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Newspapers, official sources declined to chronicle lives of African-Americans in East County.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - A 1911 photograph shows an unidentified black man standing on a Gresham street corner, thought to be the first African-American to live in Gresham. Historical archives refer to the man as Charlie Rivers, although the claim is unverified.

The story of African-Americans in East Multnomah County isn't a history. It's the chronicle of a gap.

The uncomfortable truth — that Oregon statehood was founded with an explicit policy of racial exclusion — is still rarely mentioned in today's polite society, primary schoolrooms and within our halls of justice.

"They're kind of ghosts in official records," explained Silvie Andrews, collections manager for the Gresham Historical Society. "Nobody wrote about them much."

That includes The Outlook.

For decades, the 111-year-old paper of record in East Mulntomah County, Andrews noted, apparently did not consider the lives of black folks newsworthy. What we do know is that oral histories from the 1910s and 1920s make scattered references to two black men living in the Gresham area.

Of these, one man is often referred to as the first African-American to live in Gresham: Charlie Rivers.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Charlie Rivers' draft card from the pre-World War II years. While Oregon's ban on nonwhites was always unenforceable, official records maintained the fiction of a whites-only utopia. 
He was born on May 12, 1879, in Athens, Ga., according to a draft card created in 1941, when Rivers was 62.

He didn't have a telephone number or a middle name. A mailing address is listed as Box 490 on Rural Route 2, an area now considered part of Pleasant Home near the border with Clackamas County.

Rivers said he was a shipbuilder, working for the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in St. Johns. Cornelius Evens, a Portland resident, was the person who "will always know your address," but nothing is known about their relationship.

The only other black figure in Gresham's historical record is even less well documented. He was called Mr. Wilson, and worked as a shoe-shiner on Powell Boulevard.

"Official records really only talked about white men," said Andrews. "Before Gresham's population boom and the accompanying diversity it brought, it was very easy to avoid discussing race."

Census records show that Gresham's minority population grew rapidly during the 1980s. While the white population doubled — to 61,000 from 30,000 — the number of African-Americans increased by 253 percent, to 740 from 257.

Today, Gresham's minority population has continued to grow, rising to a little more than 4,000 during the latest census. And as another Black History Month marches past, we still seem to know very little.

"I think we're making progress," said local historian Len Otto. "And every time I think that, it's 'Oh God, we're just spinning our wheels again.'"

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