Uncovering Black Excellence
History, like how an African named Onesimus created inoculation in the early 18th century. History, like how one in four cowboys was Black. History, like how Bessie Coleman became the first Black person to hold an international pilot’s license. History, like how Betty Boop was inspired by Harlem lounge singer Esther Jones, for which she got no credit or notoriety.
This Black History Month, BET is uncovering the Black excellence that has been buried by our society for so long — unsung people, places, and events that show us where we came from, where we’re going, and how Black history is America’s history.
- Week 1
- Week 2
- Week 3
- Week 4
Black people manifested their own destiny by going west —
and finding excellence along the way.
Dreaming of freedom and prosperity, he only found discrimination and ignorance in the Oregon Territory — but in the land just north, his dream would come true.
Born to an African American father and an Irish mother, Bush was raised and taught in Philadelphia by Quakers. He served under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, after which he became a fur trapper. He then relocated to the Oregon Territory, where he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He eventually settled in Missouri, where he married, and purchased 80 acres of land to start his own successful cattle business.
In May 1844, Bush was asked to serve as a guide, and he and his family led 32 people in five wagons to Oregon. Giving up his prosperous lifestyle, he used the navigation skills he gained as a trapper in the West to successfully bring his wagon train to Oregon. Unbeknownst to the party, in the four months and 2,000 miles it took them to reach Oregon, racial tensions in the region had led to the provisional government passing laws that excluded Black people from the territory. The caravan was forced to go north across the Columbia River to the Washington Territory, an unsettled land in the middle of an ownership dispute between the US and Great Britain. Eventually settling on the Puget Sound’s southernmost tip, in what is now known as Tumwater, Washington, Bush declared the area Bush’s Prairie, establishing an economic hub by building a gristmill, sawmill, and free roadside hotel.
In 1846, the Oregon Treaty was signed, ending the land dispute between the two countries, placing the Washington Territory firmly on American soil, and clouding the land’s status under Oregon’s exclusion laws for more than a decade. Bush’s generosity and commitment to public service were so revered that when the official Washington government was formed in 1853, one of its first orders of business was to request that Congress formally recognize Bush’s Prairie, which it did two years later.
This made Bush the first Black landowner in Washington State history, though today he’s mostly forgotten.
After he died in 1863, Bush’s six sons kept his traditions alive and became prominent in both agriculture and local politics. His eldest son, William Owen Bush, served in the Washington State Legislature, eventually introducing a bill for a public education institution that would become Washington State University. Remarking on George Bush, historian Ezra Meeker stated that he “was a true American and yet without a country; he owed allegiance to the flag and yet the flag would not own him; he was firmly held to obey the law and yet the law would not protect him, and his oath would not be taken in a court of law.”
Bush’s settlement in the Pacific Northwest served as a beacon of hope for other African Americans. It inspired others from around the country to make their pilgrimage westward and find “manifest destiny” like their white counterparts. While this phrase was initially used to justify the expansion of slavery to “unclaimed” territories, Black people wanted to manifest an inclusive future where they were treated with kindness, dignity, and respect. Where people could not be bought and sold like livestock. The West provided that.
A career sailor born in the Cape Verde Islands in 1812, Lopes worked on a whaling ship based out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, until he made the trip to the West Coast, trading one clipper for another. Setting up shop on what is now known as First Avenue South, then called Commercial Street, Lopes served the local community and other settlers of all races — like Dexter Horton, the founder of the first bank in Seattle, and Judge Thomas Mercer, another notable Seattle pioneer.
After his wife and his son died prematurely, Lopes focused his energies on fostering the local community with his businesses. Known for his generosity, Lopes served all walks of life — merchants, loggers, miners, and more, giving out free meals whenever his customers couldn’t pay. When it was mealtime, it’s said Lopes would pace up and down Commercial Street with his snare drum, informing the whole city.
Lopes — with his snare — became a local pillar of the community, regularly playing in the Fourth of July Parade. And with his commitment to uncovering Black excellence in unfamiliar territory, he inspired more African Americans to take the plunge: Starting in 1861, more Black people began to settle north, throwing their hats into barbering. By 1870, six of the thirteen black residents of Seattle were barbers, a trade that produced the most success for African Americans during the 19th century.
