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Remembering the Power of Words

The Life of an Oregon Activist, Legislator, and Community Leader

Avel Louise Gordly with Patricia A. Schechter

Publication Year: 2011

Remembering the Power of Words recounts the personal and professional journey of Avel Gordly, the first African American woman elected to the Oregon State Senate.

The book is a brave and honest telling of Gordly’s life. She shares the challenges and struggles she faced growing up Black in Portland in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as her determination to attend college, the dedication to activism that took her from Portland to Africa, and her eventual decision to run for a seat in the state legislature.

That words have power is a constant undercurrent in Gordly’s account and a truth she learned early in life. “Growing up, finding my own voice,” she writes, “was tied up with denying my voice or having it forcefully rejected and in all of that the memory of my father is very strong. To this day—and I am today a very experienced public speaker—preparation to speak takes a great deal of energy.” That this memoir has its origins as an oral history is fitting since Gordly has used her voice, out loud, to teach and inspire others for many years.

“If you ever wondered how a principl­ed woman lives a public life, read Remembering the Power of Words! Here Avel Gordly reveals the challenges, victories, and fears of her life of public service—in the Oregon legislature and senate, especially. Writing as a black female pioneer, she combines the personal with the political in a fascinating way that speaks to all of us.”—Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University and author of The History of White People and Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol

Published by: Oregon State University Press


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pp. 8-9

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Foreword by Charlotte Rutherford

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pp. 10-14

I have known Avel Gordly since we were third graders in a Portland public school. That would have been about 1955-56, shortly after passage of Oregon’s Public Accommodations Act in 1953. The first of the N.A.A.C.P. Portland Branch who lobbied for that Act and the legislators who sponsored it on the day the Act was passed. Members ...

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pp. 15-18

Gratitude. A wonderful word that captures all that I am feeling at this moment in my God-blessed life. As I acknowledge everyone who helped and supported the writing of this memoir, gratefulness kept coming to my heart and mind. Thank you to one who has become a dear sisterfriend, Patricia Schechter...

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Chapter One: Before We Become Dust

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pp. 19-21

Growing up, finding my own voice was tied up with denying my voice or having it forcefully rejected and in all of that the memory of my father is very strong. To this day—and I am today a very experienced public speaker—preparation to speak takes a great deal of energy. A lot of the energy is dedicated to overcoming fear and the pain of ...

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Chapter Two: Our Day Will Come

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pp. 22-29

Throughout my school years, the association between speech and power—and punishment—was strong. I was a reader at home and I can remember being called on to stand in front of the class to read in grade school. Sometimes, a teacher would select a member of the class to take a ruler and hit the hands...

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Chapter Three: "It is Better to Be Loved than Feared"

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pp. 30-48

I attended high school with my sister for two years. Like most sisters close in age we fought about things that, looking back, were so silly—mostly about clothes. We shared a room and a closet. Aside from this normal squabbling we took care of each other because of my dad. We were usually punished at the same time by my father...

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Chapter Four: Them Changes

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pp. 49-58

In my “new person” phase during high school, I had a boyfriend who lived almost literally around the corner (actually two corners). Neshell Waters was very popular. He was in a singing group called the Streetcorner Singers, and they had engagements all the time. the first African American clerk to work at that store. This fact is ...

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Chapter Five: Operation Crossroads Africa

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pp. 59-66

Black community connections at PSU included the African diaspora. Dr. Eno Ukage of Nigeria taught in Black Studies and presented to me the opportunity to participate with Operation Crossroads Africa, a premier student-exchange program founded in 1958 by Dr. James H. Robinson, an African American Christian minister. I applied for ...

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Chapter Six: The Correcting Influence

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pp. 67-79

The sun was shining on the day I graduated from Portland State University. I have some beautiful photographs of the occasion— spectacular black and whites—in my family collection. The photographs show my mother and father, my son (of course), the person I was dating at the time...

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Chapter Seven: "She Who Learns, Teaches"

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pp. 80-93

During my marriage to Richard, I had accepted, in 1979, a position working as a case manager at the Urban League Senior Service Center. That opportunity came through a call from my friend Norm Monroe, who urged me to apply and who later encouraged me to apply for Director of the League’s Northeast Youth...

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Chapter Eight: Forward Together, Backward Never

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pp. 94-104

The visible leadership of the Black United Front was male. This meant Ronnie Herndon, the late Rev. John Jackson, the late Halim Rahsaan, Kamau Sadiki, and Richard Brown. Jean Vessup coordinated a lot of the BUF work around civil rights and police issues. She...

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Chapter Nine: A Heart for Africa

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pp. 105-116

Everything about Africa has faces in it for me, and memories, from time spent with young people in refugee camps and clinics in camps short of supplies. Soldiers traumatized for life, given what they had witnessed in battles in the front-line states, sat with us in outdoor cafes and told us their stories...

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Chapter Ten: Hope and Hard Work

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pp. 117-132

Back when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, I was aware that people in my community viewed me as a leader, as a source of good counsel, and as someone to be trusted. I was someone they consulted with on a number of issues, aside from U.S. policy towards South Africa...

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Chapter Eleven: Growing and Stretching

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pp. 133-160

Amazing. As many times as I have told the story of how I entered the legislature, the retelling still has me pinching myself. In 1991, I was working at the Portland House of Umoja. I had served on the board and was asked by board members to assume the program director role. Iris Bell was the brilliant executive...

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Post Script: "Don't Forget Our People"

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pp. 161-165

In May 2009, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at the University of Portland, sponsored by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. Bishop Tutu spoke about racial reconciliation, and reconciliation in all of its forms. To hear him speak and to hear him acknowledge all the support that came from other nations in the world during...

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Afterword: A Note on Collaboration and Method

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pp. 166-170

My personal connection to Avel Gordly began in Salem in the spring of 2007. I was lobbying the Oregon Legislature on behalf of the higher education budget as a Department of History unit representative for the Portland State University faculty union. After testifying before the committee, our team visited with legislators...


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pp. 171-172


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pp. 173-176

E-ISBN-13: 9780870716140
E-ISBN-10: 087071614X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870716041
Print-ISBN-10: 0870716042

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: B&W photos
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794698940
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Remembering the Power of Words

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Subject Headings

  • Gordly, Avel Louise, 1947-.
  • Women politicians -- Oregon -- Biography.
  • African American politicians -- Oregon -- Biography.
  • Oregon -- Politics and government -- 1951-.
  • African American women -- Oregon -- Biography.
  • Community activists -- Oregon -- Biography.
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