It is the duty of the Negro woman to see that in the home there are histories of her face written by Negro historians…The Negro mother has it within her power to invest less in overstuffed furniture…and more in books and music by and about the Negro race so that our youth may grow up with a pride of race which can never be had any other way. Beatrice Morrow Cannady, speaking at the annual NAACP conference, 1928.
This is but one of the many dimensions of the vision and leadership demonstrated by Beatrice Morrow Cannady, the most noted civil rights activist in Portland, Oregon.
Born in 1889 in Littig, Texas, Morrow worked briefly as a teacher, then studied music at the University of Chicago, until she traveled West to marry Edward Daniel Cannady, the founder and editor of the Portland’s Black newspaper, the Advocate. There Beatrice became assistant editor, moving up the ladder until she became editor and owner of the Advocate in 1930 when she and Edward divorced. On the pages of the Advocate Cannady wrote scathing editorials about discrimination that was routine in Portland, observing that “not even the pulpit has been as effective for the advancement of our Group, and for justice as the press..”
Along the way, in 1922 Cannady became the first African American woman to graduate from Northwestern College of Law in Portland. As an attorney Cannady helped shape Oregon’s first civil rights legislation, provisions that mandated full access to public accommodations, legislation that eventually died aborning. It may surprise 21st Century activists to know just how racist Portland was “back in the day.” For the city’s 1500 African American residents there were barriers everywhere, including public venues and restaurants. In 1925 Cannady worked on the successful campaign to repeal Oregon’s “black laws” which prohibited African Americans from settling in Oregon and denied voting rights to people of color.
Cannady faced constant personal and professional struggles. The 1906 Oregon ruling that African Americans could be legally segregated from whites in public places was not struck down until 1953. Understandably, early in her career Cannady became a founding member of the Portland NAACP. It was in this role that she rose to leadership in the fifteen-year campaign to limit distribution of the controversial anti-black film Birth of a Nation. Recognizing Cannady’s leadership NAACP Executive Secretary invited Cannady to address the NAACP national conference in Los Angeles where Cannady joined W.E.B.DuBois on the speaker’s rostrum.
Cannady soon introduced a softer, more social, approach to breaking down racial barriers. She hosted interracial tea parties at her Portland home, Sunday afternoon gatherings that included entertainment, cultural and history with local, national and international politics – all with the goal of “ironing out…misunderstandings between the races.” As many 200 neighbors would show up for the teas at which Cannady would remind her guests that “as citizens, colored people deserve all the rights and privileges and the protection as any other citizen has.”
In 1932 Cannady turned her sites to the need for reform of the law. She announced her candidacy for state representative, the first African American woman to run for elected office in Oregon. Though she did not make it through the primaries, she did garner some 8000 votes, many cast by white constituents.
During the last half of her life Cannady opted to move to the Los Angeles area to be closer to her family. She died there in 1974. Long overlooked by her Portland neighbors Cannady has now been “rediscovered” as one of the women whose accomplishments will be acknowledged in the Walk of Heroines established in public space adjacent to Portland State University. Further, Kimberley Mangun has published a biography of Beatrice Morrow Cannady, A Force for Change: Beatrice Morrow Cannady and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Oregon, 1912-1936. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2010. Oregon Public Broadcasting has also produced a piece on Beatrice Morrow Cannady as part of their Oregon Experience series (http://www.opb.org/pressroom/article/oregon-experience-beatrice-morrow-cannady/)