John Bryant, grand master of the Sons of Haiti Masonic Temple at North Fremont and Mississippi streets, opted to wait a while before having someone paint over the racist graffiti.
After someone spray-painted swastikas, threats, lynch-depictions and racist epithets on a North Mississippi Avenue Sons of Haiti Masonic Lodge and nearby food cart early Thursday morning, the lodge’s grandmaster said he wanted the paint to remain as a reminder.
"I think it should stay up," John Bryant said, "to let people be aware of what’s happening and maybe deter what could happen in the future."
By Friday, though, someone — Bryant said he doesn’t know who — had painted over the marks. The incident quickly picked up steam. African-American residents shared on Facebook and the Oregon Assembly for Black Affairs listserv their personal stories about feeling discriminated against in the neighborhood. The physical evidence of graffiti only underscored what they already felt.
But Bryant said Monday where other people saw division, proof that the whitening of North Mississippi Avenue means trouble for African Americans, he sees unity. For sure, Bryant said, the graffiti was hateful and hurtful, but the community’s response showed him the racist tagging was an isolated incident.
“I have seen this neighborhood come together,” he said. “They came to my aid. Everybody on Mississippi has stepped up. The Boise neighborhood has stepped up. The police are great. They are not taking this lying down. They put it on high-profile status.”
Bryant said he is disheartened that others have made him into a poster boy for racism. He has lived within blocks of the temple since 1956, he said, and has never experienced anything like the graffiti attack. Over the weekend, while he was in Seattle for a Sons of Haiti conference, a group held a protest on his property without his permission, he said.
“After I went out of town, people started picking up and doing things in my name,” he said. That’s not right. They’re trying to turn it into a protest; I would like it to be a unification.”
According to Organizer Teressa Raiford’s Facebook page, the event was not meant to be a protest, but rather a chance to show peaceful and positive solidarity with black-owned businesses. That’s solidarity work she had begun two weeks ago, she said, with the Portland Black History Program.
“The past two weeks organizers with the PBHP have been meeting with Lodge brothers and other volunteers to help restore and rebuild programs at the location,” she wrote on the Facebook event page. “We posted pictures and did the usual Facebook check in and now we have a feeling that the exposure may have set off the indecent actions of a group of racists.”
Bryant said the extra attention has had some positive effects, too. The Portland chapter of Phi Beta Sigma plans to paint the entire building, he said. His lodge has tried to raise money for years to paint the chipped white-and-blue exterior. Though the temple is the entryway to North Mississippi Avenue, he said, many residents didn’t notice it was there before the graffiti incident.
“The Sigmas feel like this place is not getting the recognition it needs because it’s rundown and raggedy, which is true,” he said. “They want the building to shine. That’s the ugliest building in the neighborhood. But it’s our building.”