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Bruce Poinsette of The Skanner News
Published: 11 December 2012

Duke Ellington blowing out his birthday candles

Richard Brown needs your help. Brown acquired two photos from a local tavern taken in 1943, including one of jazz legend Duke Ellington celebrating his 55th birthday. However, he can't identify most of the people captured in these moments in Portland history. With the help of Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith and citizens of Portland, Brown hopes to trace the names of the people, help bring communities together and educate people on the city's often forgotten history.

"There were a lot of things going on in the community back in 1943," he says. "Everybody knew everybody, unlike today. People don't have the connections that they had back in the day."

For example, Brown says he was at the Elks Club recently when a woman came in and by chance, someone in another group recognized her. After people in the group made connections, they realized that some of them were actually related.

"You have to stay connected," says Brown. "One of the things that gentrification has done is make that even more difficult. When the community was out here in North and Northeast Portland, it was easy to stay connected.

"That was the impetus for me to find people in the community. Once you get a name it's pretty easy to go backwards to find out how these people are connected."

The two black and white photos are currently housed at the Multnomah County office. One shows Ellington blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, surrounded by women and instruments in the background. The other captures 30 people posing at a bar.

Brown originally acquired the photos two or three years ago. He says the process of reaching out to identify people has been like "pulling hen's teeth".

Before Smith offered to help, Brown was carrying the pictures in his car and pulling them out in random conversations, with virtually no success. To date, he says he has met a couple of people who recognize a couple of people but that's about it.

Smith says she was happy to help Brown in his efforts.

Via email, she says, "Richard is a person who has devoted himself to making our community a better place. A big part of achieving that goal is learning more about the history of where we all live and the people who came before us. When Richard showed me these photos and said he was trying to identify the folks in them, I immediately thought two things: what a great way for members of our community to participate to fill in a piece of our community's history and what an innovative way to do it."

Brown is a Smithsonian community scholar and a veteran photographer. After finishing his service in the military he moved to Oregon in 1976 and did photography for the Portland Observer. He has put on historical exhibits and continues to do workshops at schools. Recently he has started documentary photography.

Richard Brown

"My thing was photographing community people," says Brown. "Every time I make a discovery it's really great. I think that kind of excitement can get young people more involved in reading and research. Then maybe they'll decide there's something to education."

During one particular workshop at Jefferson High School, Brown gave students cameras and tape recorders and had them interview the oldest member of their families. One student was only able to get one picture and ask his great aunt one question because she took 45 minutes to answer. Brown gave him a roll of film to take more pictures but the student was absent the next two days of class. It turns out that the student's great aunt had died over the weekend. That's when the student found out the value of his interview, says Brown.

"A lot of people don't like to do it because they don't think they know what to say," he says. "I tell them, older people, especially people that have been retired a while and don't do a whole lot, they want somebody to talk to. You don't even have to ask them a question. They will talk you to sleep. They want to tell those stories but no one wants to hear them.

"Generations are not talking. Even when I was a youngster, I don't remember my parents sitting down with us and talking about their growing up. And I regret that."

For more information on the photos, contact Richard Brown at 503-289-0707.

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