From Christina Capatides with CBS comes the story of Vanport Oregon and Henry Kaiser. During World War Two this industrialist brought in thousands of African-American people from the Southern United States to work for the war effort in his ship yards. Portland Oregon already had a housing shortage and the Housing Authority would not build additional housing for these new residents. Not to be deterred, Kaiser built a city “on unincorporated land between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon, and called it Vanport. And it became the second-largest city in Oregon and it was 40 percent black.”
While the rest of Oregon was segregated at that time, Vanport was not, with shared schools, daycare and housing forms. Housing was hastily built with wood foundations. Assumed to be a temporary city for the war effort, it was surrounded by bodies of water held back by a dam. A massive winter of rain in 1948 resulted in the dam breaking. The entire city of 17,000 people washed away in 60 minutes. Brochures had been distributed that morning insisting that despite the heavy rain dikes were safe and people would be warned if they needed to leave.
When the dam broke 20 people died and 17,000 sought new housing in Portland, expanding the segregated lines at the time, and forming a large enough minority in Portland to change attitudes and to have their interests represented. As Ed Washington who was displaced from his childhood home because of the flood observed “Vanport probably had more to do with the changing of attitudes toward African-Americans and other people of color than any other area in Portland. Nothing left here now, but memories. But you can’t take people’s memories from them, can you? Can’t take that.”
Here’s a video produced by Brian Van Peski on the history of Vanport.