An Oral Narrative: One African American’s Journey

 

 

     As I studied for this class, I was fascinated to read that thousands of African Americans hadmigrated to Portland in 1942, to fill vacant jobs in the Kaiser Shipyards. These migrants became part of an integral, temporary workforce during World War II (Thompson 21). Surprisingly, I had no prior knowledge of the existence of the city of Vanport, Oregon. This community had far-reaching effects on Portland’s underlying racist culture.

     According to one source, as America became more involved in the war and demands for ships increased, Henry Kaiser added two shipyards along the Columbia River in Portland. Kaiser began to recruit workers from across the nation, offering high wages and free transportation into the area. With inadequate housing for incoming workers and Portland’s discriminatory housing practices against African Americans, Kaiser purchased a floodplain with federal funding. Vanport was the largest public housing project in the United States at the time. It was hastily erected and became the second largest city in Oregon. Because it was an unwelcoming city to minorities, Portland’s African American population was estimated at 2,000 persons prior to the war.  Thousands of workers stayed behind after Vanport’s flood, and African American refugees fled into Portland, where the long process of integration began. This provided an opportunity for the dominant group to come into direct contact with members of this minority community, challenging the status quo of discriminatory attitudes and behavior, and permanently changing Portland’s racial constituency (McGregor).

     I wanted to interview a prominent, older African American from Vanport, and I found Ed Washington, who works as a community liaison for the PSU Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion. He and his family had lived in Vanport after its creation, and they were present during the subsequent flood in1948. I felt extremely privileged that I was able to interview Ed, who is a 76-year-old, African American survivor of the Vanport flood.  Ed allowed 90 minutes of uninterrupted time in his office. At my interview, I had an extensive list of questions. For this presentation, I will focus on the most important themes discussed. Since Ed grew up in Vanport, I wanted to allow his words to tell a personal account of his background, an historical perspective of this unique city, and his thoughts on Portland after the flood of Vanport. The following paragraphs will detail his responses to tailored questions.

     Not native to Oregon, Ed’s dad initially came to here in response to recruiting for work in the shipyards and eventually found housing in Vanport.  Later, he, his mom, and his five siblings followed by train. It was a long, arduous journey with multiple connections. He was seven years old at the time:

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. I have four brothers and one sister. And my mom and dad were born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Well, at the time that my folks moved here from Birmingham, my dad was already here. My dad came out here about 1942 or ’43 to work in the shipyards. And then he sent for the family, because there was no housing out here at that time. […]We all arrived here on June 6th, 1944, from Birmingham. (Washington)

     While Kaiser’s shipyards were eagerly awaiting needed workers, there was a housing shortage for those coming into the area.  Ed recalls stories he was told about crowded and inadequate living conditions:

People were living wherever they could. These are stories that I’ve been told. They were living in housing but sharing a room. There may have been three men living in one room. Then, since the shipyards worked on a three-shift basis […], they would sleep when the other one was working. […]

     Oregon was a prejudiced state, and a series of laws excluded African Americans from settling with freedom from the time it was established as a territory.  Ubiquitous in writings, it is clear that the first European settlers wanted this to be a White state, free of Blacks and ethnic minorities, unless they were needed for cheap labor. That sentiment is echoed in my interview with Ed:

Well, I think to sort of set the stage, Portland and Oregon were segregated. It wasn’t segregated like the South. But there were sundown laws. Most cities in Oregon had sundown laws. That means you were not supposed to be in those towns when the sun’s down. And so those things were on the books. And many cities had them […] But it even goes back before logging when this area was a territory to not welcome Blacks.

     When jobs are available without enough willing or able workers, there usually is a force that pulls people into the area. In Oregon, both historically and today, minority groups have often performed lower-paying jobs. Kaiser hired Blacks, other racialized minorities, and women to fill these important jobs during wartime.