Things were good until a struggling economy forced Lopes to move to the Kitsap Peninsula (just across Puget Sound in modern-day Port Orchard). He eventually settled in Port Gamble, a relatively new logging town, where he met and quickly became friends with the superintendent of the Puget Mill Company, Cyrus Walker. Eventually Lopes became ill, suffering from edema symptoms, and was admitted into Seattle’s Providence Hospital in 1885 to live out the rest of his days. He lived for 10 more years before passing away in December 1895 at age 83. He was buried in Port Gamble by Walker, just like he was promised.
His obituary read: “At noontime is especially when he made his message known, and then it became so common that none but strangers in the city thought it remarkable that a drum should signal the dinner hour.”
A League of Their Own
Excellence is always — even when no one is watching.“Don’t feel sorry for the Black baseball player. Feel sorry for the ones who didn’t get to see them play.” — Buck O’Neil
Investors recognized this and desired to tap into that market by recreating the success of other Negro Baseball Leagues — and quickly moved to form their own. Established in the spring of 1946 by Abe Saperstein (founder of the Harlem Globetrotters) and overseen by Jesse Owens (“World’s Fastest Man”), the West Coast Negro Baseball League was a minor league that had six teams, including the Seattle Steelheads and the Portland Rosebuds.
Scheduled to play a 110-game season, the league lasted all of three months.
There are barely any pictures of its existence, and it’s so little recognized that Jesse Owens' museum was surprised to discover he had any involvement. Why?
Saperstein spared no expense getting his Seattle team, nicknamed the “Steelies” after a type of Pacific salmon, off the ground. He moved players from his other organization, the already famous Globetrotters basketball team, and assigned them to the Steelhead roster. Prominent players included first baseman Herb Simpson, outfielder Zell Miles, catcher Everett “Ziggy” Marcell, and others. After setting the roster, Saperstein turned over daily operations of the team to local Black businessmen.
The Steelies played their first game on June 1, 1946 in Sick's Stadium, named after Emil Sick, owner of the Rainier Brewing Company and home of the Seattle Rainiers. In front of a mixed home crowd of 2,500, the Steelies split a doubleheader, going 1–1 with their opponent, the San Diego Tigers. In addition to their league games, the Steelheads played exhibition games all over the region, in places such as Bellingham, Spokane, and Portland.
Optimism was high, and the league anticipated success due to the influx of African Americans to the West Coast and the popularity of baseball in the Black community.
Clubs in other parts of the country had been turning a profit since the ’20s.
After the initial luster wore off though, attendance and media coverage dwindled.
The Steelheads and other teams in the league failed to gain a foothold in public interest. Despite a winning season in Seattle, the Steelies never drew large crowds during the entirety of their run.
Unable to live off the gate, the first-place Steelheads played their last game in Sick’s Stadium in September 1946. Saperstein regained control of the team and eventually renamed them after the Harlem Globetrotters, relying on his far more successful venture’s reputation of showy athleticism. The team went “barnstorming,” or playing exhibition games in rural areas, until the 1950s, years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier.
“It’s easier to start from scratch on the track than at the bank. I buckled down and proved to myself that I had the talent to think as well as run,” Owens later said.
By July, the club reached second place in the standings, but the same issues plaguing the entire league reared their head in Portland and the team folded.
And while the league faded into obscurity, the prominence of Black athletes rose, as within the next year, Jackie Robinson, an alum of the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League, was offered a contract to play for Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers, reintegrating professional baseball after almost 80 years. Other talented Negro League players were quickly signed to formerly all-white rosters, depleting the remaining Negro Leagues until their eventual demise.
Owens became the running coach of the New York Mets in 1965, and taught the next generation of Black athletes firsthand.
