The Harriet Tubman Middle School Protests | Black United Front vs. the Portland School Board



By Evan Smiley ::


Black United Front leader, Ron Herndon, stood on a desk at this 1982 protest, leading members of the African American community in chants of “You’d better go home because we ain’t.”  Photograph courtesy of The Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 95005 Max Gutierrez Collection OHS

In 1982, The Black United Front along with other members and leaders of the black community protested the Portland School Board’s decision to place Harriet Tubman Middle School at the Boise Elementary School site. The Tubman location decision clearly exemplified institutional racism, and the demonstrations following the decision proved the strength of peaceful and persistent protest.

In the 1960s, the Portland School District implemented busing programs to desegregate schools. However, the early busing program put the majority of the burden on the black community. Busing did not improve minority test scores, as they had hoped.  Instead, busing systematically lowered enrollment numbers at black schools while boosting enrollment at white schools, giving the majority white school board more justification in closing the schools in black communities.

In 1980, to replace the flawed busing program, the Portland School Board established plans to distribute desegregated schools throughout Portland. The plan promised that the Harriet Tubman Middle School would be located at the Eliot Childhood Education Center, near Memorial Coliseum. Locating Tubman Middle School there meant that the last K-8th school within the black community, Boise Elementary School, could remain open. Inversely, placing Tubman Middle School at the Boise location would force 350 elementary students to be bused out of their neighborhood to five different elementary schools.

However on March 5, 1982, the school board voted 5-2 to reverse their decision and place the Harriet Tubman Middle School at the Boise site, dismantling the last elementary school within the black community. The school board made this decision without any attempt to discuss the change with the community. The decision was also made in spite of the opinions of the superintendent Matthew Prophet, and many other individuals and organization.

This insensitivity to the needs of the black community prompted 150 protesters led by Ron Herndon to disrupt the next school board meeting on March 29, 1982, with chants of “We’re going to take our school from these fools,” and “You’d better go home because we ain’t.” After an hour, Board Chairman, William Scott, and acting superintendent, James Fenwick decided to adjourn the meeting and go home. The school board held their next meeting away from the public, further removing black voices from the process and their decisions, violating the board’s procedures and the Oregon Public Meetings Law. In response to the silencing that the protesters received from the board, the Black United Front along with many others organized a march against racism in which over 500 participants marched from Alberta Park to the King neighborhood facility.

On April 20, the school board filed suit for an injunction against the Black United Front and its supporters, however, the next day The Oregonian reported that the board postponed the suit to initiate mediation conducted by Robert Hughes. After the three-day mediation, the board voted 6-1 to permanently locate Tubman at the Eliot site as promised in the desegregation plan originally written in 1980.

The Harriet Tubman Middle School protests, beginning on March 29, 1982, occurred not just because the Portland School Board reversed their decision on a promise made to the black community two years prior, but because the school board refused to hear the opinions of the people their decisions affected before and after making their decision. The black community had to resort to protest because they were cut from the democratic process. The Tubman decision was the first time in the district’s history that the board chose the opposite of what the community desired, but due to unified and relentless peaceful protest the community was heard.

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Evan Smiley, Project Manager
Kim Andrew, Fact Checker/ Editor
Will Schneider, Fact Checker/ Editor
Tanya Monthey, Contributor