A large number of the 87,000 black people in Oregon can trace their heritage back to this hotel. For many black people this hotel is why they are in Oregon today. 100 years ago their Great Grand Fathers and Grandfathers worked there and for a few of us so did our Grandmothers. When my Grandfather came to Portland in 1935 he was able to work there for 2 weeks learning the “Boot Black Hustle” (Shine Shoes) He was filling in for someone else while they were away. He made as much as $2 per day there at 10 cents a shine and he felt he was rich. He use to say a man could feed himself well with that hustle and he did not have to worry about cops.
The black men that worked at the Portland Hotel along with the men that were Pullman Porters for the Railroad were the backbone of the black middle class in Portland. They were men that were hard workers, were usually family men and leaders in the black community. People like my Grandfather held those people in very high regard.
Almost 50 years later my Grandfather laced my boots about the Book Black Hustle when he gave me a job shining shoes with him. It was during those many, many hours of working with him that I learned some of the stories I share with you today.. My Grandfather’s favorite hustle as he called it was shining shoes. He loved it more than his others hustles such as pimping, bootlegging both booze and cab, running night clubs, and other hustles that he was not as proud of. He told me that he wanted me to learn how to shine shoes so I would always be able to feed myself and my family. Because he said when all other hustles fail, a man can always shine shoes and make some money.
When the Hotel was torn down many of the old black people felt that white Portland was getting their revenge on the Hotel for hiring so many black people. They were all wrong of course but there was no way for them to learn the truth. The truth of the matter is Mr. Meyer (Meyer and Frank Department Store) wanted the Parking and he wanted to get it before someone else got tit. I had Breakfast with one of the men that worked on that project to tear the Hotel down. He is in his 80’s now and the stories he had about how that deal when down was something that would make a good movie or TV show.
I was told all of the doormen were black. Some could pass for white and they did. The ones that could pass for white made better tips than the black guys that could not pass for white. So the solution was to pool the tips on certain days. My Grandfather said those guys made white lawyer money…..LOL Especially during the holidays.
The reason so many black people worked at the Hotel was simple. Black people would work for less money than white people. I can not remember what the difference was but I do remember black people would work for half the weekly salary that the average white person wanted.. What appealed to black people in the south was they were making 2 to 3 times more than what they would be making in the south. The hotel owner also promised each man that if they worked for him for a period of time he would arrange for their families to follow them to Oregon. . My Grandfather said with Tips most of the black people that worked at the hotel were making close t 10 times what white people made in the south doing the same job and they lived in Portland. Blessings all around as he and a few of his friends use to say. Black people connected to the hotel use to use that phrase to show how lucky they felt to have had the opportunity. The argument back then before the Ship Yard opened up was which job was a better job. Being a Pullman Porter or working at the Portland Hotel. Each person had their own opinion of course. My Grandfather liked both jobs but felt the Hotel workers had the edge because they got to sleep in their own beds at night.