Black Studies turns 50

Fifty years ago, following the greatest decade of change for African Americans since the Civil War, Portland State became the first college in the Pacific Northwest to offer a program in black studies

Over the years, it went from being an experimental program to a full-blown department. Now, after a half-century, it remains unique in the region. While other universities in the Northwest offer courses in ethnic studies or African American studies, PSU is the only one with a full degree-granting department with the word “black” in its name.

“At the time of our founding, ‘black’ was a very powerful and political term,” said department chair Shirley A. Jackson (below). “It was a way of throwing off the older ways of referencing people who had black skin.” 

Black History Month Events


Here are a few of the events the Black Studies Department has helped organize for February.
-> Get complete list


29th Annual Cascade Festival of African Films
Feb. 1 to March 2, PCC Cascade


Me Too, Now What?
A discussion about healing in the wake of the Me Too movement
Feb. 12, 10 a.m. to noon, Smith Memorial Student Union, room 294


Black Portland
Portland’s black population through personal recollections and PSU’s Rutherford Collection
Feb. 26, noon to 1:30, Millar Library, room 106


Black Feminism in the Hashtag Era
A discussion by Black Studies Director Shirley Jackson
Feb. 26, 6:30 p.m., Multnomah County Library North Portland branch 

Jackson, as well as former department chair Darrell Millner, Portland civic leaders, the Oregon Historical Society, and others are planning a big birthday celebration in October, and the department is holding a series of events in February to celebrate Black History Month.  

An influential assortment of students and faculty pushed the idea of starting the program in 1968 and 1969 as part of a wave of other universities around the country doing the same. Portland State — which had just gained university status — approved it as an “experiment” on Aug. 22, 1969.

“It was deemed experimental because it was so new — there was no guarantee that this would actually be something that would continue to exist,” Jackson said.

Charlotte Rutherford, a former civil rights attorney with the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund who donated a vast collection of her mother’s Black memorabilia to the PSU Library, earned her certificate in the program in 1976. She said she took classes from the program — and continues to support it — through her desire to learn “about our history as black people both in Oregon and the in the history of the U.S.”

“The public school system then and probably now does little to teach race history and the true story of how black people (and other people of color) have contributed to and been treated in this country,” she said. “I always knew there had to be more information than I had been given in school but I had no idea so much information had been suppressed.”

Initially, the program focused on the African American experience, based on what was happening around the country at the time. The few years before its founding saw marches on Washington, D.C. and in the American South, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the assassinations of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the founding of the Black Panthers in 1966, numerous race-fueled riots in American cities, and the emergence of the Black Power movement. 

The program also had the mission of providing assistance and support to Portland’s black community.  

“At that time the majority of Portland black residents resided in an area known as Albina,” recalls Phil McLaurin, the center’s first director.  “Black Studies offered courses to Albina-area residents at a PSU-funded facility known as Albina Presence, and was actively involved in all issues impacting the community residents.”

The mission broadened in the ensuing years to include courses on the black experience in Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. It added travel opportunities, and next December will offer study in Santiago de Cuba and has plans to develop a study trip to New York City — probably the most diverse black population in the United States.

The curriculum is multidisciplinary, covering history, sociology, cultural anthropology, literature, film and other fields. Although many believe that only black students take courses in Black Studies, Jackson said it’s really for everybody.

“This is a degree that really helps students prepare for working with people in diverse communities, and not just the black community,” she said. “It’s about learning to deal with differences and becoming culturally aware.”

Story by John Kirkland

Homepage: Faculty member and longtime Black Studies chair Darrell Millner lecturing in 1975.

Top: Students at a political gathering at Smith Memorial Student Union, 1970.

Center: Black Studies department chair Shirley Jackson.

Bottom: Lenwood Davis (left), director of the Black Studies Center in the early '70s, with Clarence Barry, the first student to earn a certificate in Black Studies at Portland State, from the 1972 Viking yearbook.