Say We Are Here: Selections from the Verdell A. Burdine and Otto G. Rutherford Family Collection

Building Community

Verdell and Otto Rutherford each made exceptional commitments to community organizations.  The Culture Club, founded by African American women in Portland in 1924 and affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW), was home to some of Verdell’s most cherished friendships and projects. 

Such organizations were rooted in nineteenth-century voluntary traditions that flourished after the Civil War.  These groups linked local African American communities to national bodies which in turn exercised economic and political influence for their members.  For example, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, founded in Washington, D.C. in 1896, was very active with the Republican Party, especially after women’s suffrage in 1919.

In the years after World War I, the women’s club movement converged in Portland.  African American women active in the Young Women’s Christian Association advocated for a branch for their community and raised funds for the construction of a building at the corner of NE Tillamook and Williams Avenue, completed in 1926.  The Williams Avenue YWCA was tightly networked with the Culture Club and other local women’s groups. Together they helped meet the social, spiritual, and employment needs of young people in the surrounding community.

The Culture Club supplemented and corrected deficits in African American history found in the public educational system as well as in the local media and culture venues in Oregon.  By fostering study clubs, “Negro History Teas,” exhibits, displays and, crucially, college scholarships, the Culture Club made a decisive impact on many lives.  These activities especially helped young people, since African American youth in public schools were steered away from college preparatory classes and toward vocational training.  The Culture Club was especially successful at raising money for scholarships for college-bound students and in educational activities for the broader community.

The Vanport Flood of 1948 produced hardship on Black families who had relocated to Portland to work in the war industries, like the Kaiser shipyards.  After the flood, the city turned away from the housing and employment needs of African Americans, who found themselves displaced and increasingly segregated. In this stressful context, the Williams Avenue YWCA struggled to regain its footing.  The women of the Williams Avenue YWCA however remained active and continued to meet but dynamism shifted to the Culture Club.  Under Verdell’s leadership, African American women in Portland became much more actively linked to other organized women in the state through the Oregon Association of Colored Women (OACW) as well as to the national body (NACW).  The state and national conventions gave Oregon women visibility, solidarity, and ideas for activism.

For Otto Rutherford, local chapters of national fraternal organizations such as the Grand Lodge of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons and the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks afforded him decades of solidarity, leadership, and service opportunities.  These fraternal orders often grew out of workplace or skill-based groups and did double duty as informal labor organizations; some, like the railroad brotherhoods, fed the organized union movement directly.  In the early 1900s, local orders of the Masons encompassed a significant number of prominent community members.  For example, J.C Logan, E.D. Cannady, Howard Sproules and Edward Rutherford, co-founders of theAdvocate, an early local Black-owned newspaper, were all Masons.

Otto went on to become an active member of the local Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks.  Their Billy Webb Lodge is located at 6 North Tillamook and is the longest standing Black-owned building of Portland’s African American community.  Originally home to the “Williams branch” of the YWCA, it was also a meeting place for NAACP, the Oregon Association of Colored Women, the Urban League, and the Congress of Racial Equality.   It served as a recreation center for African American soldiers during World War II and as a refuge for Vanport residents fleeing the flood of 1948.   The Elks purchased the property from the YWCA in 1959.

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