February 18, 2015

Patricia Welch clutches her Arthur Flemming Award at Wednesday's Black History Month celebration.

When Patricia Welch moved to Portland from Detroit, the African American librarian said it was like a social experiment.

“We lived on the West Side and there were so few black people,” she said. “When we saw a black person it was like, ‘Oh look, there’s a black person!’”

She and her husband, Hilery, might not have stayed in the largely-white city had it not been for her job at the North Portland branch of the Multnomah County Library and a woman named Carol Uhte.

Uhte worked at a neighboring branch of library and stopped in to introduce herself to the new administrator.

“She said, ‘I am going to help you,’” Welch recalled with a chuckle. “She didn’t ask, ‘do you need help?’ She said, ‘I am going to help you.’ I figured if people can be this nice, I can stay.”

That was 18 years ago; and this week Welch was honored with the Flemming Award for her commitment to social justice during the Multnomah County Managers of Color Black History Month celebration.

Chair Kafoury and Managers of Color Co-Chair Mark Lewis laugh during a light moment on Wednesday.

The award is named after Dr. Arthur Flemming, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his time at the White House, Flemming was appointed Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and fought racial inequality. He later served as president of the University of Oregon.

“When I think of Patricia, I think of Abraham the Prophet,” said Mohammed Bader, co-chair of the Managers of Color Employee Resource Group. At his side, Welch became tearful. “Abraham was the friend of God, and you are a friend to everybody.”

Welch wore a thick beige dress that fell to her calves and covered her arms; the buttons were wide and brown, and the hem hand-stitched. It had been sewn for her mother Gladys decades before, and she wore it to honor the woman who died last month at age 89.

Commissioner Smith addresses a crowded board room at Wednesday's celebration.

“I want to thank my mother Gladys for raising me and my sister right,” she said. “My momma raised us not only to respect ourselves, but to respect other people.”

Gladys taught her girls to acknowledge everyone, even those people who others might ignore, and even on days when a person wasn’t feeling so kind.

“You do it out of respect,” Welch said. “People may be having a good day, or a bad life. Every day is not a good day. But my momma taught me respect and compassion. Sweetypie, this one’s for you.”

Hilery Welch stood alongside county employees as they applauded his wife. Welch said he believed in her when she could not.

She had never been to Oregon, and hesitated with the county asked her to come interview. But Hilery encouraged her. What do you have to lose, he asked. If the job doesn’t work out, you’ve gotten to see the Northwest.

“He has always had more faith in me that I have had in myself,” Welch said. “He has always supported me. He has always been an example of bringing your true self and your best self to the job.”

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury applauded Welch and the other managers of color. “As employees and as members of our community, each of you plays a unique and important role in this organization and in the ability to change people’s lives for the better,” she said.

Commissioner Loretta Smith, who lives near the North Portland library branch, also thanked those who attended the Wednesday event. “Thank you for being the public servants that you are,” she said, adding that there are so many reasons to celebrate.

“This month is a time to make special note of the writings of Booker T. Washington and Zora Neale Hurston, the music of Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington, the athletic achievements of Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson, the inventions of George Washington Carver and Dr. Patricia E. Bath, the leadership of Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the courage of Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks.”