She teaches black history by example at Coon Rapids High School

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 5, 2013 - 10:38 PM

Portia McClain lived through the civil rights era, but her knowledge of family history goes much deeper, aided by forebears who lived more than a century.

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Portia McClain, a student learning advocate for the Anoka-Hennepin School District, worked with a student at Coon Rapids High School. “Let people celebrate their differences,,” she says. “Our journeys are very different.”

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Portia McClain was reading the names of her great-great-grandparents' 13 children: Daniel, Nelson, Dock, Joe ... But when she came to the fifth name, she stopped. There was no name for Child No. 5. Nor was there a name for Child No. 10. 

"They were sold off," she said. "These children were born into slavery and sold away before they could be given names."

She was reading from a program printed for a family reunion held nine years ago. But an equally fascinating story is etched in the lines of a face that blends vulnerability, toughness and wisdom.

McClain, 66, is a student-learning advocate at Coon Rapids High School. A black woman who grew up in an era when water fountains and restrooms were designated for "white" or "colored," her life is a testament to overcoming pain and embracing possibility. As Americans celebrate Black History Month through historical writings, artifacts or documentaries, a living exhibit walks the halls of Coon Rapids High every day.

"People in this country don't know how to address slavery," she said. "It's painful to address the Holocaust, but people in this country can talk about it because it didn't happen here. Slavery did happen here. And black kids are very ashamed of it."

McClain heard stories of slavery first-hand from her great-grandmother and grandmother, who lived to be 106 and 110, respectively. As a young girl growing up in Chicago, she would spend summers in Jackson, Miss., sitting on the front porch, where they would tell her stories about chopping sugar cane, baling cotton, picking peanuts and sharecropping. She treasured the homemade quilts they sent her, along with boxes containing coconuts and red clay that she would eat because the dirt was rich with iron.

Her parents migrated to Chicago, to the south-side Bronzeville neighborhood, an area known for entertainment. McClain lived right across the street from the famed Regal Theater, a landmark that was every bit as important to black culture in the Windy City as the Apollo was to Harlem.

All the great jazz musicians and comedians of the day played the Regal: Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, Slappy White and Richard Pryor, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis. Stevie Wonder recorded "Fingertips, Part 2" there. B.B. King recorded his seminal live album at the Regal.

"My father was friends with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald," McClain recalled. "Some of the artists who played the Regal couldn't stay in hotels, so people in the neighborhood put them up.

"I got to know a lot of them as a little girl. When I was 12 or 13, I'd sit on the steps and listen to blues or jazz. The Regal was the most beautiful theater you'd ever want to be in: red velvet drapes and carpets. So majestic."

When singer-dancer Josephine Baker came to town, McClain would somehow get a front-row seat. She was mesmerized by this multi-talented performer who also was a civil rights activist and adopted 12 children from throughout the world.

"One day she said, 'I see you every summer. I've watched you grow up.'"

Growing up in Chicago was painful, though. McClain's parent's split up. Her neighborhood became a haven for prostitutes and junkies. Her mother was imprisoned -- one of the few subjects McClain won't talk about -- leaving her to raise her seven siblings. She dropped out of school at 16.

"I was angry, rebellious," she said. "But in my case, that meant saying 'no' to drugs and prostitution. People were shooting up, overdosing, contracting AIDS. Some of my friends died very young, teenage heroin addicts. Others were killed by police.

"I had to escape all the negative things around me."

She thought about her ancestors and the hardships they had endured. What was life like for Richard Payne, her great-great-grandfather? Born a slave in North Carolina, he got his name from his master. McClain has copies of family slave papers. One document, written in 1859 and filed in 1860 -- three years before President Lincoln freed the salves -- is signed by someone who identifies herself in print as "White Clerk."

"When you're locked up, when you feel as if you're locked up, it is so hard to get out," she said. "We worked hard. I worked hard to escape all the negativity that was coming at me."

When her siblings finished school, McClain went back and earned her GED. But escaping negativity was another matter.

She was in Mississippi in 1955 when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly flirting with a white grocery-store cashier. Her uncle worked with Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was assassinated in 1963.

Tragedy would later hit closer to home.

One of her brothers was shot in the back by police in 1981. Six months later, someone broke into her home. Intruders chased her 10-year-old son out of the house. He got a neighbor to call police, but by the time they arrived, it was too late.

McClain had been beaten so badly that it took 32 surgeries to repair her face. She points towards her cheek and touches under her left eye.

"That's a silicon plate," she said. "They broke every bone in my face. Every bone.

"My faith is the one thing that saved us," she said. "My grandmother always made me read the Ten Commandments on her refrigerator. We had the confidence to do better."

When her final surgery had been completed, she left a job at the University of Illinois and packed up her five children -- three of them adopted -- for Minneapolis.

"I saw grass and trees," she said. "That's probably why I came here."

She also came to the Twin Cities to make a difference. McClain earned college and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota. She is now seeking a doctorate in education at Concordia University, St. Paul.

She has written a book -- yet to be published -- about her experiences in Bronzeville. After a spree of Twin Cities murders in 1992, she wrote her first opinion piece for the Star Tribune editorial page, pleading with officials to address problems with gangs.

Her master's degree, which McClain earned after turning 50, focused on the way black people speak. She contributed to a national debate in 1997 to help recognize ebonics as a language.

In 2009, McClain started a "breakfast club" at Coon Rapids High School. What began as a book club geared to improve reading skills has become an appreciation of culture in which students contribute to a forum on almost any topic.

And after watching a "60 Minutes" episode featuring a choir for teens in Harlem, McClain started a gospel choir for Coon Rapids High School students.

"In a world with too many guns, I see problems," said McClain, named Portia after a feminist from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." But, she said, "I also see hope. Let people celebrate their differences. Our journeys are very different. Otherwise, we're very much the same."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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