Columns

Historical Amnesia

As Pawhuska and Fairfax are remade into street scenes from the 1920s, and national attention is focused on Tulsa’s Race Massacre in 1921, the Oklahoma Legislature passed an emergency bill No. 1775 related to teaching about race. It seems to suggest that silence and erasure is better than struggling to talk about massacres and ethnic cleansing. This weekend, I remember the community of Vanport and the racist history it reflects.

On Memorial Day, May 30in 1948, the Columbia River flooded Vanport, a community built on a floodplain north of Portland, Oregon. The flood displaced 18,000 people. Vanport was Henry Kaiser’s answer to housing for the thousands of workers he recruited nationally to work in the shipyards he built along the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, and in Portland on the Willamette. The housing situation testifies to Portland’s racist policies and Oregon’s racist beginnings.

At the height of the war in 1948 over 40,00 people lived in Vanport, a 648-acre development protected by a railroad embankment dike. They included up to 10,000 African Americans, three times as many as had lived in all of Portland.

Vanport was largely invisible when I moved to Portland. Driving north on Interstate 5 from downtown, the flat area west of the freeway toward the Willamette River looked like any wetland in the Columbia River estuary. It was home to Portland International Raceway, which bills itself as “a compact 300-acre park setting filled with wetlands and wildlife.”

The first Kaiser shipyard was built on the Willamette River in 1941 when America entered World War II. Henry Kaiser added two more shipyards and as he needed more workers he recruited nationally. Soon the influx of nearly 100,000 workers created housing shortages, which were worse for Black families facing Portland’s racist housing practices. The real estate industries’ Code of Ethics restricted Blacks from living in most parts of the city. Kaiser wanted the city to build housing as others had done, but the real estate industry refused. The private housing market restricted Blacks from most parts of the city.

Before the many dams in the Columbia River basin were built, life along the river was different. The dams changed the flow of the river, stopped the spring freshets that poured down from the mountains and the ice floes of winter. They ended the migration of the huge salmon called June hogs that traveled far inland from the ocean to spawn.

Over the past years, community organizers have begun to tell the story of Vanport, sponsoring commemorative events that gather the history.

Vanport Mosaic is an organization that creates “a memory-activism platform to preserve the silenced histories that surround us in order to understand our present, and create a future where we belong.”  Their co-director Laura Lo Forti began gathering memories of those who survived the 1948 flood in 2014.  

When I worked in Vancouver across the Columbia River from Portland, I walked along trails that passed the ways (the areas where the ships were constructed) all that remained of the shipyards built there. There was the faint echo of the people, both men and women, working night and day in a frenzied effort to build ships, just audible against the backdrop of my everyday life, the social service programs I was implementing in the community.

Vancouver has constructed panels with photographs that illuminate the history of the shipyards, as well as Fort Vancouver, the Hudson Bay Company trading post from the 19th-century that preceded the founding of Portland. The National Historical Site is well preserved. It shows the area where the Hawaiians, then called Sandwich Islanders, lived. A Land Bridge, part of the Confluence Project that marks important indigenous influences along the Columbia River, is located nearby. Pacific Northwest Native American artist Lillian Pitt created a gate of two cedar canoe panels, inset with a cast-glass sculpture of a Chinook woman’s face, to honor the area’s significance as a tribal crossroad.

We honor the past so we can have it for context, can learn from it.

Note: On May 24, 2021, former Osage Principal Chief Jim Gray spoke with the Oklahoma Observer regarding House Bill 1775  https://okobserver.org/former-osage-chief-jim-gray-history-is-going-to-get-out and Osage News editor  Shannon Shaw Duty wrote about erasure for Indian Country Today. https://indiancountrytoday.com/opinion/we-are-part-of-the-culture-we-will-not-be-erased?fbclid=IwAR3tW1duCshEAlcY7xdGIrchim2e0s26SJ_dmp7l2ITqHJG85rd8a2hDJ1g