Sunday, April 12, 2015

No Headstone on My Grave

            Adam Augustus “Gus” Waterford was born in British Columbia in 1860, the son of Alexander Waterford, a self-freed slave from Tennessee, and Martha Griffin Waterford, a Kentucky woman. In 1865 the family moved to Portland, where Gus grew up with several brothers and sisters. Alexander Waterford found work as a laborer and participated actively in Republican Party politics. Records have not come to light to substantiate the rumor that Alexander Waterford worked as a Deputy for the Multnomah County Sherriff or served as a Justice of the Peace in East Portland in the 1870s. He did some kind of work for the city of Portland in 1874, for which he was paid $26. He was a founding member of the Hayes and Wheeler Republican Club in 1876, along with Joseph Simon, W. Lair Hill and Henry Corbett, becoming one of the first black Republican Party activists and paving the way for his son’s career in JosephSimon’s political machine.
From the Oregonian June 6, 1886.
            Gus Waterford was not a large man, but he and his brothers stood up for each other. When Gus was assaulted by Sam Glover in 1886, his brother William came to his defense. Glover and William Waterford were each fined $5 for the fight in front of the Snowflake Saloon. By that time Joseph Simon was establishing a firm hold on politics everywhere in the state, including Portland. Like big city bosses all over the country Simon made alliances with influential men in various ethnic communities in order to bring out the vote. In Portland, African America orators, such as JuliusCaesar, stumped for Republican candidates and brought out the Black vote. Gus Waterford, with the help of his father who was by then a Grand Old Man of the Party, found a place for himself in Simon’s machine. Waterford may have been a little too outspoken for his own good. Where the Oregonian spoke admiringly of men like Caesar, who cooperated in spreading racial stereotypes, they never spoke respectfully of Gus Waterford and they failed to report on, or minimized, his career achievements.
From the Oregonian March 27, 1909. So far it has been impossible to verify that Gus Waterford ever worked for the Multnomah County Sheriff.
            In 1896 the Oregonian referred to Gus Waterford as “the well-known politician, ward heeler and wire puller.” They were probably referring to his position in the Portland Fire Department, although they never reported on the integration of that institution. Fire Department records have not yet been unearthed to confirm the date of Waterford’s hire, but he is acknowledged as the first African American employee of the Fire Department. It is most likely that he was hired in the 1890s, because political warfare between two factions of the Republican Party led Joe Simon to put pressure on the city of Portland to hire African Americans. In 1892 Moody Scott became the first black employee of the City and George Hardin became a Portland policeman in 1894. At some point during this time Waterford became Portland’s first black fireman. Like Hardin, who was laid off from the Police force in 1895, Waterford didn’t last long in the Fire Department, but he was a strong enough ally of now U.S. Senator Joseph Simon that he became the first African American employee of the Portland Post Office, where he worked as a Porter and Supply Clerk.
            Waterford was fired by Postmaster John Minto in 1908 in a scandalous case that was either an attempt to blackmail Minto or a graft operation in which Minto skimmed money from Waterford’s wages.  The truth of the matter depends on what you believe, but few powerful Portlanders at that time were willing to take the word of a black man against a white man.  Waterford was probably in declining health when he left the Post Office, because he died of stomach cancer in less than a year.  Waterford is buried now in a family plot somewhere in Lone Fir Cemetery, but there is no marker over his grave.  His brother William lived another thirty years, dying in 1938 of atherosclerosis.  William, who suffered from dementia, was hospitalized in the Oregon State Hospital at the time of his death.  His cremated remains are among the thousands of unclaimed urns collected in the Oregon State Hospital awaiting a family member to claim them.
Thanks to Sherylita Maison Cruise of the Friends of the Golden West Hotel for the original research that went into this article.  Thanks also to the Oregon Black Pioneers for helping to preserve Oregon's black history. If you know of existing buildings or graves that relate to African American History please add them to our collection. Preserving Portland's untold history is an important job, but it doesn't come free. Please support your local historian