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The Dr. John D. Marshall building has been designated a national historic site. Presenting the plaque to Bernie Foster, left, and Bobbie Dore Foster, right, owners of the building, is Congressman Earl Blumenauer, flanked by members of the Marshall family.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 17 July 2023

The Dr. John D. Marshall Building stands in tribute to its namesake Black physician, beloved and respected in the community for his patient advocacy and for creating a space where Black patients could expect quality care and advocacy. It is also a location that stands in defiance of the rampant disruption of Black community life throughout the last century and through to today.

dr john d marshall building plaque fullPlaque from the National Register of Historic Places is mounted on the Dr. John D. Marshall Building in Portland, Ore.
“The Marshall Building’s relevance to Portland’s Black community should be not just remembered but honored,” Blumenauer said in a statement to The Skanner. “Portland, and Oregon, have a challenging history of racism. The 1948 Vanport flood and the paving over of the Albina neighborhood for I-5 and I-84 means that precious few sites of historical significance to the Black and Brown communities in Portland remain. By elevating the legacies of buildings like the Marshall House, our community is taking a step forward in ensuring these histories will be systematically remembered, instead of overlooked and systematically forgotten.”

“That a Black Portlander could own a piece of property and have control of how that property was used, rather than being at the whim of displacement and gentrification – I think that makes this place special,” Brandon Spencer-Hartle, planner and historic project resources program manager at the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, told The Skanner.

When Marshall had the building constructed in 1952, he was one of at most five Black doctors practicing in Portland. The Chicago-born physician had already lost a home in the Vanport flood, and the medical office where he first worked as a sole practitioner had been claimed by eminent domain to make way for the I-5 Broadway-Weidler Interchange, according to his son, John. By the century’s end, the clinic Marshall built at 2337 N. Williams Avenue would house not only a succession of Black-run businesses – including a medical practice, dental practice, pharmacy, free healthcare clinic and funeral home – but also become a focal point in the fight for health equity.

In 1982, it also became The Skanner’s headquarters. It is still owned by the newsgroup's founders, Bernie and Bobbie Foster.

“If that building could talk!” Bernie said.

“It was built to give life, and now that we have Terry Funeral Home there,” to accommodate the rituals around death, “it did a 180-degree turn. In that time, there have been the Panthers, there’s been other city leaders – it’s always had Black tenants.”

"We acquired this building in 1982 because we needed the space after having been in a cramped office on what was then Union Avenue, now MLK Boulevard,” Bobbie said. “We wanted to remain in Northeast Portland, and be in the heart of the community we were serving, so this was an ideal location. We wanted The Skanner to be a voice that documented the accomplishments of Black people, listened to their concerns and presented vital information for the well-being of the community."

Bobbie had a striking example of the paper’s direct impact on the area.

“In the early 1980s when Union Avenue was overrun with drug dealers, prostitutes and others who persisted in intimidating people,” she said, “blocking sidewalks as they went about their business. The Skanner began publishing the names of Johns who had been arrested. The King Neighborhood Association got involved and sent copies of the paper to  the Johns’ homes. This action played a key role in making Union Avenue safer, and pedestrians were no longer harassed. The plan was so successful that Ted Koppel, host of ABC TV’s Nightline news show, came to Portland to cover the story…”

Landmark For A Legacy

During the designation ceremony, Marshall’s son, also named John D. Marshall, described how the building and his father’s legacy were intertwined.

historical building plaque medClose-up of the historical building plaque presented to building owners Bernie and Bobbie Foster July 10, 2023.
“It is a real honor to see this building attain the historic landmark status,” John said. “My father selected the architect and general contractor, approved the design and paid for the construction of the building that opened in 1952.”

Marshall was born in Chicago to a mother who had graduated from Tuskegee University and a father who was a practicing attorney. Both Marshall and his brother Jack were graduates of the University of Chicago, and both served in the Army during World War II.

Marshall completed his studies at Meharry Medical College, a historically Black medical school in Nashville. While interning at Harlem Hospital, he met student nurse Viola Artsen, whom he married after he completed his residency in Kansas.

In 1947, Marshall began a joint medical practice with Dr. DeNorval Unthank, who at times had been the only Black physician in practice in Portland.

“Dr. Unthank was a pathway for all Black physicians that came to Portland,” John said.

Marshall and his wife were at Mount Hood the day of the Vanport flood. The couple lost their home, but Marshall managed to rescue his cherished medical books, his son noted.

“They suffered the scourge of urban renewal directly and indirectly,” John said.

“The Emanuel Hospital expansion in the early seventies wiped away 77 acres of housing and businesses, disrupting the lives of families in the heart of the Black community that had been displaced repeatedly for the Harbor freeway, Memorial Coliseum, I-5 freeway, and various other projects that devastated the health of my dad’s patients and the neighborhood that he served.”

Marshall and Viola raised five sons and one daughter near Columbia Park. John recalled a number of Marshall’s patients bringing by gifts of fish in the summer.

“I later learned that partial payments, payments in kind and outright forgiveness was not uncommon in light of the challenges Dad’s patients faced,” he said. “It was part of community service.”

John recalled that while his father was not politically oriented, “he did intervene on behalf of patients to gain access to treatment at several Portland hospitals.”