And so, but when the shipyards opened and Henry Kaiser went out to attract workers, he didn’t really care what their ethnic background was. He needed workers, and the young workers were all gone to war […] So, with Henry J. Kaiser and the federal government, struck a deal to build this large war housing project in Vanport. And Vanport wasn’t the only housing project here. That was the first big one […] And so the government and Kaiser struck a deal with the Portland Housing Authority to manage Vanport. (Washington)

     I asked Ed to discuss Vanport’s housing and to explain if any segregation occurred there. This is his explanation of the community during its formation, and he expressed that areas were more concentrated with Blacks or Whites, as opposed to segregated:

[…] And so what happened when Kaiser and the federal government hired the Portland Housing Authority to manage Vanport, they did not say, ‘Manage Vanport on a segregated basis.’ That was a rule that the Portland Housing Authority decided to establish […] Now, Vanport was not totally segregated, because people started coming, they were coming so fast. Initially, they tried to do it, but as people were coming so fast, they couldn’t say, ‘Okay blacks here.’Just couldn’t do it. So the initial segregation that did start [was] because of the Portland Housing Authority.  Not Kaiser. Not the federal government [. . .] Vanport housing was all the same.  Every unit where everybody lived was made from the same cookie cutter. […] And those units in Vanport were just hastily built.  But they were not dilapidated, there were not broken windows, they were not slummish. […]  (Washington)

     As with housing, the Portland Housing Authority wanted the Vanport schools to be segregated.  This attempt also failed, but the reason was a refusal to comply by the Superintendent of Vanport schools, according to Ed:

The Housing Authority did want the schools to be segregated. And they actually asked the Superintendent, Mr. James Hamilton, to segregate the schools. And he says, ‘No way. Not going do that. It’s not gonna happen.’ So, it never did. The schools were totally integrated. Vanport was probably the first district to hire African American teachers. […] And the schools were really, really good schools. […]

          When I asked Ed about if children from different racial groups played, he shared his thoughts, which aptly illustrate the time period. During wartime, toys were priceless, and playing with those toys was high priority. Regardless of color, kids played at Vanport:

[…] the big thing back in those days for kids was just playin’. And if you had a pair of skates, and a kid wanted to skate on your skates, he didn’t care whether you were black, purple, red, or green. If you had a bike and you wanted to ride and you gave him a chance to ride, he didn’t care. And mostly, if you had a baseball bat and glove, kids didn’t care. Kids just want to play. Even though their parents would say, ‘I don’t want you playing with those so-and-so’ns,’ kids will still find a way to play. (Washington)

     While kids from different racial groups played together, Ed discussed how kids mimicked their parents’ use of racial slurs and settled disputes. The following excerpt shows his point of view on the interactions of children at Vanport:

Kids will be kids, but the kids all mingled. You know, kids don’t care, what your color looks like. There were kids who would use the n word, but that was because that’s what their parents told them, you see. But you know. It happened. But when that would happen, you’d always have a little fight, and a little fight would take care of it. And that’s just the way kids are. (Washington)

     From speaking to Ed, it became clear that parents faced different issues than their kids. Ed recalls stories that he was told about Whites and Blacks riding on transit to the shipyards.

Now I was told stories about men and women who rode in the buses and the trucks to the shipyards, that there were a lot of White southerns who worked the shipyards and they never sat next to a Black in the South. So they would get up and ask some of those Blacks, ‘Get up and give me your seat boy.’ Well, you know, that only happened a couple of times, and they got the crap beat out of them, because they’re not in the South anymore. After someone either, if they didn’t lay them out physically, they would lay them out verbally. […]

     Vanport hospitals treated everybody, but it appears that there was some segregation of the races as shown by the following:

[…] My brother was hurt in an accident, and I remember he was a room by himself. But I didn’t, I never even thought about that. But some people said that it was, but I think as far as if you got if you got hurt and you went to the hospital, they would give you care. They took care of you. (Washington)

     Vanport flooded on Memorial Day in 1948, and this caused an evacuation of people of all groups to flee into Portland. Like most crises, relief agencies, churches, and the community responded in various ways.  I wanted to know if Ed felt he and the Black community were treated well by the Red Cross and Portland communities:

All of those communities really did tremendous outreach. […] The Red Cross, though, offered African Americans a one-way ticket out of here. […] I mean, you know, people will open their hearts and even their minds a little bit in time of need. That doesn’t mean that they won’t close them. But, you know, it makes us feel good to be accommodating in times of need. And I think they probably figured that by being nice, that means that we may get a blessing, you know. […]

     After the immediate needs of the flood victims were met to the communities’ satisfaction, discriminatory attitudes and behaviors were omnipresent in the culture. The flood had rapidly introduced a large population of Blacks into Portland, but the process of integration and fight for fair treatment was an arduous one. Ed described how he felt this affected the process of integration in Portland as follows:

I think that it was a genesis for learning how to accept, because there were still things going on even up until the ’60s and the ’70s. But I think that the fact that you went from a population from 2,500 African Americans to a population of probably 50,000 over the next 20 to 30 years. And so, really, I think Vanport was a genesis of integration for the city of Portland.

