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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

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.”

Jon Moscow and Sandra Ford

Jon Moscow (left) and Sandra Ford share memories and a laugh in 2008.

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.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009