Marshall retired in 1980 and subsequently sold the building. Bernie recalled that when The Skanner moved in, there were multiple addresses for the building – in fact, a pharmacy and a number of practices operated next door to Marshall during his 28 years on Williams. 

“Just one building provided office space for so many Black professionals, early Black professionals, and the Black Panthers,” Kimberly Moreland, community historian and president of Oregon Black Pioneers, told The Skanner. “We had a kind of built-in network, because there was such a need and limited choices for Black professionals to find commercial space. I think that’s what impressed me the most – the role that (Marshall) played in providing this space for Black professionals.”

‘A Complicated History’

In 1972, new plans for Emanuel Hospital displaced Black neighborhoods and the Black Panther Party-run Fred Hampton People’s Free Health Clinic on North Russell Street. Though the Black Panther Party (BPP) was popularly characterized as a radical militant group -- members responded to excessive police force in part by encouraging Black Americans to possess firearms for self-defense  – members largely focused on issues of class and wealth disparity, organizing networks of robust social programs, like Free Breakfast For Children, to fill in the gaps for marginalized Black Americans.

The hospital’s additional disruption to Black life and livelihood in North Portland did not sit well with the local BPP and its allies: PSU’s Black Student Union, the Portland chapters of the NAACP, White Panther Party, Socialist Workers Party and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom joined the local BPP for a three-day protest in Irving Park. BPP members then demonstrated nonviolently outside the hospital, criticizing administration for reneging on assurances they would build low-income housing for all the residents being displaced by the project. Protesters also criticized the hospital for its failure to hire locally for construction and hospital staff jobs.

Emanuel Hospital ultimately agreed to pay relocation expenses for the BPP clinic, as well as cover a five-year lease on space in Marshall’s building, with the Portland Development Commission agreeing to finance facility renovations. The health clinic and Malcolm X People’s Dental Clinic operated until 1979, staffed by both Black and White volunteer practitioners.

“My first job was there,” Michelle DePass, who recently served as Portland Public Schools board chair, told The Skanner. She described accompanying her mother to the clinic when she was 12, assisting clinic staff with preventative health measures.

“Because there was such a high concentration of African Americans in the neighborhood, the Black Panther clinic promised to do sickle cell anemia screenings, because it’s more prevalent in Black communities,” she explained. “I actually pricked people’s fingers for blood.”

DePass recalled gallons of pancake batter spilling in the backseat of the family vehicle as her mother drove to work at the local Free Breakfast for Children program, and working alongside community activist Sandra Ford to prepare slides for the health screenings.

“I spent a lot of time in and around the building with both of my grandparents because that neighborhood used to be filled with businesses, necessary businesses, like insurance companies, grocery stores, a meat market, doctors’ offices, including Dr. Marshall’s.”

There was a lot of pain in the neighborhood, DePass said: resonant trauma from the Vanport flood, the ongoing fracturing of the community in the shadow of Emanuel Hospital.

The clinic, she added, became a “kind of touchpoint for community members that were hurting.”

Adding To The Narrative

Securing a place on the national registry is no small feat.

“It takes about 150 hours to prepare the documentation, which includes a physical description of the building, a history of the building, as well as an academic bibliography, photos, maps – it is a college-level, end-of-term research paper,” Ian Johnson, associate deputy state historic preservation officer, told The Skanner.

The city of Portland and the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office both nominated the building for the national register. Bobbie thanked Blumenauer, Spencer-Hartle, Moreland and Johnson for their time and skill.

"They have shepherded this project through many hours of hard work, research and dedication to increasing Black historic sites in the state of Oregon," she said.

The National Park Service, which administers the registry, agreed with applicants that “the Dr. John D. Marshall Building uniquely represents efforts to address disparities in medical access for African Americans living in postwar Portland.” Local preservationists noted that recent efforts to better document the history of marginalized Americans has led to a different kind of calculus for what qualifies as “historically significant” – and that typical considerations about a building’s age, historic integrity and aesthetics can be outweighed for buildings as significant as 2337 North Williams Street. 

“The national register also allows for a comparative analysis,” Johnson said. “So of all the buildings associated with this particular history, how many are left? And most importantly, how historically significant is it?...In the case of the Marshall building, it’s got a very significant history, it’s got a context that’s directly associated with the African American community there, and it’s got kind of a unique and singular association with the medical practices and history.”

He added, “I think what really struck me about this building is it’s more than just a business enterprise. In a time period when African Americans could not go to a lot of the hospitals or the clinics, and White doctors wouldn’t make the housecalls, this is about a community providing for itself and I think shows a lot of resilience and determination in the face of adversity.”

Spencer-Hartle would agree.

“What I think is so great about this one is the reliance on oral histories and reliance on stories within the community, rather than just the architect’s blueprints, rather than just the sort of dominant stories” available, he said.

“This really required a community to tell stories that in the past maybe hadn’t been published as extensively in the archival history of the city.”

Moreland was instrumental in conducting extensive research for the application, and credited architectural historian Caitlyn Ewers for helping create a cohesive narrative about the property.

“I think it’s important to note that a listing in the national register doesn’t make a building historic,” Johnson considered. “It’s already historic, and the national registry is a way of incorporating the (local stories) into the national story, into the national narrative.” 

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