Activism and Unrest
Years of resentment and racial tension boiled over two unforgettable days.“How do we stop violence, looting, and riots? By making sure people have what they need to thrive.” — Alice Garza
Consistently the target of discrimination from both a statewide and local level since the state’s birth, African Americans were subjected to cruel and unfair treatment, just like in other parts of the country. Early provisions to the Oregon Constitution forbade Blacks to own property within the state, a law that, while made null and void by the 14th Amendment in the US Constitution, was Oregon law by “popular demand” until 1926. And the redlining of Black Portlanders into the Albina district of the Rose City started as early as the ’30s.
Redlining occurs when the government and the private sector deny goods and services to communities.
The City of Portland made a concerted effort to redline African American and other minorities into specific neighborhoods, North Portland especially.
Areas “unfit” for development and lending were marked in red on a map. “Low risk” or predominantly white areas were marked in green and the intermediate regions marked in blue. Consequently, communities that were “red” were left in a state of disrepair or underdevelopment, with any attempts at revitalization being flatly denied. Businesses that folded were not allowed to be replaced, leaving city blocks crumbling and dilapidated.
Add an increase in crime and over-policing, and it’s easy to see why Black people were upset nationwide, not just in Albina. Referred to as the Long, Hot Summer of 1967, 159 race-related riots broke out in cities across the country. On July 30, 1967, Portland joined this list in what is now known as the Albina Riot.
That day, a group of 150 were waiting in Irving Park to hear speeches about social justice, specifically by Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. Local law enforcement, anticipating a riot, increased their presence at the park.
Cleaver never showed up; rumors spread he’d been detained by police. The combination of his no-show, years of tension with Portland PD, and a desperation to be heard by Black Portlandians brought the situation to a head.
Soon, Black teens began throwing rocks at windows of local stores, and a group of five attacked a white park employee. Within an hour, the chaos had spread into the neighborhood, forcing law enforcement to close more than 30 blocks. Eventually, neighborhood buildings were set on fire by arsonists.
In response to the unrest, more than 200 Portland Police were called in to quell the rioting with another 200 on standby. The rioting continued into the night but was finished by the morning, only to pick up again the next night. As a result of the civil disturbance, more than 115 arrests were made, and more than $50,000 ($390,000 in today’s economy) in property damage was done.
A little more than a year later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. encapsulated the summer of riots succinctly: “A riot is the voice of the unheard.”
The Black Panther Party was a Black paramilitary group dedicated to revolutionary politics that embodied this new line of thinking. Bursting onto the scene a year before by marching into the California State Legislature to protest a bill banning firearms in public, the Panthers forcefully captured the nation’s attention, both good and bad. Although membership was never large and the party disbanded quickly, its purpose and mission were vital to the Pacific Northwest, helping introduce this region to a new form of political action.
Founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, or BPP, was created as a response to police brutality and racial injustice in Black neighborhoods.
Highlighted by the Ten-Point Program, a manifesto demanding freedom, the “power to determine the destiny of our Black community” and the right to armed self-defense, the group quickly attracted both supporters and detractors.
In an attempt to hold law enforcement accountable, the Panthers started “copwatching” — organizing their own patrols of police activity in Black neighborhoods. Soon after, the Panthers found themselves in the crosshairs of the police, engaging in deadly firefights and establishing a reputation as urban militant guerrillas.
The Seattle chapter was formed in April 1968 by Aaron Dixon, his brother Elmer, Anthony Ware, and other future Panthers who had attended the funeral of 17-year-old Bobby Hutton, a young Panther who had been killed by the police. The future Seattle Panthers were students at the University of Washington, where they founded the Black Student Union, organizing sit-ins and protests.
While attending a Black Student Union conference in Oakland, the group met Newton and Seale. Inspired by Seale’s passionate speeches and interest in learning more about the Ten-Point Program, they committed to founding the Black Panthers’ Washington State chapter.
Like their Oakland predecessors, they quickly found themselves drawing the ire of their local police department, leading to a raid on Panther headquarters and the arrest of Dixon and deputy chairman Curtis Harris over the alleged theft of a $3,000 typewriter. The subsequent demonstrations for his release incited a riot, Seattle’s first, which lasted for three days while also encouraging the Panthers to increase their endeavors in combating racial inequity.
