Oregon Black Pioneers is the keeper of innumerable stories, but surprisingly few artifacts. Over the years, OBP hasbuilt up a modest collection of historic objects that have particular value in illuminating the experiences of Oregon’s African American communities. Our limited collections capacity has meant that most objects cared for by OBP are quite small, with only a handful of materials that require more significant storage space. This week however, OBP was gifted a very special –and very large– object to add to its collections: a bench seat from Portland’s historic Fox Theatre.
The Fox was once one of Portland’s grandest theatres. It was first built in 1910, where Broadway and SW Taylor Street connect today, and was originally known as the Heilig Auditorium. The 1500 seat Heilig hosted operas and stage shows before the golden age of cinema began, and entertained guests with its grand pipe organ. As the Great Depression began, the Heilig changed ownership and was renamed the Rialto. The Rialto become the Mayfair theatre in 1934 after another ownership change and underwent major renovations. In 1954, the Mayfair was purchased by Fox, the parent company of 20th Century Fox productions, and was renovated to become the newest theatre in Fox’s west coast chain. When it debuted, the Fox Theatre boasted the second largest screen in America as was called Portland’s “Million Dollar Theatre”. The Fox’s iconic neon sign and art deco designs were Portland landmarks for the next 40 years.
However Portland theatres were also places of segregation. Although not universal, theatre segregation was not made illegal until the passage of the 1953 Oregon Civil Rights bill. In the 1920s and 1930s in particular, Black moviegoers in Portland theatres were routinely prohibited from sitting in the lower level amongst white patrons, and were instead restricted to crowded, less maintained balconies. At the Fox (and its predecessors at the same location), Black patrons had to enter through a separate entrance on Taylor Street and climb the stairs to the segregated gallery above, where instead of comfortable seats they found hard benches.
The Fox Theatre closed in 1997 and was demolished along with the rest of the buildings on the block to create the Fox Tower. As parts of the theatre were stripped from the building, the Bosco-Milligan Foundation managed to save two benches from its segregated balcony. The Foundation’s public facing non-profit, the Architectural Heritage Center has been keeping the benches ever since. Last month, the Architectural Heritage Center donated one of the two benches to Oregon Black Pioneers.
This landmark gift represents one of the most significant object donations to OBP. As our organization evolves and finds new ways to display physical materials that tell the stories of Black Oregonians, this remarkable piece will surely play an important part. Special thanks to the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and the Architectural Heritage Center for this gift!
Oregon Black Pioneers is Oregon’s only historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of African Americans statewide. Since 1993, our organization has illuminated the seldom-told history of people of African descent in Oregon. We are inspired by the tenacity of Black Oregonians who have faced discrimination and hardship to make a life for themselves here over the past 400 years. We honor their sacrifices by remembering their stories and by sharing them with the public.
Please consider making a donation to help us preserve and promote Oregon’s African American history and culture.