If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the collection of historic family photos found beneath a stairwell in a Northeast Portland home speaks volumes.
The collection — two albums and loose photos believed to have belonged to one McAlma “Lucille” Thomas Hastings — was gifted to Oregon Black Pioneers, Oregon’s only historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of African Americans statewide, in 2018.
Zachary Stocks, OBP’s executive director, knew the collection had tremendous learning potential. He contacted Walidah Imarisha, from Portland State Black Studies Department, and the PSU Library’s Special Collections and Archives about designing a course around the photos.
Stocks says the photos give us a rare glimpse into some of the most consequential moments of Oregon’s modern Black experience: the Great Migration, during which Portland’s Black population increased tenfold from 2,000 to 20,000; the wartime city of Vanport, the Blackest city in Oregon history both by percentage and number; and life in the historically Black Albina community during the 1950s, between the devastation of Vanport by flood in 1948 and the future destruction of Black neighborhoods like Albina in the name of urban renewal.
“This collection is also unique for what the photos depict,” Stocks said. “These images are intimate. They show ordinary domestic life, from house parties to watching television … and my favorite part, most of these are happy. Unlike news photography, which so often captured the worst moments in the lives of Black Oregonians, these photos show pride and resiliency of this community.”
Imarisha, assistant professor of Black Studies and director of the Center for Black Studies, jumped at the chance to create an opportunity for students to research and digitize the photos, all while contextualizing them in Portland and Oregon’s Black history.
“I want to know more about these folks, but just getting to see the photos and reading the inscriptions, I love it,” she said. “The focus is often on what has been done to Black people, but the ways that Black folks have always built, created, maintained and grown their humanity and other people’s humanities are living and breathing in this collection.”
For students, the class was part detective work. When interviewing Vanport survivor Carolyn Hinton, Kiesha Johnson noticed that some of the photos in the collection shared a similar photo backdrop with those in Hinton’s childhood album from Vanport. It turns out there was a photo studio in Vanport that was used often by the community.
I realized the piece beyond the album is the community and love that they had for each other before the flood, during the flood and after.Kiesha Johnson, student
Every single picture just left me going like, ‘Who are you? What is your name? What are you thinking? Why are you making that face? What is that expression?’ There’s dignity and joy and silliness and seriousness. You just want to know these people and I hope that as it’s available to the community, it will be something that people can share more back and let us know, ‘Hey, that house looks familiar or I know who that person is, or my aunt knows who that person is.’Haley Machlan, student
Alana Krubl, who calls the Albina neighborhood home, says the project resonated with her, especially as she works on her own family’s personal archive.
We can see examples of Black resistance in every generation. So often you hear stories about important leaders and historic events, but we rarely hear about the things that happened in between and everyday life through the eyes of everyday people. But we have this personal collection of a woman living through some of Albina’s best and some of its most transformative years. And I wanted to know what evidence of resistance we might find by looking through these photos through the perspective of one person’s personal collection.Alana Krubl, student
Spending time with Mrs. Hastings’ things feels like stumbling into the middle of someone else’s conversation. The inscriptions on the photo suggest an intimacy between the sender and the receiver. … Other than the inscriptions — and there are very few of them — we don’t know who [these people are]. That’s frustrating because as researchers, we would like to connect the dots but it’s also mesmerizing. How better to fire up our imaginations than photos of real people about whom we don’t know.Jeff Donaldson-Forbes, student
You can browse the Oregon Black Pioneers Historic Photograph Collection on PDXScholar and hear students’ presentations on their research and hands-on digital preservation experience: “Creating a Historic Black Archive.” Stay tuned for a summary and reflections of the project in the Oregon Historical Quarterly this fall.