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Saving a black family's story
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: May 31, 2012

A new collection in the PSU Library chronicles a Portland couple’s commitment to civil rights.

FOR MUCH of the 20th century, Verdell Rutherford collected thousands of rare documents, newspapers and photographs recording the history of African Americans in Portland.

Verdell and her husband, Otto, were leaders in the black community, and their northeast Portland home was a hub of social and political activity from the era of racial segregation through the civil rights movement. Verdell saved everything, hoping that someday her archive would tell the story of the city’s early African American community to future generations.

And now it will.

The Verdell Burdine and Otto G. Rutherford Family Collection will open to the public for the first time this summer, when it goes on display as PSU Library’s newest special collection.

Verdell and Otto’s daughter, Charlotte Rutherford ’76, gave the collection to the library and Black Studies Department at the suggestion of history professor Patricia Schechter and former State Sen. Avel Gordly, whose own papers are housed at the library. University archivist Cris Paschild oversees the library’s special collections.

Schechter’s students archived the collection item by item and are working with Paschild to create an exhibit that will be on display in the first floor of the library during fall term. The students found everything from the 1914 charter for the Portland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to Verdell’s brown and crumbling wedding corsage from 1936.

“What you see in the Rutherford Collection is how everyday people helped advance the civil rights movement, and often those people were women,” Schechter says. “It puts Oregon on the map of the larger American story of freedom.”

OREGON was more than a decade ahead of the federal government in ratifying civil rights legislation, and Otto and Verdell were instrumental in passing Oregon’s version in 1953. At the time, Otto served as president and Verdell as secretary of the local NAACP.

Prior to the law’s passage, African Americans were routinely banned from or segregated at many public places in Oregon, such as hospitals, hotels and amusement parks. Employment opportunities were limited to service jobs. Restaurants posted signs saying, “We cater to white trade only.”

African Americans were not allowed to live in most Portland neighborhoods. In 1921, Otto’s father bought the family home on Northeast Ninth and Shaver, then a white neighborhood, with the help of someone who could “pass” for white.

Even after Oregon’s anti-discrimination law passed in 1953, it often was not enforced. Charlotte Rutherford recalls sitting in a movie theater balcony in the 1950s and roller skating at a rink only on Mondays in the early 1960s. At the time, she was unaware that she was not allowed to sit anywhere else in the theater or roller skate on another day because of her race.

The Rutherford collection “confirms that Oregon has a particular story to tell about civil rights that is different from the South or the East,” says Schechter. “It’s going to help us tell the Pacific Northwest story.”

For more information about the Rutherford and other collections, visit library.pdx.edu/specialcollections.html. To support PSU Library special collections, contact Jennifer Wilkerson at 503-725-4509 or email jwilk@pdx.edu

Suzanne Pardington, a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications, wrote “A Brilliant Life” for the Winter 2012 Portland State Magazine. 

Top Photo: Verdell and Otto Rutherford proudly display a treasured newspaper from the 1950s. They are standing in front of their Portland home, which is now a state historic landmark. The couple were in their late 80s when Otto passed away in 2000 and Verdell in 2001. 

Second Photo: The Rutherfords served as NAACP local officers, national delegates, and started an NAACP federal credit union out of their home.

Third Photo: As members of an NAACP delegation, Verdell and Otto Rutherford (far right) worked with Sen. Philip Hitchcock and Rep. Mark O. Hatfield (seated) on the passage in 1953 of an Oregon civil rights bill. Other delegation members are (left to right) Edgar Williams, Marie Smith, Ulysess Plummer, Rev. J. Harold Jones, and Lorna Maples.

Fourth Photo: Verdell Burdine and Otto Rutherford before they married in 1937.

Bottom Photo: Black Masonic Grand Lodge members traveled in 16 train cars in 1937 to a convention in Portland.