was hastily built in 1943 as thousands of workers moved to the area to take up
jobs in the wartime seaports. Forty thousand workers took residence in the
town, which grew from shanty structures to massive public housing in a few
short years. At its peak it was the second largest city in Oregon but after the
war, the population dropped to just over eighteen thousand. But for the African
Americans who stayed, it was a place to call home.
In 1940 Oregon had
fewer than 1800 blacks living in the entire state. By 1946 fifteen thousand had
chosen the Rose City for their home, most of which lived in Vanport. The white
workers in the publicly housed city often complained about their black
neighbors and angry community groups deterred attempts at integrating
As the state
rushed to build Vanport to accommodate the rapid influx of workers, they built
the city on reclaimed lowlands along the Columbia River. And when the spring
rains came in 1948, public officials assured residents that there would be
plenty of time to evacuate in the case of a flood. But what residents did not
know was that the water levels had risen to a record 23 feet above flood stage
and the dikes surrounding their city were in extreme danger.
As a ten foot wall
of water rushed towards the unsuspecting populace, debris and numerous sloughs
delayed the rushing waters for thirty minutes, giving extra time for the
citizens to escape as an emergency siren screamed its warning across the
panicked crowds. Miraculously only fifteen people were killed but the city of
Vanport was lost forever.
In the aftermath,
as refugees of the flood were relocated to shelters and various homes in the
area, a new community began to develop. North and Northeast Portland soon
became home to thousands of families who were no longer stuck in a segregated,
makeshift city. And a Portland that just ten years earlier had less than 1500
black residents was now home to over ten thousand.
The years that
have passed since the loss of Vanport have seen the condemnation of such gross
horrors as segregation and open racism, but with them new trials for the black
community have taken hold. From the gang violence of the nineties to the crack
epidemics that took hold in the eighties to today's real concerns of gentrification,
Vanport's history offers us a lesson of what it is to be a part of a community
and what that community must go through to be a part of history.
The Flood of Vanport Remembered: Changes in the Black Community in Oregon
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