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Building Name Honors Black Women’s Leadership

Monday, March 15, 2021

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Central City Concern and Home Forward are pleased and excited to announce the renaming of the Martha Washington building to The Katherine GrayIn considering a new name, both organizations felt it important to recognize the central role women played in the history of the building, while simultaneously honoring a lesser-known Black female civic leader who worked to improve her community.  

The process to rename the building began in the summer/fall of 2020 and included CCC staff, building residents and representatives from CCC’s Equity Committee. We’re pleased the new name better reflects each organizations current values and principles. The Katherine Gray represents a new, forward-looking chapter in the story of this historical building. 

Who was Katherine Gray? 

Katherine Gray (1870-1956) was a Black woman leader who lived, worked and organized in Portland for six decades.

Katherine Gray, 1913, from “Officers of the Colored Women’s Council,” published in the Advocate.

Katherine Gray (1870-1956) was a Black woman leader who lived, worked and organized in Portland for six decades, primarily in the Albina and Richmond neighborhoods. She raised four children, worked as a laundress and matron, cared for her aging mother, contributed to Black community institutions and allied with white activists in the final struggle for women’s suffrage. Her life is a testament to the multi-dimensional character of Black women’s activism in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, CCC was not able to locate any of her descendants. 

While the history of Katherine Gray is not well known, her experience serves as a story of bravery, leadership, and civic mindedness in a Portland that was not welcoming to Black people. 

Renaming Process 

CCC formed a team of staff to lead the process of developing the renaming proposal and solicited input internally from both the CCC Equity Committee and also a group of Martha Washington staff and residents. CCC also conducted extensive research through a variety of organizations. 

Recommendations were forwarded to CCC’s CEO and President for approval and on to the Home Forward Board of Directors, who gave final approval on February 16, 2021. 

Building History 

The Martha Washington courtyard in 1955.

The Martha Washington courtyard, 1955, courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library.

The original building opened in 1917 as the Martha Washington Hotel for Self-Supporting Women, home to 90 women, acquired by the Portland Women’s Union (now the Women’s Foundation of Oregon). This group of volunteers created one of the first organizations in Oregon to provide safe housing for young women. The women who lived there were teachers, nurses, seamstresses, clerical employees and students, 18 to 26 years old, from Oregon, Washington and Idaho and from as far away as England, Illinois, Kansas, California, Nebraska and Ohio. Occupancy dwindled over time as result of World War II and the Great Depression. During World War II, the hotel was home to war workers. 

In 1969, the Portland Development Commission (now Prosper Portland) bought the original Martha Washington building for use as student housing by Portland State University. They renamed the building Montgomery Court and it remains in use today. The Portland Women’s Union purchased the Campbell Court Hotel at 1115 SW 11th– which had been used by Multnomah College as a dormitory since 1961– and renamed that building the Martha Washington.  

Advertisement for the hotel Rajneesh, 1983.

Advertisement from The Rajneesh Times, 1983

In January 1983, the Women’s Union accepted an offer from the Rajneesh Investment Corporation for $1.4 million, with three Rolls Royce vehicles as collateral. In 1986, the Rajneesh Investment Corporation sold the building to Multnomah County, which used it as a work-release center for county offenders until 2003. On June 16, 2010, the Martha Washington at 1115 SW 11th reopened as low-income housing owned by Home Forward and operated by Central City Concern. 

We’re honored to restore our city’s historic buildings and give them renewed life as safe, secure housing. We operate 27 affordable housing facilities for our city’s most vulnerable individuals.

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