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Vancouver Avenue church earns a place in nation's history

COURTESY PHOTO - The Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, here in the 1950s, has been a town hall for Portland's African-American community for decades.Portland’s Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, the beating heart of the city’s African-American community, was named this month to the National Register of Historic Places.

Oregon’s Heritage Exchange blog reported the honor Tuesday, Sept. 6. The blog is published by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which maintains a list of historic sites and buildings in the state.

The State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation nominated the church for the national history honor in mid-June. The church will be one of the most prominent public buildings in Portland’s African-American community to be named to the national list of historic sites.

Church members have known for years that the building was not only historic, but also home to generations of families who worshipped in its sanctuary and were active in its community organizations and civic projects, says Raymond Burell III, who wrote a 133-page nomination report to put the church on the national register, and is author of “Vancouver Avenue: Yesterday, Today and Forever,” a 2009 coffee table book history of the church and its leadership.

“It is more than just a church,” Burell says. “That’s kind of why getting it listed (to the national register) will be really significant. Portland’s black population really exploded in the post-war years, and this church became a clarion voice for people coming into the city.”

Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church’s history is entwined with the history of Oregon’s African-American population, Burell says. The church’s leadership took stands on civil rights issues facing the city and the state, hosted leaders of the civil rights movement like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Wilkins and John Lewis, and helped calm the city and state after King’s 1968 assassination in Memphis.

The church could be eligible for the national historic status because of its significance from 1951 to 1968, during Portland’s Civil Rights Era activities, and for its connection to the Rev. Oliver Booker Williams, a founder of the congregation who led the church for 50 years and saw its membership grow from a handful of worshipers to thousands gathered in standing-room-only services.

It was one of the oldest post-war African-American congregations in Portland, and one of five major black Baptist churches established in the city, according to the nomination report.

The church’s historic roots are planted in the region’s World War II Kaiser Co. shipyards, where thousands of people — black and white — came to find work. The church was founded by Rev. Williams and his wife, Willia, as a small Sunday school and congregation in Vancouver, Wash., housing where many shipyard workers lived.

In 1951, when the membership reached 600, the church purchased the former Central Methodist Episcopal Church on North Vancouver Avenue, which was built in 1909. By 1954, the church’s membership reached 1,200 people, making it the largest African-American congregation in the Northwest, and linking it to the social changes beginning to percolate across the nation.

Under Rev. Williams’ guidance, church officials tackled social issues of the day, setting up jobs fairs, promoting education for black youth, seeking changes to onerous housing discrimination practices, hosting political forums and registering black voters.

Today, led by the Rev. J.W. Matt Hennessee, the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church is still one of the largest African-American congregations in the state. Other large Albina-area churches —Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Mount Olivet Baptist Church and the Morning Star Baptist Church — have closed or moved because of redevelopment or changing demographics.