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A group of Black residents in Portland is suing the city for displacement from their homes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A group of Black citizens in Oregon says a local hospital and the city of Portland worked together decades ago to wrongfully take their family's property. Now they're seeking compensation through a federal civil lawsuit. Katia Riddle reports.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It's been more than 50 years since he moved away from his neighborhood in North Portland. But Claude Bowles can still remember the smell - fresh baked bread.

CLAUDE BOWLES: The bakery that was just right across the street from where my grandparents lived.

RIDDLE: He describes a kind of blissful freedom that he and his six siblings enjoyed.

BOWLES: We'd go over there, and they would just hand us hot bread out of the window of the bakery. And we'd take it to my grandmother's house. We'd slather it with butter.

RIDDLE: His grandparents' house is no longer standing. He points to where it used to be on an old map.

BOWLES: This is their house right here.

RIDDLE: 223 North Cook Street - today, Bowles' lawyers argue, the house would be worth close to a half million dollars.

BOWLES: Where their home stood, it's a parking lot now. And, you know, and when I think about it, yeah, it just kind of - you know, it does something to me.

RIDDLE: That parking lot is adjacent to Legacy Emanuel Hospital. That's who acquired the house from his family. Bowles is one of more than two dozen descendants suing the hospital and the city of Portland. Both declined to comment for this story. In a statement, they said they're reviewing the case.

BOWLES: I remember the anguish of my grandfather not understanding what was happening.

RIDDLE: What was happening to his grandfather, says Bowles, was that the hospital was intimidating him, forcing him to give up his house. The family had moved from Alabama to Oregon. His grandfather found work there in a foundry. The house was 3,000 square feet on three levels. It was his legacy.

BOWLES: I remember him always telling me, you know, hey, you have four sisters that, you know, they may or may not meet a man that will treat them nicely. And if that's the case, they can always come here because I've made a way for them. And this is what I want you to do - you always - you hang on to this house.

RIDDLE: And what do you remember about once your grandparents had to move? What was the new place like?

BOWLES: Oh, wow. That was very different. We ended up, I mean, spreading out into a more Caucasian kind of neighborhood where you weren't really accepted.

MINDY FULLILOVE: A very functioning, close-knit neighborhood that's supporting its people is an extremely precious and all too rare thing.

RIDDLE: Mindy Fullilove studies urban policy and health at the New School in New York. She's researched something called the Federal Urban Renewal Program. From 1949 to 1973, there were thousands of these kinds of projects. Many city governments argued these neighborhoods were blighted. In the end, Fullilove says, roughly a million people were pushed out of their homes - two-thirds people of color.

FULLILOVE: And so to have that snatched away from you without your consent - this is a very brutal thing. And many people are suffering, to one degree or another, decades later.

RIDDLE: Urban renewal policies were undoubtedly racist, says Fullilove, but they were legal. This case in Portland accuses the city and the hospital of violating the law even then. The suit claims they conspired, bullied and coerced Black people into selling their homes without fair compensation. Then, the plaintiffs claim, the hospital itself would create blight by neglecting the empty houses.

JUANITA BIGGS: This is my grandmother.

RIDDLE: Juanita Biggs is another plaintiff. She's holding a picture.

BIGGS: And we called her Big Mama. And I love you, Big Mama.

RIDDLE: Biggs stands with the help of her walker by a freeway onramp. She points to a passerby.

BIGGS: The house would be - would have been where he's walking. That's where her house was.

RIDDLE: About 50 feet maybe.

BIGGS: Yeah. And this area here was the house where another family stayed.

RIDDLE: Biggs is almost 82 now. She was a young woman when her family was forced to move.

BIGGS: You know, you see your grandparents, and you're there with them, playing checkers and everything and talking about good old times and stuff. And then everybody's happy. And then all of a sudden everybody's sad.

RIDDLE: Juanita Biggs says coming to this neighborhood makes her sad - for her family, for Big Mama and everything taken from them.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle
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