Portland's history, institutions owe a debt to 1948 disaster
by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND CITY ARCHIVES, Vanport City, once the second-largest city in the Portland area, was destroyed in hours when a levy broke on Memorial Day 1948, killing 15 people and forcing out 18,500 residents.

On Memorial Day of 1948, 11-year-old Ed Washington and his mom ambled from their apartment at Vanport City to glimpse the raging Columbia River, then running higher than anyone recalled.

"All of a sudden, the sirens went off," Washington recalls.

A railroad embankment serving as a levy gave way, and within 45 minutes, the entire city of 18,500 people was under several feet of water and gone for good.

Washington revisited the scene of the disaster last week, on a public tour to highlight the 64th anniversary of the Vanport Flood. It's one of the seminal but oft-neglected events in Portland history, says Susan Barthel of the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, who led the tour.

Vanport only existed from 1942 to 1948, but by the height of World War II it rose to become Oregon's second-largest city, with some 40,000 residents.

During much of that time, many Portland civic leaders viewed it as a muddy, noisy, crime-infested eyesore, filled with poor people, especially African-Americans, that they wished would go away.

Portland Mayor Earl Riley publicly stated that he wanted Vanport gone as soon as the war ended, says James Harrison, a Portland Community College history professor who joined the tour, and is writing a history of Vanport.

Vanport did go away rather quickly that day in 1948, but it left its imprint on the neighboring city of Portland in many ways.

Created in several months on 648 acres acquired by industrialist Henry Kaiser, Vanport housed many of the 100,000 people lured here from 46 states to work in Kaiser's three Portland and Vancouver shipyards. Living in hastily erected public housing, those workers played a vital role in equipping the United States for victory at sea in World War II.

When the wartime buildup began to wind down, Vanport hosted a new education program for returning veterans, the Vanport Extension Center, which evolved to become Oregon's largest university, Portland State.

Vanport also left an enduring mark on Portland's racial makeup and race relations. The shipyard jobs attracted thousands of African-Americans from the South, increasing the Portland area's minuscule black population of 1,900 tenfold by war's end.

Many headed home when the war ended, or when they couldn't land jobs here after the war. By 1948, blacks constituted an estimated 25 percent of the 18,500 remaining Vanport residents, who lost their belongings and housing in one swoop.

To this day, Harrison says, rumors persist that the levies were burst intentionally, or were neglected, because of Vanport's low-income and black population.

Yet in many respects, Vanport represented new opportunities for African-Americans, despite the less-than-welcoming reception they received in Portland, then considered the West Coast's least-hospitable big city for blacks.

New hopes

Washington arrived at age 7 from Birmingham, Ala., with his mother and five siblings, 1 1/2 years after his dad came here to work. They had never seen such a dense pocket of humanity, he says.

There were three shifts at the shipbuilding plants, making Vanport a bustling 24-hour city. There were more than 900 buildings, several schools, a movie theater and other facilities on a site now occupied by Delta Park and Portland International Raceway in North Portland.

The buildings were supposed to be temporary quarters and lacked foundations, but they came with furniture, a hot plate for cooking, an icebox to keep food cool and neighborhood laundries, Washington recalls.

With their parents at work, Washington and his friends enjoyed romping around Vanport. In Birmingham, he could only play in his back yard. But at Vanport, "the entire place was our back yard, if we could get away with it," Washington recalls. "It was a time when kids were beginning to break away."

Vanport was never more than a quarter African-American, but it was home to the Northwest's largest concentration of blacks. The white and black kids made their peace, Washington says, addressing racial incidents in the old-fashioned way.

"You would first say, 'Are we going to wrestle or box?' " he says. "Usually after that we'd go play baseball (together)."

The Housing Authority of Portland ran what was the nation's largest public housing project at Vanport. Initially, it sought to keep the community segregated, but that eased as more and more people came, says Washington.

The housing authority also wanted to segregate the new city's schools, where some 6,000 children were being educated. But the school superintendent, a Mr. Hamilton, said "no way," Washington recalls, and insisted on equal opportunity for all Vanport children.

"I felt like I succeeded," he says. "I got a good education at Vanport."

Washington went on to work for PSU and was elected to serve on the Metro Council from 1991 to 2000.

Portland schools weren't segregated then, but they had no black teachers, Harrison says. "The first black teachers in the state of Oregon were in Vanport," he says.

Vanport also employed what is believed to be the state's first black librarian, Washington says.

In addition, Vanport opened doors by hiring three or four black policemen, Washington says, including Matt Dishman, the namesake of a Northeast Portland recreation center.

At a time when Portland-area trade unions were segregated or excluded blacks, those working at Vanport earned double their previous earnings, or more.

"The wages in the shipyards were very, very good," Harrison says.

Though it was the "Jim Crow Era," he says, Kaiser insisted on paying blacks and whites the same pay for the same job.

After the war, many people left Vanport, while some newcomers arrived, including veterans who had no other housing and Japanese-Americans released from imprisonment at wartime "relocation camps."

After the deluge

With thousands of people facing homelessness, many Portlanders, including individual whites and white churches, rose to the occasion to help those displaced by the flood, no matter their color, Harrison says.

But once they left temporary housing, blacks were squeezed into a small patch of Northeast and North Portland known as Albina, due to redlining and longstanding segregationist practices of some Portland Realtors.

What evolved into Portland's version of a ghetto was bound by Interstate Boulevard and present-day Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and between Fremont Street and the Steel Bridge, Washington says.

There was a severe housing shortage, and unemployment was sky-high for blacks. Educational opportunities for black veterans under the G.I. Bill were limited, Harrison says.

The local black population, which peaked at about 24,000 in wartime, fell to 9,500 by 1950, according to Bleeding Albina, a report by PSU professor Karen Gibson. She cites one study that found Portland's black population dropped, proportionally, more than any large West Coast city.

When many blacks from Vanport moved south into the city of Portland, "things didn't pan out," says Harrison, who is African-American. "They had expected things to be better."