Rooted in Community: Imani Center

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Walk past the Imani Center on a sunny day and you’ll likely be greeted by a mix of staff, clients and neighbors chatting and connecting outside. An atmosphere of camaraderie is palpable, but it’s no coincidence that community building is a key feature at the Imani Center. In fact, it can be traced back over a century ago to the very building where the Imani Center now resides.

The Imani Center was once home to the Golden West Hotel, which opened in 1906 as the first hotel in Portland to accommodate Black patrons. Nestled between two of the most prominent Black churches in the city at the time, the Bethel AME Church and the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, the Golden West quickly became a social and business hub for Portland’s African American community. In addition to a hundred hotel rooms for Black workers who were denied accommodation in Portland’s white-owned hotels, the Golden West housed a number of Black-owned businesses including a barbershop, an athletic club and an ice cream parlor/candy shop. After 25 years in business as the largest Black-owned hotel west of the Mississippi, the Golden West was forced to close in 1931 due to the Great Depression.

The legacy of exclusion that spurred the founding of the Golden West Hotel was not unique – from the very start, Black communities were not supposed to exist in Portland or anywhere else in the state. Oregon joined the Union in 1859 as a “whites-only” state where African Americans were barred from living, working or holding property. In the 1920s, Oregon had the largest Ku Klux Klan membership per capita of any state, and KKK member Walter Pierce was elected governor in 1922. Oregon refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote, until 1959, and did not ratify the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to all Americans, until 1973.

The legacy of exclusion that spurred the founding of the Golden West Hotel was not unique – from the very start, Black communities were not supposed to exist in Portland or anywhere else in the state.

In addition to exclusion, Black Portlanders faced displacement throughout the twentieth century, making it difficult for African American residents to maintain close-knit neighborhoods and communities. Urban renewal and industrial expansion projects such as Interstate 5, Highway 99, Emanuel Hospital, the Civic Center, the Memorial Coliseum and others displaced thousands of residents in the predominantly Black Albina neighborhood. In 1948, one of the only places in Oregon where African Americans could buy houses – the city of Vanport – was decimated in a single day due to flooding, leaving 18,500 residents – 6,200 of whom were Black – without a place to live. This history isn’t relegated to the past: Portland remains the whitest major city in the US, with persistent racial disparities in employment, poverty, homelessness, health outcomes and incarceration rates.

Despite more than a century of exclusion, displacement and disinvestment in Portland and throughout Oregon, our African American communities have rich histories of resilience and strength in the face of racial discrimination and prejudice. And in many ways, the Imani Center carries this torch. The Imani Center is the result of Central City Concern listening to the experience and knowledge of the African American community and responding to the need for culturally specific leadership, treatment and support services. Since 2015, the Imani Center has provided comprehensive approaches to mental health and addictions treatment for African Americans, by African Americans. Imani Center’s services empower clients to build community with other African Americans working toward recovery, with the support of staff members who have lived knowledge of Black culture and the African American experience.

One way clients at the Imani Center build community is through peer support. Peer Service Specialists “wrap around” clients both inside and outside Imani Center to support them in navigating mental health struggles, addiction and recovery. As clients work to change their lives, they are surrounded by a peer who understands not only the experience of recovery, but the unique challenges of navigating mainstream treatment programs as an African American. The result is a pathway to recovery built on shared cultural experiences and genuine peer connections.

Like the Golden West Hotel, which was situated between two of Portland’s most important Black churches, the Imani Center is similarly built on a foundation of faith and the sense of community that flows from it.

Like the Golden West Hotel, which was situated between two of Portland’s most important Black churches, the Imani Center is similarly built on a foundation of faith and the sense of community that flows from it. “Imani” is Swahili for “faith,” representing the faith that Imani Center seeks to instill in clients: faith not only in themselves and their journey, but in the support of their community to help them reach their highest potential.

The Imani Center and the Golden West Hotel share much more than a building. Deeply rooted in the shared history that brought so many African American workers and families to the Golden West Hotel at the start of the 20th century, the Imani Center stands in stark contrast to Portland’s legacy of race-based exclusion and displacement. As Imani Center clients heal from their past and current experiences with addiction and mental health struggles, they also help to heal wounds wrought by Portland’s past. By building a home for African Americans working toward recovery, the Imani Center continues the Golden West’s legacy of faith, resilience and community.