Father and child, 1968.

Father and child, 1968.

Radical Treatment

In the late ’60s, the Black Panthers set up free medical and dental clinics in cities across the country; in Portland, these “survival programs” were helped by a handful of Reedies.

By Martha Gies | December 1, 2009

The Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party was launched in 1969 when Kent Ford decided the community had had enough. Beaten by the police and arrested for inciting to riot, Ford was awaiting trial in the old Rocky Butte Jail with little hope of raising bail. Ten days later, someone miraculously posted the full amount: $80,000. Ford was brought downtown for processing to the old police station at Southwest Third Avenue and Oak Street; right there on the steps, he held a press conference. “I said, ‘If they keep coming in with these fascist tactics, we’re going to defend ourselves.’”

The story of Reed’s connection to the Panthers also begins at that moment: the exorbitant bail—nearly a quarter of a million dollars in today’s currency—was raised by Don Hamerquist ’62, a man Ford had only just met. “It was some Communists that got me out,” says Ford, who was eager to get to know his benefactor. “I went over to his house and found out he was at Reed.”

Not exactly. Hamerquist, originally from Clallam Bay, Washington, had enrolled at Reed back in 1957. He had been a history major, studying for five years on a full scholarship with professors like Howard Jolly and John Pock in sociology, and Smith Fussner in history. The completion of his thesis—on the foreign policy of the 1948 Progressive Party platform—was all he lacked for graduation.

“There was a lot of social disruption in those years,” says Hamerquist, “and I didn’t study a lot. Essentially I was looking for leftists to recruit. I managed to get thrown out of most classes because I had a problem with the politics of my professors.”

In 1969, when he met Ford, Hamerquist was neither a student nor a member of the Communist Party. “By then, I’d been out working as a truck driver for some years and I’d been expelled from the party for factional behavior—essentially opposing the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia,” he says.

But he still knew plenty of people on the left in Portland, among them Morris Malbin, a radiologist who put up a $40,000 for Ford’s bail, and Penny Sabin, who contributed $40,000 in Blue Bell Potato Chip stocks.

For Ford, who had graduated from high school in 1961 and turned down a college scholarship in order to support his mother and siblings, meeting Hamerquist was not his first exposure to Reed. He had often browsed the campus bookstore in the late ’60s, buying Ho Chi Minh’s On Revolution, the works of Mao Tse-Tung, and some rare English-language pamphlets produced by the Viet Cong.

Hamerquist was also able to help Ford find a lawyer, Nick Chaivoe, who not only got Ford acquitted on the riot charges, but successfully sued the Portland Police in federal court for brutal treatment at the time of the arrest.

Meanwhile, Ford and a handful of others—Tommy Mills, Percy Hampton, Oscar Johnson, and Tom Venters—had started talking to people on the street about police brutality, lack of job opportunities, the economic disparity between the races, the role blacks were forced to play in fighting the war in Vietnam—and what the Panthers could do about it.

The original chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in 1966. Their first document, a list of demands for human rights called the Ten-Point Platform and Program, cited the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence in support of its points. The Party’s first actions included patrolling the city streets, armed, in an effort to silently monitor Oakland police, a precaution meant to ensure that black citizens were either arrested or let go—but not beaten or waylaid on the way to the station, as had happened all too often.

The following year, in 1967, members of the party—wearing black jackets and sunglasses—appeared at the California State Legislature with guns to protest a bill intended to ban the display of loaded weapons. That same year, Huey Newton was critically wounded and arrested following a shoot-out on an Oakland street that left a police officer dead. These events, especially as they involved weapons, were well documented by an astonished press.

What never got as much attention were the Panther social programs—the clinics; the breakfast programs; the testing for sickle cell anemia, high blood pressure, and lead poisoning; and the community outreach and education on the legal rights of the individual.

The Portland chapter got its free children’s breakfast program up and running in fall 1969. Every school day for five years, the Panthers provided breakfast for up to 125 children in the dining room of Highland United Church of Christ. (To this day, it is not unusual in Portland for one of the former Panthers, now in their 60s and 70s, to have some 40-year-old come up to them and say, “Do you remember me? You used to give me pancakes in the morning before I went to school.”)

Also that fall, Kent Ford got a call at the new Party office on Union Avenue (renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1989), which would lead to Hamerquist’s third big favor for the fledgling chapter. “I hear you guys are thinking about opening up a health clinic,” he said. “I got just the guy you need to talk to.”

That was how the Party came to work with Jon Moscow ’69.

A Long Island native, Moscow had joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) after studying a front-page story in Newsday about a group of people who got arrested while demonstrating against school segregation. “I just thought it was something I wanted to be involved in,” Moscow recalls. He was 13 at the time.

He chose Reed for two reasons: he had fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest from listening to Woody Guthrie songs, and he wanted to get as far away from home as he could. “I didn’t even think about Hawaii,” he realizes today.

Reed accepted him as a freshman in 1965, when activism was still attractive to schools. “They hadn’t yet experienced students taking over their buildings,” Moscow points out. (The Columbia University uprising didn’t occur until 1968.)

