See Presidential History of the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies
A Moment in IAOHRA History.....
H.J. Belton Hamilton overcame the limited opportunities he had as a youth in the segregated South to become a lawyer, judge and civil rights advocate in Oregon.
H.J. Belton Hamilton, IAOHRA President 1968
When H.J. Belton Hamilton died Oregon lost a trailblazing civil rights pioneer whose passion for education and an open society informed every aspect of his life and whose commitment to equal treatment under the law bettered the lives of countless Oregonians.
Hamilton was the grandson of a slave, born in the Deep South when legalized discrimination limited what a black boy could do or even dream of. Yet he became part of a small group of influential black professionals in Portland in the 1950s and 1960s who broke racial barriers in medicine, law, politics and journalism.
Hamilton himself was the first African American to graduate from Stanford University in 1949 and went on to become the first black assistant state attorney general, the first black federal administrative law judge in Oregon, and board president of the Urban League of Portland, all while mentoring future lawyers and judges, serving as a leader in his church and various civic groups, and integrating his interracial family into the fabric of his suburban neighborhood and schools.
Belton Hamilton was one of 10 siblings who grew up on a farm in Mississippi in the 1920s. "Coloreds" could only go to school up to the eighth grade in his small town.
But young Belton didn't want to be a farmer, he wanted to go to school. He moved to the city by himself at age 13, got a job working nights as a mortician's assistant and graduated from the all-black high school in Columbus, Miss.
Drafted into the Army as a medic, he served in Europe during World War II and wound up receiving a Purple Heart and three battle stars. Overseas, he saw a world where black and white people could co-exist, not segregated by race. And that revelation became his compass. After the war, he moved to Portland at the urging of a sister, who had come to work in the shipyards and told of him of a place where Negroes had more opportunity. Hamilton attended the University of Portland for two years on the G.I. Bill, then transferred to Stanford, where he was one of two black students in the 1940s.
H.J. Belton Hamilton and Midori Minamoto met as students at the University of Oregon and their marriage in 1957 became the first recorded union between an African American and Japanese American in Oregon.
He got his degree, moved back to Portland and set his sights on law school. He began at the University of Oregon, where he roomed with future state senator Vern Cook of Gresham, and finished at Lewis & Clark College, graduating in 1953.
It was a standing joke amongst family and friends that no matter where he went, he seemed to know every person who had ever gone to any of the colleges he had attended. Whenever you walked down the street with him, he knew everyone.
Though he was known as a tough negotiator and brilliant strategist as a lawyer, -- he was astute about people and problems and politics -- his outgoing nature and sense of humor put co-workers and neighbors at ease. He was about 6 feet tall, a sharp dresser, a great dancer, an eloquent speaker and a formidable debater. He studied the Greek tragedies, knew the Bible inside and out, studied the great philosophers and would draw from all those sources in the courtroom, invoking some moral tenet or quoting Scripture to make a point.
His ability to communicate and his broad contacts, both black and white, served him well as a member of an informal coalition of government officials, ministers, business people and community leaders that sought to ease racial tensions in Portland following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
John Gustafson, a former assistant state labor commissioner, said Hamilton was one of the most important individuals in the history of civil rights in Oregon. There was probably no piece of state legislation, major court case or state attorney general's opinion involving civil rights, apprenticeship and training, or worker rights from the mid-1950s to 1970 that Hamilton did not affect as an assistant attorney general and chief counsel of the Bureau of Labor. As Attorney General Robert Thornton's lead attorney on civil rights and worker protection issues, he testified before the legislature and argued before the Oregon Supreme Court.
As a lawyer, Hamilton believed he had an opportunity to fundamentally change people's lives and he advocated for workers who hadn't been paid or tenants who'd been discriminated against. And because he worked for the state, he was glad he didn't have to charge the disenfranchised for his services. Later, as an administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration, he saw to it that people received the benefits they were entitled to.
Tom Trotta, who worked with Hamilton for 30 years as an assistant attorney general and as an administrative law judge, said his colleague had "a sense of justice about him that just wouldn't quit. If he saw something wrong, he saw to it that it got corrected."
Hamilton's passionate belief in an open and integrated society, where people were free to make their own choices, and his fearlessness in being a social pioneer, extended famously to his personal life. He married a fellow UO student, Midori Minamoto, whose Japanese American family was sent to an internment camp in Idaho during WWII.
In the late '50s, when they took their vows, interracial marriage in Oregon was rare. The young couple bought a home in West Linn, then more of a rural refuge than affluent suburb, and raised their two children to celebrate their dual heritage at a time when were often the only students of color in their public school classrooms.
The unusual sight of an African American man and his Asian wife was met at times with hostility or racism, and prompted Hamilton to declare in a published collection of Christmas newsletters that traced the family's doings over more than three decades: "Interracial living is not for sissies."
The Hamiltons' son, Konrad, would obtain a Ph.D from Stanford and become a history professor and department chair at Knox College in Illinois. Their daughter, Camille, would graduate from Stanford and UCLA law school and become a lawyer, working for the city of San Francisco and later moving into private practice.
Both drew life lessons from a dad they idolized. Konrad remembered his father taking him as a young boy to Urban League meetings and even to a jail so he would understand his middle class privileges and develop a social conscience.
"He didn't just generally believe in desegregation. This was a guy who in the '40s and '50s, was doing lunch counter sit-ins in Portland," his son said. "When he said he was for integration, that's the way he lived. He moved to West Linn and we were the only non-white family in the neighborhood."
Camille said her parents had a strong sense of being an early pioneering couple. "They didn't say to us, 'You're just like everyone else.' They used to tell us, you're not like everybody else. You're special. You have this unique heritage and you represent a coming together of two resilient, ancient cultures, and to use it as a tremendous resource."
It was in the West Linn family home where Belton Hamilton, slowed by two major strokes in 1999 and 2007, died of natural causes on April 15.
Mr. Hamilton passed away on April 15, 2011. He was 86.
Lifestory as Reported By George Rede | The Oregonian/OregonLive