Vanport and the Impermanence of Black History

2019-11-27 | 2 min. read

The roots for this article lie in an op-ed that was written for the National WWII Museum and published in the Portland Observer. The museum’s exhibit, Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II, will be on display at the Oregon Historical Society through Jan. 12, 2020. At the exhibit’s opening in July 2019, I was asked to give a speech, the text of which has been adapted into this article.

As a person, one of my greatest fears is loss—loss of love, loss of direction, loss of identity. Likewise, as a student of American Studies, I fear the loss of history.  This summer, we learned the truth about the 2008 Universal Studios fire, in which thousands upon thousands of master tapes for hundreds of musicians were destroyed. It was as if a museum had burned down. Several of the musicians who suffered the greatest losses—Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald—were Black.

When looking at the broad sweep of American history, Black narratives are always in danger of being overlooked or erased. Vanport is an example of this. At its height, Vanport—so named for its location between Vancouver, Wash. and Portland, Ore.—was Oregon’s second-largest city, one that six thousand African Americans called home; before it was built, fewer than two thousand African Americans lived in the entire state. Vanport was also the largest wartime housing project in America, home to thousands of Kaiser Shipbuilding Company laborers and their families during the Second World War.


Despite this, I only learned about Vanport this year. It was not a part of the state-required class I took on Washington state history in the seventh grade. It wasn’t even a footnote in my college course on the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. If I had not been asked to give a speech at the opening of the National WWII Museum’s exhibit, Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II, at the Oregon Historical Society—the speech that inspired this story—I would not have known about Vanport at all, despite living mere miles from the site where it once stood.

From the beginning, Vanport was meant to be a temporary establishment. With the United States’ entry into World War II, the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company ramped up production of battleships, prompting thousands of people to move to the Portland metropolitan area to work in the shipyards. But Portland lacked adequate housing to accommodate the incoming laborers, so Henry J. Kaiser took it upon himself, purchasing a tract of land in a nearby floodplain and working with the Housing Authority of Portland to build nearly 10,000 houses and apartments in less than four months. In December 1942, Vanport’s first residents moved in to find that the quantity had come at the expense of quality; their new homes had thin walls and wooden foundations, and the hot plates provided in each unit would melt off their own plastic knobs when used.

Vanport was destroyed in a sudden and catastrophic flood on May 30, 1948, but the town had been in decline ever since the end of the war. When the shipyards closed, the jobs left, and when the jobs left, so did many of Vanport’s residents. The city’s population would fall to less than half of what it once was, and roughly one quarter of those who remained were Black, shut out of Portland by discriminatory housing practices. Oregon had been founded as a whites-only state, and when African Americans were finally allowed to live within Portland city limits, only the Albina District was made available to them. To white Portlanders, Vanport was a ghetto for those too Black or too poor to let in—at least until the day the waters of the Columbia River, swollen with snowmelt and heavy rainfall, breached a dike and washed the city away.


Vanport has not accumulated the same importance as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington, nor Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus. But Vanport is very much symbolic of how Black history, as with Black bodies, is always at risk of not just destruction, but erasure—and how African Americans were willing to help defend a country that would not defend them, in the hopes that one day they would be rewarded with the freedom that they had been denied, that they deserved as Americans.

Fighting for the Right to Fight offers an opportunity to pay our respects not just to the brave individuals who served their country in uniform overseas, but in factories and shipyards at home. It offers the chance to remember Vanport as a place where people lived and worked and died, rather than a place whose very name drew contempt. And for those who see faces that look like their own in the exhibit, it offers a reminder that their history is a fundamental part of America’s.

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