Vanport was built in 1942 as public housing for the thousands of workers coming from all around the country to secure steady, well-paying jobs at the WWII Kaiser Shipyards along the Columbia River. The sprawling, instant war-time community (named for its location between Vancouver, WA, and Portland, where Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway are today) quickly achieved the status of Oregon’s second-largest city. Only Portland had a larger population. Vanport was well-designed, but never intended to last more than a few years; therefore, cheaper construction materials were used, and no one considered its rather precarious setting as a red flag — essentially a shallow bowl surrounded by the waters of the Columbia, kept at bay by a ring of earthen dikes. At war’s end, though, many of the workers chose to remain in the affordable but deteriorating housing at Vanport. The city of Portland was left with what it considered an “eyesore” and an “undesirable” public nuisance. Vanport was populated by people of all races and colors, yet it was the African American community that was singled out. A 1947 Oregon Journal article said:
“To many Oregonians, Vanport has been undesirable because it is supposed to have a large colored population. Of the some 23,000 inhabitants, only slightly over 4,000 are colored residents. True, this is a high percentage per capita compared to other Northwestern cities. But, as one resident put it, the colored people have to live somewhere, and whether the Northwesterners like it or not, they are here to stay.”
By May 1948, a very snowy winter followed by an unusually warm spring had raised the waters of both the Columbia and the Willamette to well above flood levels. On Memorial Day 1948, Vanport residents awoke to a flyer from the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) that read:
DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT.
YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY.
YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE.
DON’T GET EXCITED.
The HAP was wrong. The dikes holding back the Columbia River failed that afternoon. The flimsy wooden structures that made up the city were no match for the floodwaters. Within ten minutes, Oregon’s second-largest city and the United States’ largest housing project was destroyed. Most demographic records were lost in the flood, but it is estimated that 18,500 residents were displaced, roughly 6,300 of whom were black. While “official” reports stated that only 15 people died in the tragedy, eyewitness accounts tell a different story, of hundreds of bodies being carted away from the scene.
There were bright spots in the vanished city’s legacy. For example, when Portland Public Schools refused to hire black teachers, Vanport had been the first city in the state of Oregon to do so and kept its classrooms integrated despite the wishes of the housing authority. After the flood, our own Kennedy School became the first school in the state to hire a female black teacher, one of the displaced Vanport educators. Kindergarten teacher Martha Jordan (shown here) remained a valued staff member at Kennedy until 1962.
Last month, Smithsonian magazine published an article called “How Oregon’s Second Largest City Vanished in a Day.” It is, at points, a difficult read; it does not gloss over the rampant racism that still thrives today: “Portland’s whiteness is often treated more as joke than a blemish on its reputation, but its lack of diversity (in a city of some 600,000 residents, just 6 percent are black) stems from its racist history, of which Vanport is an integral chapter.”
And for more about the Vanport flood, watch this short documentary (begins at 15:08), produced by Donna Maxey, with whom we present our monthly Race Talks series, also held at Kennedy School.