He turned 18 in October of his sophomore year. It was 1966 and troop levels in Vietnam were inching up toward 400,000, but, in order to register as a conscientious objector, Moscow refused the 2S deferment he would have received automatically as a full-time student. His C.O. status denied, he eventually reported to Fort Hamilton, where he failed his physical because of asthma. “I didn’t want to get out that way,” Moscow says, “so I burned my draft card in Grant Park during the ’68 Democratic Convention and sent the ashes to the draft board.”

Moscow spent his junior year in Hyderabad, doing research on an experiment in village-level democracy—his thesis was called “Inequality and status in Indian rural development”—and returned to Reed in 1968.

That winter, he went back to New York for winter break and got work with the Urban Coalition writing a report on the city’s hospital system. In the process, he discovered Health/PAC, the policy advisory center started by activist Robb Burlage. “I fell in love with them,” Moscow says. In his final semester at Reed, he started his own research and action project, Health/RAP, along with roommate Robert Spindel ’70. Together they researched healthcare options in Portland.

“I had been involved in Portland from as soon as I arrived at Reed,” recalls Moscow, who participated in the DiGiorgio grape boycott in 1966. “I had no desire to be an island. There was a small group of us political people who did things off campus.”

After graduation, Moscow stayed in town, immersing himself in anti-war activities, getting arrested during the Fry Roofing strike, and launching Health/RAP. “I thought it would be really exciting to see how it carried over in Portland,” says Moscow, whose sights were set first on the Multnomah County Hospital, where it was hard to get an appointment and waiting room delays were endless. The need for clinics in the community was also clear to him;
at the time, the sole county clinic was in the hospital itself, way up on “pill hill.”

To support himself, Moscow got a $20-a-week job writing for the Willamette Bridge, Portland’s alternative newspaper, and an indispensable venue for his own Health/RAP press releases.

When he got a call from Kent Ford, who contacted him at Hamerquist’s suggestion, the timing could not have been more perfect. Given the higher infant mortality rates among blacks, and shorter life expectancies, a collaboration with the Panthers was right there on Health/RAP’s platform.

Moscow soon had a space picked out: Dr. Webster Brown’s former clinic, at 109 N. Russell St., was available for $100 a month. The next step was to recruit some doctors.

Neurosurgeon George Barton ’55 was Moscow’s first volunteer. (There is more than one theory about how the two met. Sandra Ford, then married to Kent Ford, insists that Moscow went down the Oregon Medical Board list, calling Portland doctors until he finally found one—he’d reached the B’s—who was interested in helping the Panthers start a clinic. Barton, on the other hand, thinks they met at the Unitarian Church.)

Barton had worked in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968, serving in the Peace Corps with his wife and five children. “I worked in a neurosurgery ward, where I accomplished nothing,” he says. “But it was worth it to see an Arab society and experience the warmth and kindness of those people.”

After the Peace Corps, Barton volunteered with Outside In, a street clinic started in 1968 in response to the spreading use of drugs in Portland. He didn’t last long. “Because I told them the truth,” he says. “‘These are a bunch of rich kids pretending to be hippies.’ They fired me.”

He was still looking to make a contribution when he met Moscow. “I just regretted missing all the action in the States,” say Barton, whose brother, Lane, had gone to Selma. “But I wouldn’t have gone to the South on a bus. I was scared of those lynchings and those people with baseball bats.”

Moscow, Barton, and the Fords went to look at the space. “There was a bar on the right and a men’s store on the left,” Ford recalls. “It was a rowdy area.It would have been considered the ghetto, back then.”

“The four of us kept dither­ing around,” Sandra recalls, “thinking of reasons why we couldn’t start right away—
all kinds of problems, all the stuff we’d need. But Dr. Barton said, ‘Oh hell, let’s just do it!’”

They rented the space and went to work: Panthers cleaned and painted the clinic, a friend of Moscow’s built shelves, and Moscow and Sandra made contacts in town, asking for money, equipment, and volunteers.

The Fords were in awe of what Moscow could accomplish. 

Sandra was stunned that so many white people invited her and Moscow into their homes and wrote them checks. “We went up on Mt. Tabor, the West Hills, Council Crest, Marine Drive. It was a real eye opener to me, because I’d been brought up in the projects. I lived in Columbia Villa until I graduated from high school.”

Kent had only read about organizers like Moscow. “Like the SNCC people and the CORE people and the Peace and Freedom Party people. I’d never met one. My only organizing experience personally was street corner organizing.”

