could have only taken place hundreds of miles down I-95 south.
Most of us have learned about the struggles for racial equality in cities like Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery. But what about the racism of Portland, Oregon, a city that is still overwhelmingly white? The struggles there were just as intense, though they are rarely identified in the history books.
According to Oregon's founding constitution, black people were not permitted to live in the state. And that held true until 1926. The small number of black people already living in the state in 1859, when it was admitted to the Union, were sometimes allowed to stay, but the next century of segregation and terrorism at the hands of angry racists made it clear that they were not welcome.