On Saturday, September 18, Oregon Black Pioneers and the Lang Syne Society dedicated a newly-installed plaque in honor of Abner Hunt Francis, one of Portland’s first Black business owners. 40 people braved the rain to attend the public dedication ceremony at the site where Francis’s mercantile shop once stood: SW Naito Pkwy and Harvey Milk Street. The new marker is installed on the Morrison Bridge off ramp, as the original building (one of the city’s first brick buildings) no longer stands.
Abner Hunt Francis was an important figure in Oregon’s Black history. He was an abolitionist from New York, and in 1851 he moved west by steamship to the new city of Portland with his wife Synda and his brother Isaac. The brothers set up their business soon after and sold clothes and supplies to city residents. Oregon was not a welcoming place for Black people though. The Francis brothers and their families were targeted for expulsion under the state’s 1849 Black exclusion law, but 216 city residents signed a petition urging the state legislature to exempt the Francis brothers from expulsion.
The petition was successful, as the action was tabled indefinitely. Still, the incident permanently changed Abner’s views of Oregon. In several letters to his friend and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Abner Francis wrote of Oregon’s hostile racial climate and the limited prospects for Blacks in Portland. Isaac relocated to California in the mid 1850s, and after Black Californians began immigrating to British Columbia to escape racism in 1858, Abner and Synda considered their own future in Oregon. In 1860, the couple followed Synda’s parents and moved to Victoria, BC where they lived the rest of their lives.
The Lang Syne Society is a group of business owners that since the 1960s has erected historical markers about Portland’s 19th century historical figures. Oregon Black Pioneers Board Vice President Kim Moreland has worked with Lang Syne society for more than a year to develop the historical marker for Abner Francis. This new marker represents 1 of only two dedicated to Black Oregonians, demonstrating just how small the city’s early Black community was.
This community partnership is a great example of how Oregon Black Pioneers works with other organizations to bring Black history to life in the places where it was made. You can visit the historical marker anytime on the Morrison Bridge in downtown Portland.
Oregon Black Pioneers is an educational non-profit based in Salem. Since 1993, OBP has used research, exhibitions, and public programs to tell the seldom-told stories of people of African descent in Oregon. OBP’s vision is to be the premier source for information about Oregon’s African American heritage. For more information please visit oregonblackpioneers.org.