     In discussing the 1940s and 1950, this interview clarified how African Americans were limited in the areas where they could gain access to accommodations.  While there was a community, Ed’s comments show that although signs might not have been present, Blacks knew where not to go:

Well, with accommodations, you were restricted to the Albina area, and there were restaurants that Black people knew not to go into. Back in those days, skating rinks, Blacks went on a certain night. Swimming pools, in the city swimming pools, that was not the case. […] And McElroy’s would allow Blacks to use their dance hall on Thursday. And there was never a sign. It was just this unwritten rule. And there was some people that were discriminated against in theaters. Like the Egyptian theater would only allow African Americans to sit in the balcony…And they referred to it as N-heaven, you know.

     Even with the obvious exclusion of African Americans in Portland after World War II, Ed expressed that he had pleasant experiences in the Portland schools. When I asked him if he liked school in Vanport more than in Portland, he responded, “No. Honestly, because Vanport school was really good. And my experience, and I can only speak for myself, where I went to school in Northeast Portland, I had a good experience.”

     Despite the Fair Housing Act passed in the early 1950s, the denial of accommodations to African Americans was still occurring and there was “racial steering” into the Albina area. One method of dissuading Black Americans from renting outside of those confines was to charge higher rent. This was the case for Ed and his wife in 1959. Ed describes his attorney’s return surprise confrontation with the landlord when they returned to the apartment together:

He said, ‘This is my friend, Ed Washington. I think you know him, because he was here a couple of days ago. He and his wife about an apartment. You know, you were going to rent the apartment to him, but you were going to charge him $75. I’m Ed’s attorney. I’m just wondering why is it that I can get it for $50, and you’re charging Ed $75? You know, that’s against the law.’

     Historically, African Americans had been “steered” into the Albina area and eventually into North and Northeast Portland. In the early 1990s, these regions of Portland were predominantly African American. These deteriorated neighborhoods were plagued with drugs and higher crime rates, which was ignored by the authorities. After more affluent Whites and White businesses established themselves in the region, the process of gentrification began, which Ed emphatically described:

[…]They did ignore it until they were ready to take it over. And then, when those young whites, who did not move in to change the neighborhood, they just moved in, because it was a place that they could live cheaper. And many of them moved in when drugs were bad, and the city and the police were not doing much about it.  And they moved in, and then once they started improving things, other whites moved in. Well, after awhile, all those people that owned that property said, ‘Hey, I can sell it now.’ And so, those Blacks who were renting … they [White landlords] just sold it and it’s horrible.

     In response to my question about how gentrification affected the Black community, Ed explained with emotion:         

It’s destroyed the Black community, what Black community existed, and I think gentrification is horrible. I mean there’s no excuse, but you know, people can’t just automatically gentrify. They have to have the help of governments in the city of Portland. And it’s various bureaus and the PDC. And those people all played a part in the gentrification of NE Portland. […] They’re [Blacks] out in north in deep, what I call deep Northeast, 168th, 164th, 181st. They’re all out in deep Northeast Portland now […] So I would say, the deeper you go out in NE Portland, people in the community refer to it as ‘out in the numbers.’ […] And that’s where, when you see all the gang crap, shootings. […] There are more African Americans in the Gresham area than ever before.

     Finally, I asked Ed what he felt were the current obstacles facing African Americans and if he felt there were a lot of racial issues in Portland today. This was his answer:

Well, I don’t think we have, per se, a lot of racial issues in Portland. I think we have a lot of perceptions in Portland. People love to talk about Portland, about how progressive we are, and how diverse we are, and how fair we are. And that is a lot of bull. Portland is still one of the largest majority White cities in the country. And so, I think that what happens to all people of color—not just Black, but all people of color, every group of people of color in Portland, I don’t care whether they’re from India or China or Japan, Native Americans, whatever—there are no huge number of anything in the city of Portland other than probably the Hispanic population. And the Hispanic population is a diverse population. […] They all have this wonderful, wonderful color. And I think other than them now, Blacks, Asians, all the Asians—Vietnamese, Cambodian, Latinos, Hmongs, all of them—the danger is they get swallowed up.

