Micco T. Harjo and Oregon’s first equal access bill

By PATRICIA SANDERS

369th National Guard Regiment (a.k.a. Harlem Hellfighters), 1919, photo by Paul Thompson
Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

PART 1

Between 370,000 and 400,000 Black Americans served in World War I; about 770 gave their lives.

Some were in segregated brigades that fought alongside French brigades, experiencing an acceptance and appreciation they’d never felt back home. The war experience in general sparked in Blacks a new resolve to secure, at last, their equal rights in the United States.

Out of this upwelling of new confidence and determination, Oregon’s first equal access bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 1919. The timing seemed good since the 1918 election had created an overwhelmingly Republican legislature and soldiers were still returning home from overseas.

How does this relate to Montavilla other than in a general way? Well, one of only three Portlanders allowed to speak on behalf of the bill in the House was Micco T. Harjo (1882 / 1885 – 1947), a Black Native American resident of Montavilla.

***

Portland’s Afro-American League conceived of the law to guarantee equal access to hotels, theaters and other public places regardless of race. Multnomah Representative John B. Coffey (1867 – 1926), a progressive Irish Catholic recently re-elected to the House, agreed to sponsor it. He introduced H. B. 344 on February 3, 1919.

Representative John B. Coffey, Multnomah County
Source: Oregon Voter: Magazine of Citizenship, January 4, 1919 (Google Book)

The bill went to the House Health and Public Morals Committee for review. On February 12, an imposing six-foot tall Harjo argued in favor of passage.

Perhaps he was chosen to speak because of his patriotic contributions. The 1930 United States Census identified him as a veteran of the Spanish-American War of 1898.

In 1918, he registered for the draft and contributed to the war effort as a metal worker for the Grant Smith Porter company, which produced much-needed cargo ships.

Two other prominent Portlanders spoke in support of H. B. 344: Beatrice Cannady (1889 – 1974), co-publisher of The Advocate— then Portland’s major Black newspaper, a co-founder of the Portland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a frequent public speaker; and Rev. W. Isaac Rowan (b. 1875), a former pastor of Portland’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

The press, which closely followed the controversial bill, did not report what Harjo, Cannady, and Rowan said. But whatever they argued, words were not enough to convince a majority of white committee members.

The committee passed it back to the full House without a favorable or unfavorable recommendation.

“Race Question Is Up to House”
Source: Oregon Statesman, February 20, 1919 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)

In the House, someone moved to postpone the bill indefinitely, a way to kill it. Debate erupted. Proponents argued it deserved passage because of the considerable Black contribution to the war effort. Opponents said the bill was unnecessary, existing laws were sufficient.

Multnomah County Representative D. C. Lewis tried to avoid voting by hiding in a committee room. He had to be dragged to the chamber by the Sergeant-at-Arms. “Vaudeville” is how The Oregon Statesman described Lewis’ escapade.

With a roll call vote, H. B. 344 failed 31 to 24. The Multnomah County delegation, which represented the majority of Oregon’s Black population, voted 9 to 4 in favor, with Rep. Lewis among the nays.

Harjo, E. D. Cannady (husband of Beatrice Cannady), and other executive committee members of the People’s Civic League (formerly the Afro-American League) felt betrayed. They had thought Rep. Lewis was a “true and tried friend of the race” (Oregon Journal, February 24, 1919). And with good reason. Lewis had introduced two bills in 1917 that would repeal laws prohibiting inter-racial marriages. (The laws would not be repealed until 1951.)

The failure of such a seemingly simple and fair request shows the difficulty in achieving civil rights in Oregon, and that era’s climate of increasing racial tension.

And that tension sparked conflicts; one of the most egregious of these was the summer of racial violence that came to be called “the Red Summer”.

Between April and November 1919, at least 25 major riots occurred across the country (although not in Portland). Blacks were attacked, and this time they fought back. Damages and injuries were huge in many cities. 83 people were lynched (seven whites and 76 Blacks, even Black veterans in uniform).

The NAACP gained about 100,000 new members in 1919.

In 1921, one of the worst incidents in racial violence took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black neighborhood, with, again, tremendous loss of lives and property.

About the same time the re-emergent Ku Klux Klan was expanding throughout the country— with 100,000 members by 1921. A Portland branch was established in 1921 and tried recruit new members by with a film purporting to “tell the truth” about the Klan. According to the Sunday Oregonian of December 28 thousands flocked to the Municipal Auditorium for the film.

In this conflicted environment, the re-energized campaign for civil rights moved forward in Portland as elsewhere.

In 1920, the newly created Associated Negro Press promoted a national drive for justice. Its press release urging local events was carried in newspapers across the country.

The drive would launch on September 22, Emancipation Day, a holiday commemorating this date in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to free enslaved people.

Portland’s People’s Civic and Political Club, of which Harjo was president, organized an Emancipation Day event to be held at the AME Zion Church. The meeting included several well-know speakers, beginning with Harjo.

Among these were Rev. J. W. Anderson on “A Minister’s Political Duty” and Cannady on why Blacks should support Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, an advocate of civil rights. (In his 1920 acceptance speech as the Republican candidate, Harding lauded the sacrifices of Black soldiers and said Blacks deserved “their full measure of citizenship”.

“Colored People’s Meeting”
Source: Oregon Daily Journal, September 22, 1920 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)

After this 1920 event, I found no further evidence of Harjo’s direct involvement in civil rights work. Perhaps he stepped back to a secondary role or perhaps personal circumstances intervened.

But in 1919 and 1920, he stepped up to make a difference in a fraught and often hostile society.

In my next article, I will explore the life of Harjo and how his early life in Indian Territory may help us understand some of the motivations behind his civil rights activism.

***

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here.

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