Sunday, May 31, 2009
Vanport: Oregon Forerunner
Vanport is chiefly remembered for the terrible flood that wiped it out 61 years ago today.
However, in at least one fundamental area Vanport led the way for Portland and Oregon from 1942 on.
In 1940, at the time of the U.S. census, Oregon was the home for only about 1,800 blacks. Neither Portland nor Oregon were hospitable to blacks. In fact there were no black policemen or public school teachers in the entire state.
Vanport was built to give housing to tens of thousands of workers and their families who had moved to the Portland area to work in Henry J. Kaiser’s ship yards. Included among those workers streaming to Oregon were black workers with their families. By 1946 it was estimated that the black population in the Portland area had risen to 15,000--an 800% increase in Oregon’s black population in just six years (as Manly Maben points out in his history of Vanport).
How do you integrate a city and state that has been overwhelmingly homogeneous? Vanport leaders did not want to lose those valuable wartime workers. They realized the necessity of recognizing blacks as an integral part of community life--something neither Portland nor Oregon had done or showed any leaning toward.
Vanport was the first in Oregon to put blacks in positions of authority as police officers and public school teachers. Vanport leaders also understood that race relations progress was desperately needed in Portland and Oregon. Blackpast.org notes that Vanport not only blazed the trail in Oregon to include blacks in important community positions, but saw the need to work in the wider community for better race relations. “The Vanport Interracial Council worked to establish a Portland office of the Urban League.”
Vanport recognized the talents and importance of blacks in community life years before Portland or Oregon did. In fact, the first black school teacher ever hired by Portland Public Schools was Martha Jordan. She had been a teacher in the Vanport schools, but was driven to look for a teaching position in Portland because the Vanport flood had destroyed her former school. Jordan was finally hired by the principal at Kennedy School (in northeast Portland) in spite of Portland Public Schools tradition against hiring black teachers. Kennedy School is now owned by McMenamin’s. There is a room in the current complex named after Martha Jordan honoring her contribution to black history and education in Portland.
The first residents moved into Vanport in December, 1942. The city was destroyed May 31, 1948. In five and a half years of existence, Vanport started Portland and Oregon on a path of inter-racial progress both needed and just. Not a bad legacy for any city--let alone one with only five years of decision making under its belt.