     Ed’s experiences present one viewpoint of Vanport as a relatively successful community. The media’s portrayal of Vanport life reflects the racial attitudes and social climate of the time; therefore, it is a highly biased source of information. Hearing from a well-known, respected member of Portland’s community offers a personal account that encompasses a more balanced and realistic perspective. It is crucial that we interview people from these types of communities in order to preserve a “collective memory.”  The interviewing experience was positive overall, but it brought painful memories of discrimination from my past to the surface.

       In conducting this interview, I realized that the younger generations should seek out and listen to such people, because they provide a priceless and omitted personal narrative.  Such personal stories enrich our understanding of history, which often lacks depth.  Many people cannot see the injustices that have occurred against African Americans and other ethnic minorities. A myriad of people often overlook the torturous conditions and hardships faced by many groups throughout American history.  Hearing stories like Ed’s show that large strides have been made in the area of Civil Rights, even though I feel we have a long way to go.

     Upon reflection, it became clear to me that younger people, especially minorities, need to be more politically and socially active in their communities. Whenever possible, they need to speak out. As a person of mixed ancestry, I feel that just as younger people can learn from the experiences of someone like Ed, minorities of older generations should listen to the struggles of newer generations of minorities and learn from those personal narratives.  In my opinion, there is a tendency for some older minorities that have been through horrible and overt societal conditions to not fully appreciate the struggles of present-day minorities.

     Although I knew about the gentrification of North and Northeast Portland, I had not realized that it was such a concerted effort, which involved governmental entities. I was surprised to learn that gentrification had displaced African American residents into Gresham.  The problems of those affected by gentrification have now been relocated to another region.

     I was shocked that considering the entrenched system of discrimination and exclusion against African Americans, Ed’s life, including his schooling and reception into the city of Portland after the Vanport flood, was largely a positive experience.  By contrast, as a young, multiracial minority, I endured non-stop discrimination that was both overt and covert and lacked a true community. After September 11th, I have been the target of discrimination, which has occurred even recently.

     Despite Ed’s expression of a relatively happy life, obvious social injustices occurred. An alternate view emerged even though it was less pronounced. However, I am not sure my interviewee recognized this. Although Ed stated that he didn’t think there were necessarily racial issues today, his statements about the drug problems, gangs, and shootings occurring in Gresham reveal Ed’s dissatisfaction with societal issues today.  He emphatically concurred that leaders and our authorities are ignoring the deep Northeast area and its community presently.

      I think there are definitely many racial issues and obstacles facing various minority groups today, such as higher rates of poverty, arrest, and unemployment.  It is only through listening to hidden voices in from both today and yesterday that we can address those realities and bring about change. Other Black Americans don’t necessarily share Ed’s generally positive view or good experiences in Oregon. A quote from an African American who lived in Portland helps to make my point, “Oregon was a Klan state . . . a southern state transplanted to the North . . .a hellhole when I grew up. It has always been a prejudiced state. It is today, believe it or not. There’s a lot of prejudice even now, as far as that’s concerned, but nothing like it used to be” (McLagan 78).

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

McGregor, Michael. “The Vanport Flood & Racial Change in Portland.” The Oregon History Project. Oregon Historical Society, 2003. Web. 01 Nov. 2013. <http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/learning_center/dspresource.cfm?resource_ID=000BC26B-EE5A-1E47-AE5A80B05272FE9F&gt;

McLagan, Elizabeth “A Very Prejudiced State: Discrimination in Oregon from 1900-1940.” Ed. Jun Xing et al. Seeing Color: Indigenous Peoples and Racialized Ethnic Minorities in Oregon. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2007. Print.

Thomson, Robert D., Jr. “Racialized Minority Demographics in Oregon.” Ed. Jun Xing et al. Seeing Color: Indigenous Peoples and Racialized Ethnic Minorities in Oregon. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2007. Print.

Washington, Ed. Personal interview. 13 Nov. 2013.

 

 

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