The People of Vanport and the City Lost

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No Longer a Lost History: The City of Vanport is Revived in the Inaugural Vanport Mosaic Festival.

Sixty-eight years ago yesterday on May 30th, 1948, the Columbia River spilled over a dike and flooded the City of Vanport, which rested where Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway is today. The town was built between Vancouver, Washington and Portland (hence its name) in just 110 days. Then it washed away altogether within hours.

Vanport was an early-1940’s project to provide housing for the workforce at Kaiser Shipyards in the height of WWII. People flocked here in the thousands to find work, people from all over the country of varying ethnic background. Many were African-American, however, and they were coming to one of the most segregated states in America. Specifically black men and women were prohibited from moving here until 1926; this legal discrimination continued for decades, keeping people of color from settling in some neighborhoods.

Kaiser built the town to accommodate the flood of workers because Portland’s Albina district, one of the only places where anyone could settle, was packed. Vanport bloated to 40,000 residents throughout the war. After the war, the number dropped below 19,000 — many residents were still not accepted into Portland. This is when the flood occurred, and when those 18,500 residents, 4,000 of whom were African-American, were left homeless.

1948, after the May 30 flood, residents fleeing Vanport.

1948, after the May 30 flood, residents fleeing Vanport.

The story of Vanport has been billed as a lost chapter in Oregon’s history, a forgotten city and tragedy. But it is a living history — there are people who can tell you what they ate that day when the river waters quickly overtook their homes, schools, and stores. The Vanport Mosaic Festival found these stories. In its first year, the festival program consisted of a theatre performance, film screening, public discussion, and a visual art exhibit. It concluded yesterday, but the play, “Cottonwood in the Flood” runs into mid-June, and the visual art exhibit, “Vanport: The Surge of Social Change” will run until mid-July.

Vanport’s legacy is all around us: Beatrice Gilmore, who was 13 at the time of the flood, was the first African-American graduate of Oregon Health and Science University. Jackie Winters, another Vanport resident as a little girl is now State Senator, and was the first ever elected African-American Republican to the Oregon legislature. Portland State University was born out of the Vanport Extension School, which, refusing to close decided to relocate, earning the slogan “The College That Wouldn’t Die.”

Vanport’s legacy is being reborn as a response to what’s happening on North Williams: the rapid expansion of condos and boutiques, the flood of wealthy white newcomers, and the exodus of African-Americans from an area that was 70% black in 1990 versus 27% in 2012.

Lorraine McCall, 93, told her story as a young woman in Vanport.

Lorraine McCall, 93, told her story as a young woman in Vanport.

On Saturday, I attended “Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through The Voices of Its Residents,” an oral history presented through video. At the Vancouver Street Baptist Church, I sat in a packed audience among a racially diverse crowd, though a predominantly elderly audience, and watched the collected stories of Vanport told through video interviews, with snapshots and historical documents from the time of the flood. Winters and Gilmore told their stories, along with about two dozen others. Here, we engaged directly with the legacy from the people whose Vanport is not a chapter in a history book, but part of their poignant mosaic of childhood memory.

“I didn’t know Portland was there for 2 years. Vanport had everything you’d need,” Clifford Cole remembers in one of the first interviews. He went on to humorously explain how he remembers stealing his Dad’s car to cruise around Vanport. He had two best friends who were Japanese. They played baseball every day they could. He was there the day of the flood, and watched hopelessly as last ditch efforts were made to sustain the dike.

Gilmore remembers seeing a “wall of water behind a car, and it felt like we were going to get washed away.” Winters remembers taking her dog and her doll, her only possessions left, to Jefferson High School, where many families went to stay. Her dog guarded the pot roast her mother had made. She remembers having many “adopted aunts and uncles” living in that community.

Vanport aerial view, courtesy of Oregon Historical Society

Vanport aerial view, circa 1946.

These stories recall Vanport as being a desirable place to live, afterall. A strong sense of community is remembered. The speakers drum up life there, not only the rejection of nearby white-washed Portland, not only the newspaper headlines, and not just the tragedy of the water. They remember people taking care of each other. They were children at the time, and maybe there is a resilience in youth to tragedies, an idealism that keeps you unphased by your questionable circumstances and only concerned with finding your doll and family. And maybe children have an instinctive trust in people who take care of them, unbiased and unconcerned with any color.

It’s important to note that Vanport was not a “black community” as Winters points out. There were white people, there were Japanese, there were Native-Americans. All of these voices were represented in the screening. After the period of displacement, residents fought to obtain a reconstruction, but failed.

Vanport residents organized a protest caravan for permanent housing, 1948.

Vanport residents organized a protest caravan for permanent housing, 1948.

The night ended with a Q&A with Portland Community College history instructor James Harrison. He has spent years researching and educating on Vanport. In the church when he spoke, the discussion didn’t come across as history any longer. It felt like a current event meeting as if the flood had just happened and we were there to discuss evacuation plans. The distance between then and now collapsed, as if Vanport truly offered significant lessons that we could still learn from, not just reconcile and move on. I think it’s because the segregation, the discrimination, the whiffs of conspiracy, the fear — they all still exist. And we still need an evacuation plan of some kind, but one which allows us all to stay.

The inauguration of the Vanport Mosaic Festival is a great contribution to the telling of Portland’s history. Along with the events, the festival site provides ample resources for further reading. Mostly, it incites more questions than answers.

For more information concerning the ongoing theatrical production and visual exhibit, visit VanportMosaic.org.




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