Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop, the oldest Black-owned business in the entire state, held a big party in late June to celebrate a new distinction: It was selected to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
About 100 people came out on June 25 to celebrate, said owner Kim Brown, granddaughter of the founders, Benjamin and Mary “Rose” Dean.
“We played games, had speakers, had dancers and there was dancing in the streets,” Brown said. “It was like an old-fashioned block party we had when I was growing up.”
Brown’s grandparents moved to Portland from Alabama in 1944 as part of the Great Migration, she said, and Ben accepted a job as a welder at Kaiser Shipyards.
“A lot of soldiers were off to war and their workforce was diminished, so a lot of companies were sending people out to Southern states to recruit,” Brown said, “and he was one of hundreds of Black men who came out here to work in the shipyards.”
But her grandfather was interested in Oregon even before he was recruited to the shipyards, because the landscape was so different from what he was used to, and he was intrigued about the Lewis and Clark Expedition that he had learned about in school.
Her grandmother was already trained as a beautician, Brown said, but it took 10 years before they were able to open the salon and barbershop. Ben eventually went to barber school as they followed their dream of opening their own business, doing janitorial work at a bank at night and going to barber school during the day, while Rose worked in someone else’s salon.
But they saved their money and eventually got an “unconventional” loan to build their own building at 215 NE Hancock, Brown said, because banks back then wouldn’t lend to African Americans.
“Maybe it was a higher interest rate, or a balloon payment at the beginning or the end,” she said. “Today you might call them predatory lenders, but I don’t think that was the case. I believe they believed in my grandparents and were being helpful.”
Getting designated as a historic site wasn’t a simple process, Brown said, and it all started with Kimberly Moreland, a long-time client who was involved with Oregon Black Pioneers, the only historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of African Americans statewide.
One day while she was having her hair done, Moreland asked Brown if she’d like to try for the historic site designation, but said it was expensive and entailed a lot of research.
Brown told her she didn’t have the time or the money, but Moreland assured her it was possible.
Eventually, Moreland told Brown she had secured funding and asked her if she wanted to proceed. Brown agreed and said Moreland was the “most important part of the whole process.” And now the building can never be demolished.
But the Dean’s story is more than a building; it’s generations of memories of a close-knit family.
Brown was 18 when her grandmother passed away, and treasures her memories of her.
“We went to Sunday school every Sunday with them and that was her area,” she said. “She ran the shop, she ran all the grandkids and she ran her children. She took care of all the community, she took care of all of us.”
It wasn’t easy for the Deans to establish a business during those segregated times, Brown said, but her grandmother took them on trips to see other parts of the country where Blacks weren’t such a minority as in Portland.
“She wanted us to realize that we had a Black business but it wasn’t everybody’s norm here,” she said. “She wanted us to see that it was normal in the Midwest, in the South and on the East Coast, that Black people did have stuff, that Black people owned medical clinics and hotels and motels.”
Her grandmother also supported local Black businesses, and always used Black plumbers and electricians, she said, which was sometimes side work, using skills they learned in Black high schools, like her grandfather did when he designed their building.
“So they came out of high school with trades and skills and how to do stuff, and one of my grandfather’s skills was architecture,” she said. “He didn’t have a college degree, but he learned the basics so he designed the shop, something I only learned recently from one of my aunts.”
Although neither of her two sons, both in their 30s, are directly involved in the business, Brown has pressed on them that the business should remain in the family.
“My sons know that the business will go on, even if they just run it and have operators working in here,” she said. “Because now it’s a national landmark, and they know it has to go on for the next 68 years. They know this is what their great-grandparents would want.”