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Black Student, White City

In 1947, she was the only African American student at Reed. Then a racist incident at a cocktail bar sparked a citywide boycott.

By John Sheehy ’82 | March 11, 2019

It was Saturday night, and the Mil-bee Club was packed. A popular college hangout—especially for World War II veterans attending Reed on the GI Bill—the cocktail lounge at the corner of Milwaukie and Bybee Avenues was a swanky alternative to the workingman’s Lutz Tavern. Although Oregon’s official minimum drinking age was 21, underage coeds were allowed into the Mil-bee if they were accompanied by an older vet.

Twenty-year-old Inez Freeman ’48 walked into the club that evening with her friend Bud Ward ’49. A psychology major, outgoing and popular, Inez was Reed’s sole African American student. She was taking a break that evening from her senior thesis, a case study exploring the psychological impact of racial discrimination on black adolescents in Vanport, a shipbuilding town eight miles north of downtown Portland.

But as the pair made their way through the crowded bar, they noticed the waitresses “watching us intently.” No sooner had they found a seat with their friends when the Mil-bee’s manager approached them and told them they would not be served—not because of their age, but because of Inez’s race.

Stung but not surprised, Inez and Bud stormed out of the club. Minutes later, the rest of the Reedies followed them out the door, and they didn’t come back.

The incident galvanized the Reed campus. Students boycotted the Mil-bee and joined students from nine other Portland schools to campaign for a civil rights ordinance that would ban discrimination. Adopting the name “Fair Rose”—a play on Portland’s nickname, the “City of Roses”—the students asked local businesses to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, or creed. Businesses who made the pledge received a decal to post in their windows. Those who refused faced a potential boycott. Heated columns appeared in the Quest endorsing the boycott and excoriating students who professed their belief in racial equality but continued to sip highballs at the Mil-bee.

For Inez, the episode was simply the latest example of the deep prejudice she had faced in the Pacific Northwest. Her parents, James and Victoria, were among the first black residents of Longview, Washington, a mill town on the Columbia River. Her father worked for the railroad. Her mother served as a nurse and midwife to the local African American community, and also became Longview’s leading civil rights activist after forcing the town to integrate her children into its all-white public schools in 1924.

Growing up in Longview with four siblings, Inez had access to the movie theater and a handful of stores, but was barred from many restaurants and the local ice cream parlor. When she took a part-time job as a bookkeeper in a women’s clothing store, she was forced to work in a closet with a curtain drawn across the door to hide her from white customers.

Driven by an unquenchable thirst for learning, she excelled in the newly integrated high school before enrolling at Lower Columbia Junior College, where she graduated summa cum laude and was elected to the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. An accomplished violinist, she decided to transfer into Reed after attending a piano recital on campus in 1946. Her tuition was covered by the Negro Scholarship, an annual award provided by an anonymous alumnus in New York City.

After enrolling at Reed, she told her family that for the first time in her life she felt like she was seen as a person in her own right, not merely by the color of her skin.

To give her Reed friends a sense of the discrimination she had experienced in Longview, Inez invited them to visit her there. Bill Wolfe ’51 recalled stopping at a gas station in Longview to ask for directions to Inez’s house. “You don’t want to go there,” the man working at the station told him, “that’s N— Town.” When Bill and his friends reached Inez’s neighborhood, they found a small cluster of small houses and a white church, segregated in the middle of a large field outside of town.

Portland at the time was not much different. Racial discrimination extended back to the exclusion laws enacted at the founding of the Oregon Territory in 1844. The need for laborers to work in the coal mines and railroad in the late 19th century eased exclusion laws, yet the laws officially remained in the state’s constitution until 1927. They were removed, ironically, at a time when the Oregon chapter of the Ku Klux Klan—the group’s largest chapter west of the Mississippi—exerted powerful political and economic presence throughout the state. Systemic and institutional racism succeeded in limiting Portland’s black population up through 1940 to fewer than 2,000 residents, below 1% of the population.

World War II brought radical racial change to the city when more than 20,000 African Americans were hired from the South to work at Henry Kaiser’s shipyard in Vanport. Upon arrival, they were greeted with signs that read “White Trade Only” and “We don’t serve Negroes, Jews, and Dogs.” Refused housing in Portland, they moved into segregated, temporary housing in Vanport.

By the time Inez transferred into Reed in 1946, Portland’s African American population had decreased to 9,500, as white supremacy and racism—detailed in a 1945 report commissioned by the Portland City Club titled “The Negro in Portland”— restricted local employment opportunities for blacks after the shipyard closed. As a result of redlining, two-thirds of the black population remained in Vanport, while the rest were crammed into the Albina neighborhood of Northeast Portland.

Inez set out with her senior thesis to determine if “growing up as a Negro” presented children with discernable psychological trauma stemming from discrimination. She selected as her subjects five students from Vanport’s integrated junior high school, all of whom had spent their early youth in segregated communities in the South and who were classified by school officials as “maladjusted” in their social behavior.

The case study provided Inez with an illuminating view into race relations, but she was not able to validate her thesis that race created the sort of psychological struggles she and her friends had experienced growing up in Longview. She surmised that the South’s deeply ingrained segregation had instilled in her subjects a belief that blacks and whites were inherently different, hindering any expectations of integration.

Inez graduated in May 1948, becoming Reed’s second black graduate on record (Geraldine Turner ’32 was the first). A few weeks later, on Memorial Day, a dike along the Columbia River ruptured, flooding Vanport and sending inhabitants to higher ground. Black residents were forced to move into the overcrowded Albina neighborhood—or leave.

It wasn’t until 1953 that a collaboration of the Fair Rose coalition, the NAACP, the Portland City Club, and the local Urban League (of which Reed’s president E.B. MacNaughton [1948–52] was a prominent member) persuaded Oregon legislators to pass the state’s first civil rights bill, providing equality in public accommodations. But discrimination continued to flourish, restricting black residents to less than 1% of Portland’s population well into the 1960s.

After Reed, Inez pursued graduate studies at San Francisco State, but became sidelined by the first of many serious illnesses. She returned to the Northwest, where she worked as a school teacher and social worker while continuing her studies at Lewis and Clark College and Eastern Washington State College.

After marrying, she moved with her husband and two small children to Chicago in the early 1960s, where she continued her studies at the University of Chicago while working as a journalist for the groundbreaking Negro Digest from the Johnson Publishing Company, which also published Ebony and Jet magazines. There, she covered the politics, social action, and economic health of the black world. In one article, written after the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham that became an inflection point for the civil rights movement, she ironically described the evolving social etiquette of a white suburban mother, whose young son pointed to a black person boarding the bus and referred to the woman using the N-word. His mother, red-faced, pulled the boy’s arm down and gently replied, “Yes, and don’t point!”

Inez Freeman passed away in 1967 in Tacoma, Washington, at the age of 39 after a long struggle with colon cancer.

John Sheehy ’82 is the author of Comrades of the Quest, An Oral History of Reed College.

Tags: Alumni, Diversity/Inclusion, Editor's Picks, Obituaries, Reed History