Soon after a jury found Dixon not guilty and he was released, the Panthers received orders from Newton and the Oakland branch to establish “survival programs” for Seattle’s Black communities that offered free breakfasts, free legal aid, and later, founded the Sidney Miller Free Medical Clinic, which included baby wellness programs, genetic counseling, and sickle cell testing.
Later rebuilt to be larger, it was renamed the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center after a Panther who died of cervical cancer, and it still serves as an access point for low-income and minority residents all over Seattle to this day.
After Newton’s release from prison, the Panthers’ centralized leadership had a split in ideologies. Some members, like Newton himself, wanted to move away from the aggressive tactics they started with and focus their attention on local government and social services. This led to a complete schism between Cleaver and Newton, and the Panthers lost members in droves. Eventually, the split turned deadly, with each respective group carrying out assassinations against rival members, leading to four deaths.
Seattle wasn’t immune from the change. Many members felt embittered by the reality of the party and resigned. By 1972, Newton ordered most Panther chapters to be shut down and folded back into the Oakland branch. Dixon, still the captain of the party, eventually moved to the Bay Area and worked closely with Newton, Seale, and the rest of Panther leadership, leaving Elmer in charge of the group’s remnants. Reduced from their peak of 300 members to just a handful, the Seattle Panthers followed Newton’s vision of the party, primarily focusing on community programs until their disbandment in 1978, following the Oakland branch’s collapse.
Today, we honor the long-lasting legacy of the Seattle Black Panthers — and the courage and inspiration they gave to the future generation of social justice activists, not just in the Pacific Northwest but worldwide.
Black excellence is making noise, history, and an example, all at the same time.“Black women are going to have to take more leadership. We are prepared because we have a tenaciousness with us. We do not fear losing friends, allies, or jobs.” — Rep. Maxine Waters
The state’s ugly history of Black exclusion mandates and “sundown laws” fostered a sense of alienation, from the first Black residents until now. Only recently have Blacks been able to move into positions of power in both local and federal positions and make the progress necessary to nurture a more equitable prospect for the city. Today, we uncover two current examples of Black excellence who are leading the charge.
The first Black woman to serve on Portland City Council, Jo Ann Hardesty was also the third Black woman to become an Oregon State Representative.
A former naval officer, Hardesty was one of the first women to serve on a Navy ship. After her service ended, she moved to Oregon and became a Multnomah County Senior Policy Advisor. Committed to working with diverse communities for meaningful change and inspired by her own low-income background as one of 10 children in Baltimore, Hardesty was determined to be a political figure. In 1996, she ran for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives and won, serving from 1996 to 2003.
Using her knowledge of city policy and passion for justice, Hardesty also became a human rights advocate, serving from 2002 to 2010 as the executive director of Action Oregon, an organization focused on affordable housing, immigration rights, and racial equality. In 2007, she started a radio show called Voices from the Edge, discussing sociopolitical issues that faced Portlanders.
This work led her to be named President of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, prior to being elected to City Council in 2019, where to this day she uses her platform to address social change in the city.
No stranger to Portland, Nelson moved to the City of Roses after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Arkansas and obtaining her doctorate in law from the University of Texas, and began her law career as a public defender with a nonprofit public interest law firm.
In 2006, former Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed Nelson to serve a six-year term on Multnomah County Circuit Court as a trial judge for both criminal and civil trials, making her the second Black woman to serve as a judge in the history of Oregon — and, for a short time, the only Black judge in the state.
She served two terms, being reelected in 2012. In 2018, she became the first African American to serve in the highest court in Oregon, when Governor Kate Brown appointed her to the Oregon Supreme Court.
Active in both the local and legal communities, Nelson is highly respected and recognized for her public service. When asked why diversity matters, she said:
“It makes a difference for people to see our courts at every level are reflective of the communities we serve. It is important because it helps break down biases and stereotypes we may unintentionally have for one another, so it doesn’t seem unusual for somebody who you would never have thought in a certain position.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
Happy is the country with no history.In 2021 and beyond, BET and Thesis look to celebrate Black excellence and highlight diversity — not just in February, but always. And while we may never be completely satisfied with our past, let’s always use our mistakes and missteps as a compass to a better future.