Out & Back: A Portland club counters the racism of running’s hometown

Host Alison Mariella Desir explores the roots of Oregon’s racist past by jogging through city streets with Deadstock Run Club.

Portland is among the whitest big cities in America. A recent demographic report shows the so-called liberal enclave ahead of cities like Colorado Springs, Louisville, Omaha and, yes, Seattle in the percentage of its population that is white. 

How does that happen? Well, the racial makeup of Portland, and more broadly of Oregon, is rooted in the three exclusion laws, passed early in Oregon’s history, that were intended to discourage Black people from settling there. 

Portland was also a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, with frequent cross-burnings held atop Mount Tabor in the southeastern part of the city. Most recently, in 2021, amid ongoing social justice protests, a memorial to former Oregonian editor Harvey Scott was torn down, perhaps a response to the overt racism spread by the paper during his late-19th-century tenure. In its place, a bust of York, the only Black member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, was mysteriously erected in its place. That bust was defaced three times before it too was toppled in July 2021. 

Despite Portland’s racist roots and the racism and white supremacy that underpins it today, Amir Armstrong and Ian Williams have built a racially diverse, inclusive, and joyful running community in the city called Deadstock Run Club.  

I was more than nervous heading to Williams’ Deadstock Coffee shop in the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood, where the run club meets on Tuesday nights, to meet with them this summer. As I journeyed there by car, I imagined what the same car ride would’ve been like 60 years ago. I would have had to consult the Negro Traveler’s Green Book to ensure my safe passage, using it to locate restaurants, gas stations and hotels that would be friendly and willing to serve me. (The Green Book was originated and published by Harlem mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966.)

Instead, I was met by the warmth of Armstrong and Williams, two friends who have used their talents and resources to build community.

I learned the origin of Deadstock Coffee and the accidental run club he started to generate business. Then we took a walk to Ian’s second coffee shop, Concourse Coffee, to learn more about each of their experiences as Black men in the sport of running and the way that their run club challenges norms and creates space for folks like me.

For more from this episode, listen to the Out & Back podcast. You can find it on SpotifyApple Podcasts, Amazon or wherever you get your podcasts.

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