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

Family, Migration, and Home

The Burdine and Rutherford families came to the Pacific Northwest between the major migrations of African Americans out of the South in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Around 1890, two Rutherford brothers, William and Edward, were recruited from their native South Carolina to work as barbers at the Portland Hotel, an elite downtown establishment.  William Rutherford married Charlotte (“Lottie”) White, also of South Carolina and a graduate of Scotia Seminary. The couple raised four boys, all of whom graduated from high school and pursued post-secondary education.  The family lived for decades in a house they bought on NE Shaver Street in 1922.

In 1913, Earle and Margaret (“Maggie”) Burdine left Oklahoma for a fresh start at farming in Oregon.  The couple’s heritage reflects the diverse population of Oklahoma, which was once Indian Territory, and the family includes Black, white, and Native American ancestors.  The Burdines intended to take advantage of the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, which made available lands for dry farming in the far west.  They stopped in Bend and then moved on to Marshfield (now Coos Bay), Oregon, but could not own land because African Americans were prohibited by law from owning free land in the state.  The Burdines finally established themselves in Washington state.  There they raised seven children, all of whom graduated from high school in Yakima.

Verdell Burdine and Otto Rutherford met in Portland in 1921 as children, through church connections. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought geographical movement and economic displacement for many people, especially African Americans. When the two married in Oakland, California, in 1936, Verdell was working as a domestic for a family in San Francisco and Otto was working for the Union Pacific Railroad.  They settled back in Portland, moving into the Shaver Street house with Otto’s father William, two of Otto’s brothers, and the family dog.  Verdell and Otto raised three children in this home: William, Earle, and Charlotte.  The family belonged to Bethel A.M.E. church, where Verdell worked as church secretary for many years.

Verdell Rutherford was an active historian. She was a keeper of family records and information which she shared with kin near and far.  She also documented the Portland African American community by collecting public materials, like newspapers, and more private ones, like photographs and letters.  Verdell did this work personally, in her home, and she also fostered it publicly, through local exhibits and displays.  That individual families and groups donated their materials for safekeeping to the Rutherfords is testament to the trust they placed in Verdell as community historian.

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