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. 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.


Roy said...

I moved to Vanport in 1944 from South Dakota and at 10 years old had never seen a black person and was appalled at the segregation. I as a white boy in Vanport never saw a black person anywhere except in the black district of Vanport, certainly NOT as a policeman or anyone of authority in the white district(there may have been black policemen and teachers in the black district). The blacks were kept in their own district had their own school and shopping center and did not stray in the white district. I lived there for only 8 or 9 months but certainly did not see ANY integration while I lived in Vanport City.

T. D. said...

Thanks for your comment, Roy.

You might be interested in former Metro Councilman Ed Washington's account of life in Vanport published on the Center for Columbia River History site. He lived in Vanport from 1944 until the flood in 1948. Here's what he says about integration/segregation in Vanport schools from a black perspective:

"Everybody went to school together. There was no segregation in school. School was great. School was really fun. Vanport had buildings. It was broken into schools like, school number one, which later was renamed MacArthur school. School number two was later renamed Roosevelt. And school number three was later on renamed Marshall grade school. Those schools went from K through Junior High. We even had Junior High schools in Vanport, Which was really a first in the Portland area. There’s not ever been Junior High schools in Portland. But in Vanport we had Junior High schools. All the buildings were connected, but the kids from kindergarten to third grade were in one building, the primary kids. The intermediate kids, fourth, fifth, and sixth, were in another building. The Junior High school kids, the seventh, eighth, and the ninth grade kids were in another building. Vanport was really quite progressive. The schools were extremely progressive with what they did. So school was great."

He also has a section on the three black policemen: "Jesse, I forget Mr. Jesse’s last name. Mr. Travis, and Mr. Dishman, Matt Dishman -- three Black deputy sheriffs."

You can find more historical information on the pioneering of integration in Oregon at Vanport from Manly Maben's book on Vanport as well as from historical sites like the Center for Columbia River History or historian Tim Hills who has done research on the pioneering entrance into Oregon public education of black teacher Martha Jordan.

As a kid you wouldn't necessarily have remembered the three black policemen or the black teachers (unless you were at the schools they taught in or had a run in with the police). Sometimes as children we're not aware of the larger picture. That's why research is such a good tool to hone and amplify memories.

Michael said...

I just happened to stumble on the events surround Vanport because I was looking for information about my Grandfather Rev. Ennis M. Whaley. If anyone has any information or recollections about his involvement with the Vanport events and/or the Interracial Council I would appreciate it if that information could be shared.


Michael Whaley

T. D. said...

I hope someone can make a connection for you, Michael. If I run across anything, I'll post it as a comment.

Blessings on you and your family. How wonderful to have a pastor as your grandfather.