By J. Michael Kearsey
For almost a decade, Vanport was Oregon’s second largest city, the state’s most integrated city and the site of one of the Northwest’s greatest tragedies. On Memorial Day of 1948, Vanport was flooded and ruined, killing 15 and leaving 18,000 people homeless, including 6,000 African Americans.
A recent presentation in late August explored the life and loss of Vanport and its cultural impact on Portland. The collected interviews of living residents were shown as part of the 2015 Vanport Film Project. It is a fascinating oral history of an event often forgotten and a city that many do not know existed.
In 1940, before the United States declared war on the Axis powers, automaker Henry Kaiser began to build ships for British navy. Because the Bonneville Dam could deliver inexpensive power and the Columbia River ran to the sea, he chose the Portland area to build his shipyards.
Kaiser opened the Oregon Shipbuilding Company, hiring and training many local laborers in 1941. With the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year, many of these workers were drafted and the shipyards began hiring women and minorities who often came from all over the country to work, adding 100,000 new Oregon residents during the war.
This migration found African Americans from the South taking advantage of the opportunity thereby creating a housing problem for Kaiser and the city.
While city government dithered, Kaiser bought land in the floodplain of North Portland and convinced the U.S. government to fund the building of a new city to house the workers who were winning the war. Vanport was half way from Portland to Vancouver and was also known as Kaiserville and Vanport City.
Set precariously near the levees of the Columbia River, houses were built with cheap, often flimsy materials with no foundations. Grade schools were constructed and a community was fabricated out of Kaiser’s deep pockets. Prior to the war Oregon’s African American population was just 1800 people, so Vanport was also a bit of a social experiment since black and white families rubbed elbows for the first time and for many seen in the oral histories, it worked.
Vanport schools were the first in the state to hire African American teachers, ushering in a new era of racial awareness here. “I think the key to Vanport, for the kids, was the schools.
The schools were absolutely outstanding,” resident Ed Washington remembers. “A lot of African-American kids who went on to do some good things in their life, for a lot of them, myself included, it started with the schools in Vanport.”
At the end of the war, the shipyards shut down and thousands of workers left Oregon, leaving Vanport to see its population dwindle from 40,000 to less than 20,000. The Housing Authority of Portland offered returning vets housing and educational opportunities here and began to fill the houses with families rewarded by the GI Bill.
Vanport College, also known as the Vanport Extension Center, was opened in 1945 with an enrollment of 1900 students. This institution was later moved downtown and became Portland State University.
Everything changed for Vanport on May 30, 1948 when the swollen Columbia River burst through a berm surrounding the city and sent a ten foot wall of mud and water into the neighborhood flooding the houses and destroying the entire area with little warning.
Vanport’s population took what they could salvage and became part of Portland’s fabric, creating a very different demographic than before the war, which in turn chased out many vestiges of segregation in the city and the state.
“This is a story of community strength and resilience,” says project director Laura Lo Forti. “We are acknowledging that Vanport was a community. People came with hopes to build a future, escaping awful realities. They came with hope and strength.”