You’d recognize LeRoy Patton first as a well-dressed man with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye. Patton speaks with a rather soft but firm voice, and there is a sense of determination behind his words that make people take notice. Sometimes there is a hint of anger behind the calm demeanor when he talks about Portland’s segregated past and its awkward attempts to move forward, but his patience never seems to wane.
Over many decades, Patton has served the community as a volunteer and a champion for better education, fair housing policies and sustainability. In a city that celebrates the citizen advocate, Patton stands out for his commitment and tenacity.
Maybe it’s because Patton has made a difference, and he is not about to give up now. Even as a boy, he was determined to set his own path and be his own person. As he was growing up in Kansas City, he knew from a very young age that city was not for him. The streets were controlled by gangs and that was not a life he wanted for his future. He wanted to move away and start fresh, but was told by his father that he had to wait until he was 16.
He left home at 16 and worked a variety of jobs until he signed up with a Union Pacific Railroad as a dining car waiter in Portland. After working on the railroad for about two years, he quit. Stating that he did not like the work and thought he could do better he was told, "No one will hire you because, as a Black person, you can only work in hotels, kitchens or shine shoes."
He didn’t work for about eight months. Patton says it was pretty rough being in Portland without family, with few Black people to associate and interact with. There were no social services and very little choice in housing for Black people. Patton remembers, "City leaders did not want Blacks in town."
When the war came, Vanport construction began in August 1942 to house the workers at the wartime Kaiser Shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Washington. Vanport was home to 40,000 people, about 40 percent of them African-American, making it Oregon's second-largest city at the time, and the largest public housing project in the nation. Vanport was dramatically destroyed on May 30, 1948, when a 200-foot (60 m) section of a railroad berm holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a flood, killing 15. The city was underwater by nightfall, leaving 17,500 of its inhabitants homeless.
During those years, Patton had to rely only on himself and was barely more than a teenager. He eventually found work at Portland’s largest print shop where he settled in for two years but in a dispute over salary, left that job and again struggled to find work.
Eventually Patton found a variety of positions from being the first black person to work for Safeway in Oregon to a job as a file clerk with the Veterans Administration.
And somewhere in between Patton found time to play in a variety of jazz bands as a drummer and bought a house in North Portland.
Life became disrupted when he got drafted for the Korean War. Patton’s penchant for knowing what he wanted – and didn’t want – further developed in the Army. Knowing he didn’t want to fight in the war, he politely, consistently and persistently figured out who to talk to (and most likely what to say). He found a general who could help and said, “I want to be an entertainer.”
Remarkably, there was such a duty up in Seattle and Patton got stationed to perform on an all-military TV show every Saturday for two years. While in the Army he earned is GED and, when discharged, took the GI Bill, went to college and earned a degree in music education.
“No one wanted to hire me,” he said. “I sent my resume to school districts in all 36 of Oregon’s counties.” There were no offers. But this time Patton wasn’t alone. He married into a large Catholic family where, through connections, he was offered a position as a fifth-grade teacher in Vancouver as well as being the choir director. He also taught music after school to supplement his income.
And then he heard a Job Corps was to open in Oregon – something he felt he would be a fit for. Job Corps is the largest free residential education and job training program for young adults ages 16–24.
In 1965, he went to Astoria to work for Job Corps. He was shocked to see administrators and coaches breaking up fights by brute force. He told administrators to try it his way – getting the kids to talk to each other. Diplomacy for teenagers worked and he helped them settle down and learn job skills and vocational training.
But he yearned to be back in Portland and saw his chance when Portland Public Schools opened up Adams High School, an “alternative school” where the teens could pick and choose what they wanted to do with very little direction. Most of them hung around the hallways, but Patton’s classes were full. His serious but gentle approach worked with students who were eager to learn music and psychology.
Patton continued to teach while he pursued a master’s degree in administration while at the same time raising five children with his wife, Valerie.
In the late 1960s and early 1970 PPS Superintendent Blanchard moved to desegrate Portland schools. PPS bused African-American students throughout the district and closed predominantly black schools, including all middle grades in inner North and Northeast Portland while largely leaving white schools and students untouched.
Patton became an administrator assigned to the Superintendent's office to advance the desegregation program. He soon found out that the program was isolating young African American students from their communities. African American leaders organized a boycott of PPS and the busing issue ended with serious reforms in the school system.
Patton continued to work at PPS Administration until he retired in 1996 – and he renewed his commitment to personal growth and social change. He took classes at Portland State University in sustainability and got involved with the Greater Portland Sustainability Network. “I always ask, how will it help the community,” he said of his volunteer efforts. That dovetailed into his work as President of the United Nations Association of Oregon which carries forward some of the international goals and sustainability mission of the UN.
“What drives me is an inner sense to make things better in the community – as a citizen, not as a Black person or an educator. We don’t have a good community unless we all take personal responsibility to help.”
Don’t get him wrong – Patton is still passionate about the educational system and feels more needs to be done by the community to help. He believes in helping younger people develop leadership, and giving back to the community. “When we want things to change, we need to speak up, not put people down.”
Patton steps up to help out by volunteering on a number of boards and committees including:
Greater Portland Sustainable Education Network
Multnomah County Commission for Economic Dignity
Oregon State Council for Retired Citizens
Age Friendly Portland SubCommittee on Economic Security and Work
Oregon State Retired Educator’s Association
Multnomah County Commission for Educational Dignity
Founder and Board member of Fair Housing Council of Oregon
This story is provided by AARP Oregon. Visit the AARP Oregon page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.
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