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Notable Oregonians: Beatrice Morrow Cannady - Civil Rights Activist

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Beatrice Morrow Cannady

Beatrice Morrow Cannady, 1889-1974 (Image courtesy Oregon Historical Society)

Beatrice Morrow was born in Littig, Texas in 1889. She attended school near Austin, Texas and reportedly graduated in 1908 from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. After teaching school briefly in Louisiana and Oklahoma, Morrow followed her passion to study music at the University of Chicago. In 1912 she moved to Portland, Oregon, apparently to join and marry Edward Cannady, a local civil rights activist and hotel worker.

 

Once married, Cannady took on a number of duties for Portland's weekly Advocate, an African American newspaper cofounded and edited by her husband. She worked as the business manager, associate editor, linotype operator, and editorial and news writer for the newspaper, which had about 3,000 subscribers, including influential people such as the Oregon governor and other government leaders. Her association with the Advocate would continue for the next 24 years and she became editor and owner of the newspaper in 1930.

 

Her role at the newspaper naturally put Cannady squarely in the middle of Portland's African American community of about 1,000 people and she soon developed her activism. In 1914, she helped found the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The next year she directed the local protest against D.W. Griffith's sweeping and controversial, The Birth of a Nation, a film that reinforced some of the worst stereotypes about African Americans. The campaign against the showing of the film would continue for 15 years.

 

Cannady's activism ran the gamut of persuasion. She regularly wrote scathing editorials in the Advocate confronting the routine racial discrimination found in Oregon restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, employment, and housing. Yet, at the same time she wrote articles, gave lectures, and used radio to promote her vision of racial harmony and goodwill. Cannady hosted interracial tea parties with up to 200 guests at her home in northeast Portland. She also shared her large collection of books on African American culture and history with others in an effort to increase understanding.

 

Cannady expanded her activism to the legal arena after she graduated from Portland's Northwestern School of Law in 1922 and became Oregon's first African American woman to practice law. Fighting a rising tide of racism in the form of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, she lobbied unsuccessfully for the passage of the state's first civil rights legislation. Cannady also wrote in favor of repealing the provision in the 1857 Oregon Constitution that prohibited blacks and mulattoes from living in Oregon—rendered moot by the U.S. Constitution in the wake of the Civil War. Oregon voters agreed in 1926 and the next year they repealed the constitutional prohibition on blacks, mulattoes, and "Chinamen" from voting. Still pursuing a political path for her activism in 1932, Cannady became the first African American to run for elected office in Oregon. She lost in the primary for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives but garnered more votes than expected.

 

Four years later, she moved to Los Angeles, California to be closer to family. There, she continued her work largely out of the public eye until her death on August 19, 1974.

 

(Sources: Oregon Encyclopedia | Oregon History Project | Oregon Experience | Oregon Historical Quarterly) Revised 1/2013

 

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