They named the clinic after a 21-year-old Panther leader who had been murdered by Chicago police on December 4, 1969. “We had decided it was going to be the People’s Health Clinic,” Moscow says, “but then Fred Hampton was killed.” Though officials would claim the deaths of Hampton and colleague Mark Clark had occurred as a result of a gun battle, ballistic evidence showed that the bullets were all incoming—the people in the apartment where they were killed, including Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend, were asleep. The raid was one of several on Panther offices and homes; in September 1968, J. Edgar Hoover had declared open season on the Party, calling it the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

In Portland, the Panther free clinic opened its doors as the Fred Hampton Memorial People’s Health Clinic. In the cover story for the Bridge, Moscow wrote: 

“We now have 27 doctors, plus nurses and medical students. Our X-ray diagnosis is done free for us and the lab work that we can’t do in the clinic is sent out for free. We have specialty referrals to private offices on a free basis in surgery, internal medicine, dermatology, hematology, neurology, pediatrics and cancer therapy. We also have a small but growing lab of our own, and we have been offered a portable X-ray machine and its accessories.”

In the same article, Moscow made a call to readers. “If you happen to have an autoclave on hand,” he wrote, “we can use it.” He also invited them to support the clinic by sending a check, giving his home address, and ended the article with “All Power to the People!”

Shortly after the article appeared, the postman came to his door. “‘I just want to let you know that there’s a mail cover on all your mail.’ he told us. ‘I can’t do anything about it, but I just wanted you to know that they’re checking all your envelopes.’”

The health clinic was open weeknights, from 7 to 10 p.m. Serving 25 to 50 patients a night, it provided free care to anyone who walked through the doors. Cathy Traylor, a successful businesswoman with Forte Marketing who travels across the country to organize the sales of Yamahas and Steinways, visited the clinic in 1972. Just out of college and new to Portland, she had a job making celery boxes and couldn’t afford a doctor.

“I can’t remember how I heard about it, but clearly it was a Panther clinic,” says Traylor, who is white. “I was seen right away and everybody was so nice. It was totally free, and I wasn’t asked any questions about whether I’d be able to pay.”

Except for Bill Davis, a pathologist (and brother of the late Ossie Davis), the doctors were white. Sandra makes the point that the four black doctors in town—Drs. Unthank, Reynolds, Marshall, and Brown—already did a lot of pro bono work just by virtue of working in the community. 

Barton’s wife remembers that her husband used to bicycle to the clinic for his Wednesday night shift, and the Panthers always offered him an escort out of the area, a precaution that he rejected.

“My experience with the Panthers was nothing but positive,” says Barton, who was then establishing a practice as a neurologist. In contrast to the patients he’d had at Outside In, Barton found his patients at the Panther clinic to be very much in need of his services. Ford remembers Barton making home visits to a few elderly men, including a neighborhood character called Governor Coleman. “When his apartment building ran out of oil,” Barton remembers, “Governor used his cook stove for heat.”

Once Moscow got a project up and running, he had a way of disappearing, in true community organizer fashion.

“He’s such a smart guy!” Sandra says. “He’d get another idea and start another project.”

In 1970, Moscow helped open the Panther Dental Clinic. He recruited Gerry Morrell, a dentist who was also in charge of community outreach for the Multnomah Dental Society. Morrell, in turn, brought in most of the other dentists. Like the health clinic, the dental clinic remained in operation by the Panthers throughout the 1970s.

For Morrell, who had grown up in small Washington towns, working with the Black Panthers was a revelation. “I went to Oregon State in the ’50s and they never even had a black basketball player until the ’60s. I remember seeing Kent and thinking, he’s not that scary.

“Kent and Sandra always stressed you can like or dislike people, but do so on the basis of who they are, not on the basis of their race.”

Sandra Ford, too, was changed by the clinics. “I just got more and more involved,” she says. She did all the scheduling for the medical clinic, and took on the dental scheduling, too. She even did some dental assisting. “Which was mostly closing my eyes and holding out the instruments,” Sandra laughs. “But I did learn to sterilize things.”

She also found her niche. In 1977, she went through a University of Washington program and today, with 40 years in healthcare, works at Garlington Center as a physician’s assistant in community mental health.

Don Hamerquist is back on the Olympic Peninsula, where he describes his work as “fighting the timber companies.”

Jon Moscow works in New York as an educational consultant and grant writer, and continues to be an activist for racial and economic justice.

George Barton retired after 24 years as a neurosurgeon at Kaiser. He lives in Vancouver, Washington, and is still a champion of universal health care.

Recently, former Panthers Percy Hampton, Oscar Johnson, and Kent Ford took a tour of North and Northeast Portland. Only the dental clinic, which they ran for a decade, is still open, now operated by the OHSU Dental School. The health clinic is gone, and both of the Union Avenue buildings that housed the Panther offices have been torn down. “Boy, they just completely erased us,” Oscar Johnson observed.

But their gratitude—to Don Hamerquist and Jon Moscow, to Dr. George Barton and Dr. Gerry Morrell, and to all the doctors and dentists who helped them back in the day—will never be erased.

 Martha Gies is the author of Up All Night, a portrait of Portland told through the stories of 23 people who work graveyard shift. In Veracruz, Gies leads an annual writing workshop called Traveler’s Mind; at home in Portland, she teaches at the Attic Writers’ Workshop.

Tags: Cool Projects, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Reed History, Service, Alumni