In 1944, Ed Washington left the racist frying pan of Alabama for the Pacific Northwest.
He didn't know he'd be moving into the fire.
Washington, who served on the Metro Council from 1991 to 2001, gave a presentation Thursday about Oregon's history of racism in a Metro Council chamber packed with employees and guests.
He was 7 when he moved from Birmingham to Portland, transplanted so his father could find work in the city's shipyards. It was enough time to remember the racist South.
"I remember going to the store, and if you wanted a drink of water, if you're a kid you'd go to a fountain and you were told you can't use that fountain," he said.
His family settled in Vanport, an "unbelievable place" that Washington fondly remembered. But they didn't escape racism – in fact, Washington said, they found a new kind of hate, or "stuff," as he referred to it.
"I ran into more stuff here growing up than I ever could possibly have thought up in Birmingham," he said. Sure, in Alabama, you'd have to walk through a barrage of epithets. "I think we sort of went past that," he said.
Washington described Oregon's racism as more passive-aggressive. He recalls applying for a job as a supply person at an Eastman Kodak shop downtown. He was there early, he said, and dressed up.
"I think I went there four or five times, and I just kept getting the push-off. Finally I asked him… 'I know I'm qualified for that job. I meet the criteria that you have, and you know I've never been in any trouble. Why is it? What's the reason? Is it because I'm colored? A negro?'
"And he looked at me and he said 'Yes… because we had one once before and it didn't work out,'" Washington recalled the manager saying. "And I said, 'Therefore, you figure that everybody is like that person?'
"I didn't get the job," Washington said. Instead, he worked as a busboy – the most common job for Black people in Portland at the time.
That wasn't just a job for Black high schoolers. Men with degrees from Black universities in the South were clearing tables, even with their education.
After the Vanport flood, with unemployment among Portland's minorities soaring, civic leaders encouraged Black people to leave.
"But we didn't," Washington said. Instead, he and others fought to ensure equality, starting in the workplace.
"In 1956, when I graduated (from Grant High School), there were no Blacks at any banks in Portland, no clerks at any stores in Portland, there weren't even Black service station attendants," he said. "I think there was one bus driver, and I think I remember one Black being a meatcutter at Safeway."
When the Kienow's grocery store turned a way several Black applicants for grocery bagger jobs, Washington and others organized a boycott. The hard line on hiring vanished.
Things got a little easier once Oregon law enforcement officials got involved. Washington recalled trying to make a reservation at a motel on the Oregon Coast and being declined because of his race.
He called a friend in Salem, who went to the hotel to check out the situation. Later, his friend called and confirmed his reservation at the hotel.
"There were signs all over saying 'We do not discriminate,' so they nailed her, and that was fine," Washington said. "The most wonderful thing is to see a person's face when they have done something stupid like that."
He remembered trying to rent an apartment on what then Union Avenue. He was quoted $95 a month for the place. His white friend looked at the same apartment and was quoted $65.
Washington went back and talked to the landlord. After the higher price was confirmed, his white friend walked in the room.
"He stepped out from behind the cover and her face just dropped," he said. "A lot of silly stuff that you have to challenge. You don't take stuff from anybody. You use the law."
In the 50 years since Washington was confronted with that level of racism, the tone has, in some ways, reversed. Then, Washington and others were struggling to be engaged as equals and stakeholders. Now, Metro often struggles to engage minorities in its conversations and activities.
That was on the mind of Metro Sustainability Center director Jim Desmond, who asked if Washington explored the wetlands around Vanport as a child. Washington said he did, clearly remembering chasing frogs around the Columbia Slough and Smith and Bybee Lakes. He recalled giant goldfish taking up residence in the Slough after escaping from peoples' homes during the devastating 1948 Vanport Flood, which wiped out the community.
"If you go there tomorrow, you're probably not going to see a lot of African Americans, even though it's not hard to access," Desmond asked. "What would you advise us about how we do a better job of engaging African American youth around our natural areas work?"
Washington said Metro needs to work in schools and churches to encourage field trips, " to let them know there are some great areas," he said.
A couple of Metro employees asked Washington how the regional government could get a better look at Black perspectives in decision-making. The former councilor said the people who really, truly know Metro well are environmentalists, developers and planners.
"Somehow, we never made that leap over to make sure that people really understood," Washington said. "With all the money spent on bike lanes and all of that, somehow Metro needs to let people know the role we play in those things. I think we still keep it too much of a secret."
He said those conversations could, at times, be "painful," pointing to North Williams Avenue as an example.
"I don't even recognize the place anymore," he said. "I go up there and I'm amazed. I used to chase girls here! I just think you need to talk about what you do as a government and you need to help people understand this is an important part of their lives."