This is the seventh of a series of blog posts highlighting the ongoing work of the Documenting UO History Project within the University Archives. A major part of this project is researching and documenting the often untold and hidden histories of the university’s diverse and underrepresented communities. This year our focus will continue to highlight Black history on campus, specifically Black student activism from the 1960s to present. Prior posts can be seen here.
Until recently, DeNorval Unthank Jr.’s remarkable life was a perfect example of how black history at the University of Oregon and Eugene has been suppressed. Despite graduating from the University of Oregon Architecture program in 1952, becoming an accomplished architect and professor at Oregon, and even designing prominent buildings throughout Eugene and on campus, his story remained, for the most part, untold. In fact, outside of historians and a select few community members, it is difficult to find someone in Eugene who is familiar with Unthank Jr.’s work, legacy, and strong connections to the University of Oregon. Fortunately, recent events and the building renaming process of Cedar Hall has brought Unthank Jr. well-deserved recognition. In late May, University of Oregon President Michael Schill announced that Cedar Hall would be named after Unthank Jr. after months of deliberating on potential name options ranging from Mabel Byrd to Unthank Jr. We are honored to highlight his life and career as a professor and prominent Eugene architect.
Unthank Jr. led an extraordinary life and came from a progressive and accomplished family. Unthank Jr.’s father, DeNorval Unthank Sr., was one of Portland’s first practicing African American physicians, and a prominent community member heavily involved in civil rights throughout the state of Oregon. Unthank Sr. received an assortment of awards for his progressive work, including awards presented by the University of Oregon. Unthank Jr. initially attended college at Howard University and embraced the schools spirit, never allowing racism to define him, but rising above it through his accomplishments. Unthank Jr. returned to Oregon his junior year and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1952.
While studying at the University of Oregon, Unthank Jr. was not allowed to live in dorms because he was black, so he lived in the Mims rooming house. In 1951, Unthank Jr. had started dating who would later become his first wife, Deb Mohr. At the time, inter-racial relationships were not common in Oregon, and certainly not supported by most white community members. In May 1951, Ku Klux Klan members were seen lighting a cross on fire in the lawn of Unthank Jr.’s girlfriend’s sorority house, Gamma Phi Beta. Despite locals claiming that the Klan had died in Oregon in the 1920s, the heinous action proved otherwise.
In the spring of 2011, Deb Mohr wrote about the harrowing experience in 1951 for the Oregon Quarterly. The incident had also been reported on in real-time by local newspapers. After the incident, and shockingly to Mohr, Mohr’s sorority house mother and president asked her to stop seeing Unthank Jr., something they had requested numerous times. The sorority was not alarmed by the overt hate crime, but rather worried about inter-racial relationships between one of their members and a black man. Mohr wrote, “Its late afternoon and I hurry back to the house for the meeting. Barbara, daughter of the late UO president, Donald Erb, and a Gamma Phi alumna, joins us. Barbara says, ‘You’re seeing him again, aren’t you?’ ‘I’ve never stopped seeing him. ‘Once again, I’m told, ‘In our society, a Negro boy dating a White girl is not accepted. And the Portland alumnae demand that the house take action. ‘If you continue to see that man, you will be asked to leave the house.’ She paused. ‘But you will be welcomed back if you stop seeing him.'” Barbara went on to further explain her experience with Unthank Jr., even after being married and Unthank Jr. had established himself as a well-known architect, Mohr and Unthank Jr. faced ongoing pressure and attacks from white Oregon residents.
After graduation, Unthank Jr. immediately went to work building homes and partnering with local construction magnet, Richard Chambers. By 1960, Unthank Jr. had become a partner in a local architecture firm and by 1968, he had cofounded his own firm. During his professional career, Unthank Jr. received well over 30 awards, including several for his efforts at energy conscious design. Unthank Jr. was an associate professor at Oregon’s school of architecture from 1965-1982. In Eugene, Unthank Jr. designed McKenzie Hall on the Oregon campus, the Lane County Courthouse and the U.S. Bank building, just to name a few.
Considering Unthank Jr.’s incredible accomplishments, particularly during such combative times, the complete absence of recognition by the University of Oregon was mystifying, but falls in line with the nations trends of skipping over black history. Fortunately, after decades of pressure from student groups like the Black Student Union and community members, the university’s administration was finally forced to respond. Although long overdue, the renaming of Cedar Hall is a step in the right direction. Men like Unthank Jr., and women like Mabel Byrd helped to lay a foundation that students and faculty of color continue to build upon.
Our next blog posts will include information on President’s Boyd and Olum’s tenures regarding black student activism.
Each month new blog posts will include recent findings as part of the overall project and research. This is a very collaborative and open project so we welcome all participation and topic suggestions. This project will only be successful with a diverse community of scholars and students working together to find and document these testimonies. If you or anyone you know is interested in contributing to the process or participating in an oral history interview please contact us.
Student Research Assistant
Documenting UO History Project
Professor Harris, Mark. “I Too Am Eugene: DeNorval Unthank.” Lecture, I Too Am Eugene: DeNorval Unthank, Powerpoint Lecture, Eugene. April 17, 2017.