Building Buildings: Neighborhood Leaders

Portland YWCA Buildings

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Building Buildings: Neighborhood Leaders

Marie Smith[1]

       Marie Smith was the first African-American woman to serve on the Portland YWCA board of directors. Smith was born in Paris, Texas and moved to the Pacific Northwest when her father found work in the coal mines near Rosalyn, Washington. She married her husband, Edward W. Smith, in Spokane, and together they raised four daughters. Smith's involvement with the YWCA began almost immediately upon her arrival in Portland in 1917. She was a member of the early Committee of Management of the Williams Avenue YWCA, organized around 1918 and opened in 1921 in the northeast part of the city. Smith's involvement with the YWCA was only part of the church work and activism that were a mainstay of her life. She told an interviewer, "From the time I came to Portland, I'd fight prejudice everywhere I saw it, even it if was just me alone." She taught Sunday school for many years at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, eventually serving as Superintendent. She was also president of the Oregon Association of Colored Women's Clubs and served as the first woman president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, a post she held in 1949-50. Smith spoke jokingly to an interviewer in 1978 of her many community activities, "I just was around changing the world. My friends said that I belonged to everything but the fire department." Smith won Oregon's Peyton Award for outstanding citizenship in 1950.[2]

Oweda Powe
       Oweda Powe describes her life connection to the YWCA as "coming full circle." Growing up in Portland during the turbulent 1960s, the YWCA's downtown residence was the only place Powe's parents felt comfortable letting her "step out" into a life of youthful independence. She lived at the residence for four years while she pursued studies at Portland State University. A number of internships and job experiences led her in the direction of social services. A major force for Powe was the influence of her family, especially her mother. "My mother was a 'community mother' who looked after the people in the old neighborhood," Powe explains. "I knew I wanted to help people." Powe also received support both as a YWCA resident and later, as an adult staff member at the St. John's branch, which she joined in 1988. She credits St. John's former director Helen Moore with mentoring her professional and personal development. Oweda Powe is proud of the community building work the YWCA accomplishes in St. John's for seniors and families. "Support, encouragement, and empowerment," she affirms. "It's all about helping people make the best choices for themselves."[3]

1. Negative #014542, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon.
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2. Based on Roberta Watts, "Interview with Mrs. Marie Smith," 1978, copy in Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon.
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3. Based on an interview on file in the Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon.
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