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Resilience and Triumph

Promoting a bright future for Billy Webb Elks Lodge

Zachary Senn | 2/8/2017, 10:39 a.m.
A historic center of Portland’s black community is seeking recognition and revitalization this year.
Louis McLemore is recruiting new members to increase the life and vitality of the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, a historic community space at 6 N. Tillamook St. born from Portland’s segregated past and a key social landmark for the black community today. Zachary Senn/The Portland Observer

A historic center of Portland’s black community is seeking recognition and revitalization this year. The Billy Webb Elks Lodge has embarked on a membership drive to bring new life to the longtime community space that was born from Portland’s segregated past and is a key social landmark today. Work also is underway to add the building to the National Register of Historic Places.

Located at 6 N. Tillamook St., the lodge was originally constructed by the YWCA in 1926 to reach out to Portland’s black community. People referred to it at the time as the “Williams Avenue branch” or the “Colored YWCA.” The building was also used by the Portland NAACP, the Congress for Racial Equality, and the Urban League of Portland.

Black Elks took over the site in the 1940s and named it after Billy Webb, one of the great jazz musicians of his day.

“He played here in Portland, and on steam ships on the West Coast,”” said Louis McLemore, the current exalted ruler for the social club. A member of the lodge for the past six years, McLemore is leading a campaign to make sure the building will serve the black community for future generations.

Raymond Burell, a Portland native who has dedicated his time to preserving a historical record of the city’s black community, is working to place the lodge on the historic register, like he helped accomplish last year for the nearby Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church.

Given the rapidly gentrifying nature of Portland’s historically black neighborhoods, Burell believes that it is more important now than ever to protect the black community’s heritage. At 90 years old, the lodge can attest to the struggle, resilience and triumphs of Portland’s black community.

“Landmarks, like the Elks Lodge, can also stimulate revitalization,” Burrell asserts.

McLemore joined the Elks after moving to Portland to spend his retirement with family. He explains that the need for a black social club was borne out of the segregation of the early 20th century. Under ownership of the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks, the building has long been a longtime hub of Portland’s black community, including through watershed moments in the city’s history, such as the Vanport Flood.

“This was a clearing house for the relatives of those who had been separated by the flood,” he explains.

Today, the lodge continues its long-standing tradition of community service, hosting parties, family reunions and celebrations of life. A myriad of other clubs and organizations, like the National Association of Black Veterans, make use of the Elks’ hospitality.

McLemore says that he hopes 2017 will see a period of revitalization for the lodge.

“We’re trying to get younger people in here, so we can pass the torch onto them,” the 72-year-old explains.

In addition to recruiting new members, the lodge is hoping to install an industrial kitchen so that it can cook low-cost meals for seniors.

“We’re trying to develop new programs for the community,” McLemore says, explaining that he anticipates funding for building renovations and new programming through a combination of grants and community donations.

“This is the center of the black neighborhood,” McLemore says. On the lodge’s historic significance and its current activities, he says that he is continually surprised by the personal histories that community members associate with the building.

“It’s real interesting to hear about how people come back,” he explains. “Everybody has a connection with the lodge someway. “It’s been a lifeline for everybody… I just can’t believe it sometimes.”